Thursday, December 20, 2007

Mt. Washington

I may be lazing about balmy Vieques, swilling Corona and flopping in pool or sea, but Firefox still opens to a webcam shot from the website of the Mt. Washington Observatory, a fully staffed non-profit that also happens to be the country’s best-known weather station. It engages in all sorts of environment-related studies and education from the summit of the Northeast’s tallest mountain, home of “The World's Worst Weather” (highest sustained wind ever measured—231 mph (372 kph)). You can cruise around for different webcam views, and for info on the mountain, the Observatory, and, especially, on the weather. I enjoy having a look every morning (when cloud or storm doesn’t obscure any possible view—which it’s doing right now...I’ll post a photo when the weather clears), and checking both temperature and wind, both often breathtaking. It's never very warm up there. In an area where the valleys in summer can easily be in the Fahrenheit 80s (27+) or 90s (32+), the highest temp ever recorded is 72° F. The average temp is below freezing. The average wind speed is over 35 mph (56 kph), and it’s common for winds to be twice that strong. It can be a little daunting.

Mt. Washington is about half way along what’s known as the Presidential Traverse, the great , exposed ridge walk from Mt. Madison in the north, over Mounts Adams and Jefferson to Washington, then turning west over Monroe, Pierce, and Eisenhower. (Pierce was once called Clinton, and you can also summit Jackson along the way, but one was named for a governor and the other for a geologist, respectively, so neither is presidential.) If you’re off early, fit, and fortunate with the weather, you can manage the traverse in one long, exhausting day. Many people break their walk at Lakes of the Clouds Hut. A winter traverse is a true epic.

When you head up toward Washington and some of the other tall peaks here, you pass a sign that says:

STOP
The area ahead has the worst weather in America.
Many have died there from exposure, even in the
summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.

And, indeed, the Observatory website includes, a long, long list of fatalities. Wise hikers planning to climb high usually take along a fuller pack and a few more layers than seem necessary at the base. I’ve been knocked over by the wind up there, and spooked by it more than once, but the closest thing to an epic I’ve experienced is walking backwards down the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine placing each footstep of a little friend of my daughter’s, who on that trip was displaying a talent for the wrong and dangerous move.

The weather extremes of Mt. Washington and parts of the traverse are what attract many people. I'm not a thrill-seeker, myself. As always everywhere for me, it’s the company I’m with that I enjoy most, here balanced wonderfully by the superb, impenetrable indifference of the mountain.

2 comments:

Stravaiger said...

Nice post Mark. You've given me an idea for a ridge traverse!

Do you know if the presidential summits ever had "native" names? I'm quite interested in this topic as we have a few in Scotland that have been "renamed".

Mark said...

There are some, Alistair. When I get home I'll look them up for you.

Glad you enjoyed the post.