Ph.D. Student - Earth System Science (UC Irvine), B.Sc. - Atmospheric Sciences (Cornell University)
By: Zachary Labe , 12:06 AM GMT on July 13, 2008
There is something about the howl of the winds that makes people fear. Fear is not an option on the top of the highest mountain summit in the northeast, Mt. Washington.
Last year I took a trip out to 13 states in the western parts of the United States. One of the trips was where I visited Pikes Peak Mountain, which has an elevation of 14,110ft. Gradually rising up the mountain, the Pikes Peak Cog railway pulled along. Upon the peak, the clouds were high above the summit (cirrus clouds), but a distinctive haze was visible limiting visibility to lets say only four states wide view. On clear days the visibility is endless. At the summit the temperature is about 30degrees colder than the base. Pikes Peak was quite an adventure all in itself, and so all in all I had been up a twice as taller mountain that Mount Washington and I expected similar weather, views, etc. But Pikes Peak is no comparison to the ferociousness of Mount Washington. As the saying goes Mountain Weather is unpredictable and that is surely true.
Let me first start off with talking about the beauty of New Hampshire. I had been to southern New Hampshire before near the Atlantic coastline, but never in the northern parts of the state. Mt. Washington is located in the center of White Mountains National Forest. Scenic vistas are visible all across the region as the mountain loom off in each direction on the horizon.
Mountain peaks averaging near 4,000ft or more with little villages in each valley each with its quaint New England charm with a general store, inns, bed & breakfasts, cafes, town halls, churches, and more. It really is quite the scenic region. People busy walking the narrow town sidewalks looking for that afternoon ice cream cone or just that afternoon walk in the park. There are also many state parks in the region with tall waterfalls and creeks with water rippling down the over the rocks. Birds and animals busy looking for food and water in the afternoon and enjoying the calmness of nature. Winding roads between the canyons and gorges of the mountainsides. And then Mount Washington appears on the horizon with a cloud of fog on the summit limiting the full extent of the size of the mountain to the naked eye. A postcard view describes the entire region. And yes this is how my journey up Mt. Washington began.
Ah the cog railway. The engine is sort of reminiscing of "the-little-engine-that-could." It is a really small steam locomotive that they have been using for quite some time.
At moving at a speed of 3mph up the mountain it is not a hop, skip, and jump to the top. In fact it takes a total of 1.5hours to the summit. But the feel of the nostalgic railway gives it its charm. The tracks are quite old and climb at a degree of near 30degrees making one section of the track, known as Jacob's Ladder, the most fearsome and dangerous railway in the entire world. But remember they have been doing this since the mid 19th century, and all employees at the railway ensure everyone that it is completely safe.
Climbing the mountainside I watched out the window of the ever-changing mountainside where it seems you travel from one world to the next starting in the forests of New Hampshire to the Arctic deserts of frozen tundra.
The alpine tree line is the last climate zone located near the summit where it looks like you are on top of the moon with only a few little plants and moss along with large boulder-sized rocks. No animals live at the summit, so there is absolutely no life. Climbing continued on the cog railway as we all just about entered into the thick clouds. But before I took a look up the steep train track and looked at the fearsome looking clouds moving at some of the fastest speeds I have ever seen.
And then we enter the thick fog with visibility measured in yards. As we continue to climb higher the howl of the wind is now heard, and a shiver is felt as a cold wind is felt upon you neck slipping into the window cracks. Finally we are at the top and the breaks of the train come to a screeching halt. The winds were blowing fast, but not overly fast at the station. We had 20minutes to walk around before we headed back down the mountain. I immediately headed to the observation deck and pulled out my handheld anemometer. All of a sudden as I stepped on the deck the wind howled at a sustained wind of nearly 54mph for over a several minute period, gusts reached a whopping 63.9mph on my anemometer. With clouds and fog moving quickly over the summit horizon and winds whipping, it gave an end-of-the-world type feel. But I loved it, as truly my love of weather came right out. As most people went indoors to get warm, keep in mind it was 44.5degrees, I went out braving the elements. Then I heard the train whistle, and I was very reluctant to travel down already. I could have stayed up all day. Boarding the train I was still in awe of the weather I had just faced. Waiting for the next day to go up on the summit was going to be a difficult task. Though you could hardly see your hand in front of your face in the fog, and as most people were disappointed, I was thoroughly thrilled.
As the next day's morning sunrise dotted the landscape I was quickly awakened to check the morning sky. And as I looked up, yes it was blue sky with spotty cirrus and cumulus clouds, and yes a clear summit making the trip a really once in a lifetime experience.
