MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. — It was dark. The wind chill was -10 degrees. The blowing snow limited visibility to just a few feet. And the small group of tourists walking blindly around the summit of Mount Washington on a Saturday night in February was not impressed.
This was not what they had come for. You can get this on a ski lift.
They were hoping for the worst.
The climate atop Mount Washington is so famously horrific — thanks largely to winds that hit hurricane-force two-thirds of the days in winter — that the weather observatory at the summit has long billed itself as the Home of the World’s Worst Weather.
In summer, when a quarter-million visitors make their way to the summit, it can sometimes feel like winter. In winter, it can feel like another planet. The wind combines with arctic temperatures, creating an environment more violent and hostile than any other spot in New England. The tourists on the summit had come to experience that deadly weather. Safely. And in relaxing comfort.
The famed Mount Washington Observatory offers extreme weather tourists the opportunity to see what the summit-based weather observers have been studying for 80 years. Visitors on the observatory’s winter EduTrips travel up the mountain in a snowcat, where they spend a day or a weekend inside the observatory’s toasty living quarters, with hot meals and Internet at their disposal, all while the legendary wind waits just outside the doors.
“For me, it’s the opportunity to experience a setting that’s difficult to duplicate without driving another 1,000 miles north,” said Mark Parsons, a freshman science teacher at Inter-Lakes High School in Meredith, N.H., who recently spent his second weekend atop the mountain on an EduTrip with other science teachers. “I like the idea that you get this experience, but it’s not permanent. You can see what it’s like, then it’s a short walk back inside. I don’t think I’d want to go to the Arctic for any extended period of time.”
Winter in The City among the Clouds, as it is called, lasts about half the year, and everything is caked in rime ice, which grows into the wind when extremely cold water droplets freeze into ridge-like formations. When the sweeping arc of the grand visitors center is caked in white, it looks more than a bit like the rebel base in “The Empire Strikes Back.” The entire summit cone has the feel of adventure, even if you’ve only climbed the 30 feet from the visitor’s center to the summit sign.
The idea that Mount Washington — just three hours from Boston and, at 6,288 feet, a puppy compared with the great mountains of the world — could compete for the title of World’s Worst Weather feels implausible. The term comes from a 1940 article by a Harvard meteorologist titled “The Worst Weather in the World,” though the article was more of an argument that Mount Washington probably didn’t have the worst weather on earth. The observatory adopted the term as its slogan, though Steve Welsh, who has been an observer on the mountain for more than five years, hates the idea of labeling anything as worst. “What about summers in Florida?” he says. But when it comes to consistently fierce weather, Mount Washington is up there. During Superstorm Sandy, they recorded a 140-mile-per-hour gust, and in 1934, observers recorded a wind gust of 231 miles per hour, the highest ever recorded by a human, and until 2010, the highest gust recorded on Earth.
What makes the weather so vastly different from anything else in the northeast is a combination of location and elevation. The summit sits at the exhaust pipe of three major storm tracks, and gets hit specially hard by the winds that come across the country from the west and smash into the north-south wall of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains, according to Brian Fitzgerald, one of the weather observers. The wind accelerates dramatically as it races up the steep slopes to the highest point, where it is squeezed by the lower level of troposphere, something taller mountains avoid by simply being above it.
The weather observers who live at the top of the mountain year-round — they work in groups of four, one week on and one week off — have all been out in legendary stuff. The bad stuff, in particular, requires them to go out the most. A couple oftimes an hour, they may have to climb to the unprotected top of the instrument tower, where a waist-high metal ring is all that keeps them from being blown off, and hammer at the rime ice with a crowbar. That ice is what keeps the observers employed at the summit. Clearing it from the instruments can’t yet be done remotely.
Spending the night in the observatory is a chance for weather nerds to go behind-the-scenes of one of the legendary weather jobs on earth, but also to add to their own adventure resume. Many hope for 100-mile-per-hour winds so they can make an attempt at the Century Club, whose members have been able to walk the perimeter of the observation deck without falling down.
When they’re not outside battling the weather, tourists on the EduTrips are hardly roughing it. For $499, you get a ride up and down in the snowcat, hot meals, and a warm bunk, plus a behind-the-scenes tour of the observatory from an observer who on a recent visit seemed tired of giving the tour. But the nonprofit relies upon guests invading its small space over-and-over as a revenue stream. Slim Bryant, who drives the snowcat up and down the auto road, says they’re in the entertainment business. For New Year’s, they brought a chef to the summit and offered a 9-course meal for $1,000.
The cushiness of the trip is enough to make some mountaineers snicker, but smart mountaineers don’t go near the summit of Mount Washington in the most extreme conditions. There are 148 names on the wall inside the visitor’s center of people who did not plan to die on Mount Washington. The observatory also hosts overnight hikers on guided trips organized by three local outfitters, but other than that, no one is allowed in the summit facilities in winter. If you knock on the door, it had better be serious. They expect hikers to be able to take care of themselves if they climb Mount Washington.
Bill Ofsiany, a 70-year-old from Connecticut, has climbed the mountain 30 times in the last 50 years, and he knew that what he wanted could only be done through the observatory — time to experience the worst. He says he was smart enough to have turned back before the summit many times when the weather closed in, but he still wanted to know what it was like. So he and his wife were in the middle of a week volunteering to play housekeeper and cook for a dozen staff and tourists. They woke up early each day and hustled through a full day of chores, just so they could get a little time to go outside.
“When you hike, this is the halfway point, you’re tired, and you can’t spend more than an hour up here before you need to go down,” Ofsiany said. “But when you’re here for a week, you’re here 168 hours nonstop, and you’re going to see the mountain at its most powerful.”
He got his wish. During their week, the winds hit 102 miles per hour.
It was impossible to put into words, he said, “like trying to explain a ship in 80-foot seas.” That’s why he had to feel it for himself.