The Drive Up Mt. Washington: Exploring New England's Rooftop
The Doubters and the Blockers
The first time I ever made plans to drive to the top of New Hampshire's Mt. Washington, the highest point in northeastern North America, I got no cooperation at all from Mother Nature.
She rained and stormed all that June morning and when I arrived at the toll booth for the road up the mountain the ticket-taker tried to talk some sense into me.
“You can go up there if you want, but you won’t see anything. About halfway up the mountain it’s nothing but clouds and fog.”
As it would have been $64 for us to do this, 28 for the driver and vehicle, 24 for the two other adults, and 12 for the two children, I decided not to go any further. I had driven all morning from Stowe, Vermont hoping that the weather would clear, as the forecasters had indicated it might.
The forecasters were wrong.
“Let’s go back to the lodge,” said one of the backseat drivers, a six year-old girl. “I want to play video games.”
The timing and circumstances weren’t right, and I assumed that, being from a thousand miles away, I would never have a chance to see the mountain again.
However, two and a half years later, I came back again by myself to see the fall foliage around Lincoln, New Hampshire.
Invitations for various friends to join me were met by evasions, disappearances and, in one instance, the actual blockage of me on a social media site. One would have thought I was inviting people to venture with me to the dark side of the moon.
Actually, I simply wanted someone to split the weeklong costs of a condominium. In return, I would be the tour guide for some of the world’s most idyllic scenery at the heavenly height of its peak season.
Going Solo, Taking a Chance
Nobody wanted to do it, so I resolved to do it alone. And, of course, I resolved to make the trek to Mt. Washington again, this time to reach the summit, and claim I did it by a combination of horse-drawn carriage, dogsled, and ropes and pitons up the side of sheer vertical walls.
My first day in New Hampshire it rained and I went to an ice cream parlor.
My second day in New Hampshire it rained and I drove around in circles.
The third and fourth days it rained and I bought a cheap umbrella at a dollar store and hiked on muddy trails.
The fifth day it rained again. I had reached the limits of my patience.
“I don’t care about fog and rain!” I moaned to the girl at the ice cream parlor in Lincoln, where I was becoming a fixture. “I’m going anyway! The top of Mt. Washington!”
“It isn’t worth it!” she said and then I noticed the I-would-block-you-on-a-social-media-site-if-I-knew-you look of contempt in her eyes.
“Yes, it is!” I vowed with confidence.
I was determined to prove that girl and all the other naysayers on the planet wrong. Sure, it was raining with cataclysmic fury. Sure, it had rained for the last forty days and nights. Sure, I could barely see a stop sign a few steps in front of me, let alone the multi-state panorama I had imagined in my fantasies.
But I was tired of all these negative people. Though I was now the laughingstock of the entire galaxy, if I kept trying I was sure my luck would change. Weather forecasters indicated zero probability of being able to see my own shoe-tops if I ventured to the pinnacle of Mt. Washington.
I didn't care. I drove about an hour through fog and heavy rain anyway, followed a deserted road as it curved around a mountainside and suddenly the rain and clouds completely disappeared! I had never seen anything quite like it! The mountain actually makes its own weather and had gotten tired of being wet.
Some Facts and Figures
For about two hours that day the visibility around the mountain was unlimited and I happened to be there then. However, about thirty other motorists had the same idea and I waited behind them along Highway 16 for about twenty minutes until my turn came. Twenty-eight dollars got me a bumper sticker, a DVD and a little brochure.
“Be careful around the turns,” said the ticket-taker prophetically. “About halfway up the road turns to gravel and it gets very narrow.”
Mt. Washington, though rising only 6288 feet above sea level, has one of the highest rises above its immediate surroundings of any mountain in the USA, east or west: higher than many of the Rockies whose summits are actually twice its elevation: about 6000 feet.
This steep rise, combined with its location near the confluence of Atlantic, Gulf and even Pacific wind currents, results in the variable weather and heavy annual precipitation of around 100 inches.
The winds on the mountain have reached a high of 231 miles per hour. Hurricane force winds are measured on the summit on an average of 110 days each year.
The tundra climate is more akin to the arctic regions of northern Alaska than of the temperate zone of the lowlands around the mountain. From December through March, temperatures on the summit exceed freezing on a yearly average of only 15 days.
Hundreds of acres above 5000 feet are bare of vegetation, rocky slopes glazed with ice for more than half the year. A weather observation station on the summit, dating from 1870, was the first “extreme zone” weather-collecting post in the world.
A cog railway, ascending the less steep western slope of Mt. Washington, has run since 1869, the second steepest such railway in the world, with an average grade of 37 percent. Its length is three miles. The auto road that I was now on, almost 8 miles in length, was opened in 1861.
The mountain was sighted from the Atlantic Ocean over 100 miles away by Italian explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano in 1524. Tourists from Boston and other nearby populous cities began venturing to the mountain in the 1850’s. A stone hotel called the Summit House, held in place against the strong winds by massive steel chains which were wrapped over its roof, opened in 1852.
Climbing to Heaven
Several times on the way up I turned off the path to look down into steep ravines and across valleys to look at everlasting lines of uninhabited peaks stretching from horizon to horizon. The drive can be treacherous, particularly when meeting vehicles around corners. Some of them were too wide to fit double-file on the road with mine. I pulled over and held my breath.
When I reached the end of the road and climbed up the rocks to the very highest point, the convergence of several hiking trails, including the Appalachian Trail, I was relieved to be in bright sunshine and to see a sparkling quilt of autumn color on all sides of me.
I narrate from the mountain top.
Upon arrival at the summit of Mt. Washington, I paused to turn my camera on, capture this panoramic view and even managed to give a little driving advice to any fearless wayfarer who may choose to follow my path in the future.
The viewing conditions then, at the height of autumn color in bright sunshine after several days of clouds and rain, were perfect. Only blind luck will enable me or any other visitor from a distant locale to experience the same type of view again.
I must have stayed on top for two hours, straying into the gift shop and the museum which had film footage of the area in wintertime, when pedestrians can be blown around like leaves. The most interesting building on the summit of Mt. Washington, the Tip-top House, is said to be the oldest surviving mountain-top lodge in the world, dating from 1853.
Now a museum, the old stone building has a collection of artifacts and old photos. When combined with the other monuments, sign posts, trails and view points, the Tip-top House makes the Washington summit, even without consideration of the view, a fascinating attraction.
While on the mountain top I made sure to get an impressive collection of photos to show the friends who had rejected my overtures to come, doubting that it would be a worthwhile experience.
A long line of these naysayers, doubters and social-media-blockers formed in front of me, the risk-taker, when I returned home.
As the old-timers used to say, these skeptics were then forced to “eat crow”
“Oh, my god!” was the typical reaction. “I saw your photos. I wish I’d gone with you. Are you going back? Can we go together next time? Please, please, please?”
© 2015 James Crawford