Since the early days of the pandemic, hikers have taken to New Hampshire’s White Mountains in larger numbers. Some have found themselves in risky situations and required assistance from volunteer rescue teams and conservation officers with the state’s fish and game department.
We spoke with Jay Broccolo, director of weather operations at the Mount Washington Observatory, to learn what people should know before embarking on hikes, particularly as the weather gets colder.
The interview was condensed and lightly edited for space and clarity.
How should people prepare for a hike? What are the most important things to keep in mind?
The weather. Know what you’re hiking. Know the environment that you’re going into. Because the White Mountains are fairly technical mountains. While they’re short, they are extremely rocky and rooty, and often a lot of the trails go through water passes. All of these environments are extremely affected by the weather. I would say the next thing would be understanding the weather not just from one forecast, but multiple forecasts. Because the Mount Washington Observatory, our forecast is a higher summit forecast, an elevation-based forecast. It is not a horizontally spatial forecast like you see on the news at the surface and at lower elevations. Those are two very different environments.
Just have all the gear that you need. When you’re being rescued, if you’re unprepared, that can mean the difference between life and death or also a massive bill. If you’re prepared and you need to be rescued, the respect is there. It’s like, OK, stuff happens. We understand that people get caught in situations. But if you get caught in a situation like that and you’re not prepared, it shows negligence.
What resources do you recommend?
First and foremost, always consult the National Weather Service forecast. They’re set up for this, and they have the most data and the best way to put it out. Having said that, I absolutely implore them to check out their local news forecasts to get the weather where they are. And then also check out the mountain forecasts, not using apps and so forth because a lot of apps don’t have any actual forecasters — it’s just like straight model outputs. So reading an actual forecasters’ discussion from the National Weather Service or the Mount Washington Observatory.
Our website has all these links to it. We have a valley forecast that we put out. We have a summits forecast, which is really just the higher summits. So if you want the elevation at 6,000 feet or 5,000 feet, you come to our forecast. If you want to know what the weather is down in the valley, like up North Conway, you check the valley forecast. We have a forecast for north of the mountains and we have a forecast for south of the mountains.
The weather conditions during a hike can change dramatically. Can you explain that?
Today, it’s really nice out, but there’s still moisture in the air. So as air moves over the mountains, it gets compressed, and when you compress air with moisture in it, you condense the moisture. So that’s how you get a lot of clouds at the summit. And that’s how it’ll be really nice out in the valley but it could be raining [at the top]. And once you get wet and it’s cold out, it’s really, really hard to get warm again.
Essentially every 1,000 feet you travel upward, it’s like going 50 to 100 miles north. It’s like going from Rhode Island to New Hampshire. The weather in Rhode Island on the same day is significantly different than the weather in New Hampshire on the same day. The same happens elevation-wise. You’re going higher in the atmosphere and you’re not getting the heating that the sun puts on the surface. You’re kind of in the free atmosphere and that air is moving over the mountains. Whereas down here, there’s a lot more friction from trees, and the ground, and the mountains. So it’s like a safe spot.
What are the risks of not checking the forecasts or summit conditions?
I think people get very focused on the 48-hour quick, “Oh, it’s sunny, temps are this, and the winds are this,” which is a very point forecast. A lot of people don’t read the forecast discussion, which is where you get a lot of good information about what can happen, what will happen, what could happen, and why these things are happening. People will say, “There’s a warm front coming and there’s clouds — like oh, it’s a cloudy day.” But they may not understand where the clouds are coming from. Well, if a warm front is coming, it’s bringing a lot of moisture into the region. Conditions will change rapidly, especially as frontal systems come through.
What weather trends are you seeing on the mountains now?
This fall — it’s hard to say seasonally what’s going to happen — but it’s been quite dry this summer and we’re already starting to see the leaves change. So it seems like we’ll have some colder temperatures on the way. We don’t know if they’ll stick around, but it seems to be a little colder than average at this particular time. But that doesn’t mean it can’t warm up, either. But we have noticed that our winters are being pushed back a little bit. And we’re seeing winter thaws more frequently. We’ve been breaking a lot of high temperature records, daily high temperature records.
In the summer, we don’t have a lot of weather systems really move through because temperatures between the poles and the equator are not as extreme. But as we start to get into the shoulder seasons and winter, the poles are cooling and that temperature extreme is getting bigger and bigger. So now we start having more storms — because that’s what the storms do — they equalize the temperatures of the planet, essentially. As we start losing sunlight, it starts getting colder, which increases that difference, so now we start getting the storms more frequently.
Has the observatory noticed the increase in hiker rescues?
We see it, we hear about it. We hear it on the radio, and even just up on the summit, we are involved in giving out information. The State Park will come to us and ask what the weather is. We’ve had phone calls from Fish and Game asking about cloud height because they’re trying to get a helicopter in for a rescue.
A lot of the time, it can be unsafe to conduct a rescue given certain conditions. If one person goes down, there’s about 20 other people going out to rescue, so they all need to know the conditions. I think it’s important for people to understand that while you’re encouraged to go out and enjoy the environment and to be one with nature, just understand that if you get rescued, you’re now putting a number of people in danger.