Sure, the sign at the bottom of that road lent pause — “If you have a fear of heights, you may not appreciate this driving experience.” But I was ready to brave it.
Then I met a second round of rejection. At the guard station, I was told the weather was too foul even to drive up in a private vehicle. That left one route: a guided tour with someone whose job is traveling up and down Mount Washington five or six times a day. So, just past a twisting, tree-studded valley cut by a fast-moving stream, I stopped at the Mount Washington Auto Road visitor center and handed over $30.
I was given a postcard to commemorate the event, a simple black-and-white cartoon image of a car chugging up the famed Auto Road with blank space for me to write in the summit’s temperature (an unseasonably warm 47 degrees) and wind speed (45 m.p.h.), both readings constantly monitored by staff down below. When you claim the world’s worst weather, it becomes a point of pride. Mount Washington weather is a challenge every month of the year. The Auto Road’s website says, “Operating hours are ALWAYS subject to weather,” before it tells you its May-to-October hours of operation — 8 a.m. to about 5 p.m., most days.
That weather also fuels Mount Washington’s strange allure and ensures that no two trips are the same. At 6,288 feet, its peak isn’t terribly high (look no farther than North Carolina or Tennessee for higher summits east of the Rocky Mountains), but it rises in a corner of northern New Hampshire that puts it in the path of three major storm tracks. Many of the storms crossing North America, whether they start in the West, the Atlantic, or the Gulf, converge on that point.
Hence the world’s worst weather, which is supported by the statistics. The lowest temperature ever recorded at Mount Washington’s summit: 47 degrees below zero. Highest wind speed: 231 m.p.h. (it’s one of the highest wind speeds ever recorded, besting the strongest hurricanes). Highest temperature: 72 degrees. Yes, the highest temperature ever recorded atop Mount Washington is an ideal, and not unreasonable, day most anywhere else. Snow, which averages 200 inches a year, falls in every month of the year.
Soon, a guide was hollering out names and motioning eight of us into a van that has spent its 24,000-mile life doing exactly one thing: driving up and down Mount Washington’s 7.6-mile road. The van couldn’t do much else: It has been refitted with gearing that allows the engine to climb and descend most efficiently.
Rick Ruppel, 61, gray-haired and boyishly fit, was at the wheel. He leads tours to the top of the mountain while waiting for the next ski season and has developed a certain savvy for dealing with visitors.
How long had he been leading tours to the top of Mount Washington?
“This is my first time driving up!” he said.
Ruppel told us that the week before had seen 90-m.p.h. winds and a wind chill of 25 below. Then, he added, “I wouldn’t drive up in that even when I’ve had enough vodka!”
Everyone chuckled at our seasoned guide, who then reminded us he works for tips.
The Mount Washington Auto Road, built by a group of entrepreneurs in the 1850s and still privately owned, is among the most fascinating stretches anyone can pass.
The ride begins at an elevation of about 1,565 feet, which in fall means yellow and orange foliage in all directions.
We got a bonus almost immediately when a woman from Pennsylvania, sitting in the van’s back row, spotted a moose munching its way down a steep, grassy slope to our left. The antlerless female was black, long-faced, and unconcerned as the flashes from our cameras lit up the van’s interior.
“I said that if we saw a moose, this trip would be successful,” the woman’s husband announced to everyone in the van. He put his hand on his wife’s leg and said, “Good job, honey.”
On we went, rain pelting the van’s roof, and saw things even more riveting than a moose, namely, the mountain.
Because of the dramatic weather, every mile up the road is equivalent to traveling 150 miles toward the North Pole, which means we passed in just under eight miles an astonishing number of climate zones — from northern hardwood forest to arctic.
The legendary weather prevented much of a view beyond a few hundred feet as we ascended farther in that grumbling van, but I hardly felt robbed; the show wasn’t in the distance, it was in the changing landscape, which seemed even more dramatic amid the gray mist. In a remarkably short time — probably about 4,500 feet — the trees disappeared altogether, giving way to scrubby bushes.
At close to 6,000 feet, a mere 20 minutes in the van, we crossed into an arctic landscape of moss-covered boulders. It happened at about half the elevation where such a change happens in mountains of the West. That’s what Mount Washington winds do.
Finally, we reached the wind-whipped visitor center, which is open only during the most temperate months of the year (when the weather is slightly less awful), a low fortress of concrete and glass that would be fit for a James Bond nemesis plotting world domination. It looks that way to withstand the wind.
An unfathomably brave, raw-faced hiker was thawing out in there — he told me he was a recovering drug addict whose new addiction was climbing Mount Washington. We ate chili from the small cafeteria, browsed the gift shop where everything was 40 percent off because the tourist season was ending, and visited the lower-level museum that included images of the view on a clear day.
Then we piled back into the van and left the arctic behind. Thirty minutes later, we were back among tall trees, a light breeze, and our cars.
I dropped my postcard in the mail and made a vow: Next time I’m walking.
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