The Climb Up Mount Washington

I peek out from our room's window and the skies have cleared from yesterday's rains. Stepping outside onto the balcony, I watch the shadows of several clouds roll over the surrounding mountains. We only have one day in New Hampshire as the majority of our vacation will be spent in Maine. On the agenda is the drive to the top of Mt Washington, the highest point in New England. It was something that we really didn't talk about prior to the trip. The fall foliage season was still weeks away. We didn't want to do a hike or shop. We to wanted to do something fun. After researching about the area, the Mt Washington auto road came up in several articles on the Internet. Many people raved about it

Awe inspiring drive

Nerve wrecking! Not for the faint of heart

The views from the top were breath taking

Checked another one off the bucket list

We were intrigued and I figured it was something that we do and brag about it to our friends and co-workers.

We head out of North Conway, up highway 16 north. I noticed the winds are still strong from yesterday. It was an ominous sign as we fought gusting winds from Pennsylvania well into New York Friday evening on our way to New England. We can see Mt Washington and from a distance it doesn't look all that sinister. It almost looks inviting. There's no craggy top or steep rock cliffs. It looks wide and weathered, more like a gigantic hill than a mountain. But there's one thing that the mountain is notorious for and that's erratic weather. It holds the record for the highest recorded wind speed at 231mph and wind gusts exceeding 75mph happen over a 100 times in the year. If you're lucky you get the average wind speed of 35mph. You never know what you'll get in a given day. It can be sunny, raining, or foggy or all three in the same day.  

We see the sign for the Mt Washington auto road and turn in. As we approach the gate, we see a sign

“If you have a fear of heights, you may not appreciate this driving experience”. People not wanting to drive themselves can take a guided tour"

Fear of heights, that's something I have. But, I'm too curious not to do it. We drive up to the gate, I see the trees moving about from the wind. I figure the winds around 20 to 30mph. The person at the gate comes out and informed us that

"Winds at the top are gusting over 70mph and visibility is currently poor near the summit."

I don't bother to ask when will the clouds will go away, because he probably has no idea. I look up and I can't see the top of the mountain. Prior to going we thought about taking the cog train. But it was more expensive and took much longer. I wanted to experience first hand driving up one of the most unique roads in North America. We paid the $40.00 admission fee and got a CD and the famous "This car climbed Mt Washington" bumper sticker.

We were in my girlfriend's Hyundai Sante Fe and she just had brand new tires put on before the trip. As for the brakes? They were still the original ones and she had 60,000 miles on the car. I couldn't imagine anyone being stupid enough to take their beater up this road, but I'm sure some people where dumb enough to do it and lived to tell about it. 

The road climbs 4,618 ft from an altitude of 1,527 ft at the bottom to 6,145 ft at the top. The average gradient of 11.6%. The road is about 7.6 miles long. It was completed and opened to the public in 1861. Heading up the road, the car whines as it starts its ascend. My girlfriend's car has about 190hp. I think about the cars back in the early 20th century when they had the fraction of power of today's cars. Just the thought of a Model T and it's 20hp engine chugging up the road would make me chuckle. Before that teams of horses routinely took tourists up and down the road. 

The first part of the ascend is uneventful as the trees provide a sense of security. The maples and oaks grew close to the road on both sides and it feel almost like a Sunday morning drive. I look at my girlfriend and she has that look of disbelief that we're actually doing. Ascending Mt. Washington you will pass through several distinct ecological zones. At the base is a forest of northern hardwoods, followed a bit higher by a forest of spruce and fir. As more elevation is gained, trees become small and stunted. These dwarf and gnarled trees of the sub-alpine zone are called krummholtz. Tree line, the elevation above which trees do not grow, is about 4,400 feet , nearly 2,000 feet below the summit of Mt. Washington.

By the time we're over 3000' the winds are gusting hard and I can feel the car getting pushed around. I look at the scrawny fir and spruces getting whipped around. I start to get a feeling of uneasiness as we have to contend with the clouds. At 4000' were at the tree line and wind becomes more furious. Visibility starts to rapidly deteriorate and I see the look of fear on my girlfriend's face. The car is barely moving along as I struggle to keep it as far away from the edge as possible, as there are no guard rails along the entire length of the road. We get on the gravel section of the road and it's extremely narrow and steep. I hear the rocks pop under the tires as we crawl along. I strain to see and hope that nobody is coming down. Now I starting sweat and I have a death grip on the steering wheel. I finally crack when I can't see anything. My girlfriend points out a pull off and pull in. I shut the car off and the wind outside is howling. The clouds are racing by at an incredible speed. We sit for a few minutes to collect ourselves. I open the door and I'm blasted by the wind and the air is cold. When we entered the road at the bottom it was the low 60s. I feel the wind rip through my fleece jacket. We manage to take some pictures, but the clouds obscure the view. We quickly get in the car and I look at the road. I see a mini van go by and disappear into the clouds. I ask my girlfriend if we should continue because the conditions are so bad. She tells me we're so close and going back isn't an option. I begrudgingly agree because I would have to return the bumper stick in disgrace. After 20 minutes we get a break in the clouds and quickly get back on the road. Sensing the window could close quickly, I speed up the hill. We see the 6 mile marker and we have another mile to go. I quicken the pace as the road is a little wider and flat. Before you know it, there's the parking lot and the clouds quickly move in. We made it to the top. 