This time it was the auto road that would lead me up the mountain. Upon traveling up you get a packet with a bumper sticker saying "my car climbed mount Washington", a certificate of travel, and a slightly chilling warning packet about driving the road. The road is quite narrow and follows the side of the mountain with large cliffs below. Also the road is quite steep making the travel down the mountain relatively hard on your breaks. But it was all worth it! As we reached the top the visibility was endless as I looked onto the landscape of what seemed the top of the world looking on to thousands of miles of beauty. Interestingly enough the wind was relatively calm if you consider 30mph calm. Typically the mountaintop is covered in thick pea soup fog with winds to 40mph+. But Friday was a rare day. In fact 60% of the time the mountain is shrouded in fog. Anyways at the summit I took some pictures and then headed into the museum and gift shop.
There I found out information about touring the weather observatory. I became a 6-month member of the observatory which includes many benefits from special tours of the weather station to special website attributes to a special weather magazine, "Windswept." After filling out a few forms I trotted down to the entrance of the observatory awaiting my personal tour of the station. There I met a friendly woman who was an official weather observer at the summit headquarters. Now when I went into the tour I expected the weather room to look like a NASA control center full of computers. But what I saw was quite interesting in its self. There were a few monitors with weather maps, so of which I even post in my blog, which I found to be funny.
There was also another area with a weather wall full of many computers and monitors displaying current weather.
There also were a few older weather instruments that measured the typical wind, temperature, pressure, humidity, and etc readings.
I found out that the permanent observers work a Wednesday-to-Wednesday shift and actually do not make any forecasts. But this does not mean they do not have a busy schedule, especially in the winter. Each hour they send in an official weather observation to NOAA which is seen on their website. For example...
Lat: 44.28 Lon: -71.3 Elev: 6266
Last Update on Jul 12, 4:54 pm EDT
Mostly Cloudy and Breezy
(13°C) Humidity: 82 %
Wind Speed: W 25 G 29 MPH
Dewpoint: 50°F (10°C)
Wind Chill: 49°F (9°C)
Visibility: 30.00 mi.
More Local Wx: 3 Day History:
But they send it in a code with a whole bunch of numbers put together. On our tour we then went up through the weather tower to see the actual instruments. And yes I was at the top of the top of the weather tower.
The instruments were interesting to look at with some new modern technology, but also some older technology with instrument such as mercury thermometers in a Stevenson screen to block solar radiation. During the winter as temperatures drop in the negatives with wind chills in the negatives 70s the observers have to hourly check the weather and knock off any rim ice that has formed. They even have protective metal A-Frame type structures that the observers walk under to avoid being hit with falling ice as winds gust over 100mph. In fact the highest wind gust ever was 231mph, which was recorded in April of 1934, and remains the worlds recorded for the strongest wind gust ever officially recorded. Weather observations have been ongoing from 1870-Present at the summit. I could talk on and on about my tour, but I do not want to extend this blog any longer than it has to be. Feel free to ask me any questions. Anyways sadly my tour came to an end. But then there was the museum, which explains why Mount Washington is home to "The World's Worst Weather." It deals with the active New England storm track along with other factors such as a natural wind tunnel created by the mountains. At the gift shop I did buy a wonderful book, which already I have read. The book is "Among the Clouds" by Eric Pinder, which details the life of an observer at the top of Mount Washington. Soon my Mount Washington journey was coming to a close and I took one last look onto the scenic views of the New Hampshire landscape from the summit. Traveling down the mountain I took one last look out the window at the large mountain the looms in the distance visible from miles and miles away.
Now back to the reality of now what seems our boring weather in Pennsylvania compared to the weather at Mt. Washington.
With winds gusting over 100mph and snowfall nearly 300inches per year, the vast landscape of the mountain summit is familiar with the Arctic. Mount Washington is home to the “worlds worst weather” is quite a true statement as I experienced some of it first-hand. But this was in summer, and winter is a whole other beast of weather. To any weather fanatic this is a must see. You truly will be amazed. Exposed to the worst of the elements most cannot imagine working on the summit, except for the brave few known as the weather observers. I hope to return to Mt. Washington someday in the near future and to the beauty of the New Hampshire landscape. I can only imagine what winds over 100mph feels combined with dense fog and negative temperatures. But this is just a typical winter day at the summit. During my experience I was visited by 60mph winds, dense fog, 40degree temperature, and patchy snow cover all in my short 2-day visit. The journey home was a sad one as I reflected on my once in a lifetime trip that many weather enthusiasts worldwide would love to travel to. Truly only one word describes the experience… breathtaking.
Here is a link to the Mt. Washington’s Website… Link.
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