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Mount Washington museum captures winter’s fury

MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. — It was cold, miserably cold, with a driving rain that turned exposed fingers to useless appendages within minutes and a wind that shredded through sweaters and cruelly mocked those who had dared show up in shorts.

Horrible weather for mid-June, yes. But disappointing for anyone who might have come to experience the place that prides itself as the Home of the World’s Worst Weather.

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On Friday, the Mount Washington Observatory is celebrating its solution: Extreme Mount Washington, an interactive museum designed to bring to life the full fury of the summit at its worst.

“We wanted to capture the awe of Mount Washington winter weather,” said Scot Henley, executive director of the observatory.

It has long been a lament about New England’s highest peak in the summer months, when most of its 300,000 annual visitors arrive at the summit.

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Having made the long journey, they find no rime ice extending like hoary banners from poles and antennas, none of the hurricane winds that routinely batter the summit in winter.

And 60 percent of the time, there is no view, either. Fog sometimes swallows up everything, including the point of staying outside long enough to take a decent picture of the unobstructed view from the summit.

Dick Pantalone enjoyed fog-covered Mount Washington Thursday.

Zack Wittman for The Boston Globe

Dick Pantalone enjoyed fog-covered Mount Washington Thursday.

Designed by Jeff Kennedy Associates Inc. of Somerville, Mass., with exhibits developed and constructed by Mystic Scenic Studios of Norwood, Mass., the museum replaces a four-decade-old “passive walkthrough experience” that had become tired, Henley said.

When visitors descend from the observatory cafeteria to the gleaming, futuristic new museum, they see exhibits that capture the day-to-day duties of the hardy souls who choose to make their living in this most inhospitable of climes and who revel in conditions most sane humans run from.

Weather observers who live at the top of the mountain year-round have to frequently climb to the exposed top of the instrument tower to chip away ice that accumulates; it cannot be done by robot or remote device. Another duty is conducting precipitation measurements, which becomes beyond-challenging in hurricane winds. One exhibit shows a researcher struggling to keep balance in a high wind and hang on to the giant can that measures precipitation.

It’s best, a narrator suggests, “to fall on your butt and keep the can upright.”

The observers, of course, delight in the terrible conditions.

The Mount Washington museum features exhibits showcasing the peak’s extreme weather and wildlife.

Zack Wittman for The Globe

The Mount Washington museum features exhibits showcasing the peak’s extreme weather and wildlife.

“We’re not up here for the sunny, calm days,” said Mike Carmon, a meteorologist at the observatory, not hiding his disappointment in the blah weather Thursday as he measured the dewpoint by twirling a sling psychrometer.

The new museum also brings to life the observatory the way it looked on April 12, 1934, when three observers measured a wind gust at 231 miles per hour, the highest ever recorded by a human. A screen displays the excited written messages of one of the observers, Salvatore Pagliuca.

“Will they believe it?” reads one natural reaction.

At another station, a modern observatory meteorologist on camera, accompanied by a 3-D map, explains how the unique combination of location, weather patterns, and the shape of the Presidential Range conspire to create otherworldly conditions on a summit that, at 6,288 feet, would rank as a mere foothill in the Rockies.

The observatory is a private nonprofit, and the $1 million it raised for Extreme Mount Washington came from private sources, Henley said.

The new museum features a user-controlled flat-panel display showing winter and fall “clear day” views that stretch far out to the horizon, something very few visitors to the summit ever see in real life. One exhibit simulates the harrowing experience of driving a snowcat on the Mt. Washington Auto Road in winter, when it is closed to the public.

“You are walking down from whatever kind of day it is outside into an area that shows you how bad it could be up there,” said Allan McNab, senior project manager at Mystic Scenic Studios. “It may be sunny outside, but once you’re down there, you can see what it would be like to be up there in 60-mile-per-hour winds.”

Visitors learn about rime ice, ridgelike ice formations that grow when extremely cold water droplets borne by fog collide with objects.

Rime ice grows in the direction the wind is coming from and can accumulate quickly, Carmon said.

That is pretty cool, but it is dangerous: Any exposed skin in such conditions risks frostbite. But the whole rockpile, as the weather observers call the mountain, is that way.

“It’s cool because it’s dangerous, and it’s dangerous because it’s cool,” Carmon said.

That thought does not get lost in all the gee-whiz modernity of Extreme Mount Washington.

Even in warm months, conditions on Mount Washington can change so quickly and radically that climbers and hikers can be caught unprepared. This is one reason why more than 140 people have died on the mountain since 1849. A more ominous feature shows testimonies of rescuers who responded when accidents took place on the mountain.

“We do try to treat it with respect,” Henley said. “We’re not making a circus out of it. We’re trying to show how brutal it is.”

David Filipov can be reached at David.Filipov@globe.com or on Twitter @davidfilipov.
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