I take my hands of the wheel and let out a sigh of relief. We get out and walk to the stairs. The wind is strong enough that climbing it is difficult. I noticed my lungs started to sting whenever I breath. We're over 6000' and the air is thinner. We huff and puff up the steps and we reach the top. We see several people, mostly hikers that made the climb up and they looked dressed for winter. 

We start to get cold and take refuge in the gift shop. I crack the door open and we quickly enter. Once the door is close it's very quiet. You can't even hear the wind outside. I see a elderly gentleman behind the counter reading a book. He asked how was a our morning and I reply 

"nerve wrecking"

I asked him how does he deal with ride up and down the mountain and he dryly replies

"You get use to it"

He goes back to reading his book. We walk around and there's nothing that interests me. I open the door and wind blast us. Mt Washington state park is fairly small as it's about 60 acres in size. The park has a gift shop, cafeteria, museum, and the famous weather observatory. Despite the awful weather, the park this morning is a bustling place when we enter the main building. At the front desk, I look at the weather report

Winds gusting between 50 to 70mph
Temperature 34F with wind chills of 20F

I ask the person behind the desk how long will the clouds last and he replies

"It depends, because of the storms yesterday, but they should clear out..........hopefully" 

He didn't sound so confident. Asking for a future weather report on top of Mt Washington is pretty well pointless. Why does Mt Washington get such lousy weather? It's partly due to the convergence of several storm tracks, mainly from the Atlantic to the south, the Gulf region and the Pacific Northwest. All three of them routinely hit the White Mountains. The mountains act like funnel and that's the reason for the constant strong winds. Even though Mt Washington is only 6200' it's weather on the summit especially during winter can rival the highest Himalayan peaks. For the time being we just have to be patient and hope for clearer conditions. 

Since we got free admission to the museum, we go there to kill time. The museum is small, but there plenty of information and displays about the weather, the people who study it, and the unique flora and fauna found on the summit. After 30 minutes we head back up to the cafeteria and outside you can't see a thing. The clouds race by and just like at the gift shop  you can't hear anything outside. The buildings on the mountain are well built to withstand the elements. We get a couple cups of coffee and I see the groups of hikers filing in. Their faces are red from the cold. It's been an hour and there's been no let up with the clouds. I'm concerned that we could waste a lot of time sitting here. I can't imagine the disappointment from the people who came up the mountain on the cog train. The train takes over an hour and half to get to the top. We hear the call that the train will be departing soon. I'm sure the majority of people that came up were hoping to see the surrounding scenery. Once in a while there's a break in the clouds and people rush towards the windows to get a glimpse. I finished my coffee and I look at the time it's almost noon. I'm getting antsy as I want to start heading down. 

Finally we get a break in the weather. The clouds gradually disappear and there's nothing but blue skies. The majority of people start to file out. We exit the center and walk towards the cog rail broad walk. I can see as far as the eye can see. I've heard in the mornings if the conditions are clear that you can see the Atlantic Ocean. I see the smaller row of mountains and the clouds far off in the distance. My girlfriend points out Lake Winnipesaukee where she stayed last month. I taking as many pictures as possible and the view is indeed breath taking. 

Finally it's time to start heading down. We get the car and I remember from the CD that the car should be in 1st gear for the descent. Because of the clear conditions, there's plenty of cars making their way up. The engine whines as I slowly head down. We reach the dreaded gravel section and according the CD that cars on the way up have right of way. But I have no interest in waiting as I don't want to stop precariously to the edge of the road. I creep along and there's inches to spare as I pass a large pickup. Around the hairpin and down the road we stop at an outlook. We're around 5000' and we get out. The wind isn't as strong and we take in the scenery. I could be standing on a summit somewhere in Rockies or Asia. There's a sign asking people not to walk off the trial as the surrounding vegetation is fragile. I take several pictures of Tuckermen's ravine a popular spot for downhill skiers. It's the last stop on the mountain as we wind down the road and we see the enterance to the auto road. It's another check on the bucket list as I drove up to one of the highest point on the eastern seaboard of North America. We have lunch at a restaurant at the base of the mountain. Sitting out on the patio, I look up and I catch the glimpse of the sun's rays bouncing off the windows of the cars going up the road. They look like tiny specks of light. 

The Mt Washington auto road is a one of a kind road and unlike any other that I've driven. It's both awe inspiring and terrifying.