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  Issue Date: 1 / 2018  
 

The Worst Weather on Earth



James Dorsey
 

Photo Credit: James Dorsey Click image to enlarge.

       It is mid-September and my wife and I are hanging onto each other in 80 mph winds that are gusting to110 mph. The temperature is 8 degrees, and visibility shifts constantly from maybe ten feet to a complete white out. Cloud moisture has soaked us to the bone as we slither, spider-like over boulders on all fours for the final thirty feet to the true summit.
       
       The wind has taken our hearing and my camera has frozen three times before we can take a selfie, just as I begin to lose feeling in my fingers. We are at the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire, the tallest point east of the Mississippi but a mere 6288 feet in altitude, with weather one could expect on Alaska’s Denali or some Himalyan peak. At an elevation lower than several cities, this goose-bump of a mountain proudly claims to have the worst weather on earth.
       
       Because of its rogue weather, it is home to the oldest mountain top weather observatory station in the world, established in 1828, and after almost two centuries of study, no definitive answer can be given as to the severe weather that brews on this peak: It is simply an anomaly of nature.
       
       Mount Washington crowns a twisted, glacier carved valley that on a clear day reveals much of New England from its summit, but as Mark Twain wrote, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a minute.” That phrase is most appropriate on Mt. Washington, where it can be a hot sunny summer day, and without warning, suddenly rival conditions of the Himalayas.
       
       Visitors to the information center will learn that the highest temperature ever recorded at the summit was 72 degrees, and the lowest was 57 below zero in 1934 and that in 1968 the mountain received 566 inches of snow. The major claim to fame however is the wind. In 1934 a blow of 232 mph was recorded and still stands as a record for non-storm conditions. That is also the reason that the old stage office is tethered to the mountain by six heavy duty sea chains. Winds exceeding 75 mph (Hurricane force) average over 100 days per year.


Photo Credit: James Dorsey Click image to enlarge.

       
       But all journeys begin the first step, and mine was in a four wheel drive rental with GPS as we slowly climbed the oldest man-made attraction in the United States. In 1853, one David Macomber was authorized to build a road to the summit. Dynamite was not yet known in the states so all blasting was done with very unstable black powder after holes were hand bored into solid granite to load the powder. It was a labor for Hercules at that time.
       
       The road finally opened in 1861and was soon having wagons full of tourists coming and going on a flat top that has never been widened. Cars must always be in low gear, for the tortuous, sheer drop, switchbacks that have no guard rails. It is so narrow that side view mirrors and door handles often clash as they pass each other coming and going.
       
       In 1899, Robert Stanley, of future “Stanley Steamer” fame took his first motorcar to the summit, generating national news for both the mountain and his company.
       
       By 1908 there was a hotel, newspaper, stage coach office and a tip-top house. The stage office was chained to the mountain and the top house was made of rocks so it could not blow away. Tip Top house is made entirely of boulders.
       We began our ascent in seventy degrees, T-shirt weather and half way up had spectacular views in all directions but as we entered the alpine zone at about 2000 feet the old growth hard-wood forest gave way to stunted pine and oak that the centuries had made hardy against the elements.
       
       Few mature trees were taller than six feet. In the blink of an eye the temperature fell, and frigid wet clouds rolled over us like an ocean wave. I was out of the car and could see maybe twenty feet. I was looking for a series of rock cairns I had read about. Local lore says the resident Akenabi Indians used them as trail markers to the summit for centuries, but I knew their religion considered the mountain to be the abode of the Great Spirit and believe for that reason alone, they would never climb the mountain. I subscribed to the more current theory that the cairns are the work of trekkers, using them during white outs to continue on the Appalachian Trail that crosses the Mountain above the alpine zone.
       
       The cairns appeared like sprites through the mist, some as tall as a man, appearing and then gone as the thick clouds passed over us. In that opaque environment, I felt myself in a sci-fi movie at best and confronting unknown creatures at worst. I I was blown off my feet several times in my attempts to photograph them, realizing that in a white out such as I was in, they could be the difference between life and death. Finally, with my wife wedged against the car, she managed to get a couple shots of me with the cairns just as a huge gust bowled me over.
       
       Determined not to turn back at this point we lock arms to climb three flights of wooden stairs, cross thirty yards of open ground leaning into the wind almost parallel, them surmount a pile of boulders, to the true summit that is marked by a Geographic survey medallion.
       
       I would not look up into the wind at this point and was quickly losing feeling in my fingers so our “Hero” summit shot resembles two drowned rats more than triumphant mountaineers. A high point was passing a weasel during our descent that stood up on a rock looking at us as though we were out of our minds to be there, and perhaps we were.
       
       We inched our car back down the mountain slowly in second gear and no more than 100 feet from the summit broke through into brilliant warm sunshine. It was as though we had just come from another part of the world.
       
       Mount Washington is a true anomaly of nature and a great day trip for anyone wishing a little bit of adventure.


James Michael Dorsey is an award winning author, explorer, photographer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 46 countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world. His work can be seen on the web at jamesdorsey.com.
 
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