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Overnight at Mt. Washington Observatory

We’re here to learn “self-arrest”: a technique of stopping a fall that can make the difference between living and not. We climb to the crest of the slope, lie on our bellies, heads to the rise, and, well, let go. We slide, wanting speed, then push down with our body weight on the edge of the axe until we stop. Climb back. Lie on our backs, let go, flip ourselves over. Stop. Climb back. Then head first, a position to give pause, then flip ourselves over, all the while lifting our legs off the ground lest a crampon dig in, and perhaps snap an ankle. One of us doesn’t stop until he barrels into Joe, standing like a crossing guard where the slope levels off. In 1994, a woman in her early twenties climbed not far from here with friends; they made themselves into human sleds, until the laughter ended, when in a sudden and growing mist, she shot past the headwall and into a deep crevasse. Her name is on the wall at the Sherman Adams Summit Building.

Joe’s pack weighs 24 pounds. He tells us that these 24 pounds will let him survive any conditions on Earth. On the side of the pack he carries a short-handled, steel-bladed shovel. It weighs next to nothing; hardware stores carry them for $10. We trek across the ridge until we come to hard pack. We dig what looks like a grave–just deep enough and long enough to hold one of us. If we’re ever caught in a storm, if it’s 20 below and blowing 80, this hole can provide just enough warmth away from the wind to give rescuers time to find us. We take turns crawling inside. When I slide under the lip of the cave, it’s as claustrophobic as an MRI tube. “It’s not the Ritz,” Joe says, “but it’ll keep you alive.”

The night is clear, the stars startlingly so, but in the morning clouds sweep through and descend, and snow starts. Joe’s happy; bad weather has joined his trip. We start walking down the Auto Road. Once I’m blown nearly off it. When I look up, the group seems to have walked through a hidden white door. I know I’m fine. I’m standing on the Auto Road; Joe is just ahead. But still…

In time, we hear the snow tractor rumbling toward us from the top, where it had gone earlier to take supplies. Nobody wants to get in.


For another visit to Mount Washington, listen to Jud Hale’s description in Jud’s New England Journal.


For more information on the observatory’s 2009 EduTrips, go to:

Daytrips to above treeline on Mt. Washington (4.5-mile mark on the Auto Road) are available via SnowCoach van:

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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5 Responses to Overnight at Mt. Washington Observatory

  1. joann dudgeon February 3, 2009 at 2:03 pm #


  2. Yoma Hitchcock February 3, 2009 at 10:54 pm #

    I loved your story Mr Allen……I was up to Mt Washington this summer. I lived in Alaska for seven years….Your story brought me right up that mountain with you. What a experience and I can see you have to be physically fit to make a trip like that..

    I think it is wonderful these fellows actually live up there and observe the weather. I even felt a chill!!!!!!

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  3. Judith Davis February 4, 2009 at 2:56 pm #

    Although I was born in Maine but have lived in Fla. for over 40 yrs., it still brings back memories of the days long past of climbing up snow covered hills just to go sledding. And just how hard the wind can blow,(not like yours) of coarse but wow! It took my breath away just reading your story. Hey! Be Safe!!

  4. Mel Allen February 10, 2009 at 5:52 pm #

    The great thing about this experience is so many people can do it. I know a lot of us can’t climb to the top, in winter, or even summer; but to go on an edu trip, to hang out with the weather observers and see the most amazing night sky you will ever see, or the rime ice that clings to everything…well that is within the ability of so many of you.

  5. jay allain December 24, 2009 at 9:54 pm #

    Say, one can imagine the grinding tedium the meteorologists confront but playing “Century Club” on the summit sounds a tad risky… I mean: If a sudden gust blows through, a promising meterologist could quickly be in trouble. You make the Club and you’re what: brave and stupid? You get blown off and you’re brave, stupid, and dead. It almost makes me want to “drop a dime” and get ’em busted – for their own good!

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