Editor’s note: The following is the second part of Brad Viles’ trip up Mount Washington for a WinterEduTrip, an educational trip conducted by the Mount Washington Observatory.
Once I got myself fully awake this morning, I walked over to the LCD readout that shows various readings from the instruments mounted on top of the weather observatory tower. Up there, above the actual summit of 6,288 feet of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the wind speed reached peak gusts of a hundred miles an hour last night. Winds have been increasing since I arrived here at the Mount Washington Observatory yesterday by snowcat on a Winter EduTrip.
The LCD shows several readings. It shows the date: Sunday, February 8, 2009; the current time: 7:02 a.m., for example, and a 24-hour history of weather measurements. Wind speed is up the side on a scale from 20 mph to 140 mph and the scale expands or contracts according to actual speeds. There’s also a gauge that shows the average speed, 15-minute peak speed, 24-hour peak gusts and minimum speed. The temperature and wind chill are also displayed. At this time of the morning, the air temp is 18 above zero and the wind chill 8 below.
Across the bottom is the time of day for the past 24 hours. You read it backwards from the current time to find out when the gusts were at their highest. If I read it right, and it’s pretty easy to read, winds were at their highest from 9 last night at an average of 80 miles per hour with frequent gusts to a hundred, until about 6 this morning. That was an hour ago when they diminished to about 60 with gusts to 80. According to the graph, they are increasing again. Visibility is zero as the summit’s encased in clouds.
It was time for breakfast and, counting the staff of weather observers and an intern, there were 17 seated tightly around three tables put together endwise. The three observers would come downstairs from their stations in turns, so we weren’t all there at the same time, but the cooks Mike and Ken fed a total of 17.
After the hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and fruit was cleared, the nine of us on the EduTrip had to pack up for the trip down, scheduled to depart at around 1 o’clock this afternoon. We had a little time to look around the weather station and read the instruments before our next class on wind. We could go outside in the wind, which had increased to 80 again, with higher gusts. I decided that was too high for me, so I stayed inside.
After packing up I found a spot on the couch and just waited for the call from the snowcat driver who had left the bottom on his ride up to get us. When the call came on the short-wave hand-held radio, it went like this: “This is Gus, the cat driver, to summit. I’m at the five-mile post. It’s blowing snow, high winds, zero visibility. If it’s this bad at ‘six-mile,’ I’m turning back.”
It must be bad, I thought.
I didn’t go far from the radio. About 40 minutes later, he called again. “This is Gus, the cat driver, to summit. I’m at ‘six-mile.’ It’s worse here than it was at ‘five-mile.’ I’m turning back,” he said. That was it. We would be staying another night on top of the mountain. I hoped Gus would make it back all right.
What happens in his situation was explained to me by Stacey later. There’s a low-profile plow on the front of the cat that he uses to get through drifts, sometimes huge drifts. It snowed lightly overnight. When the plow puts the smallest amount of snow into an 80 mph wind, the entire cat becomes enveloped in a snow cloud. If he can’t see he could drive off the mountain. He’s responsible for his own safety, so he made the call.
Wind speeds continued to rise for the rest of the day. It didn’t take long for the news to spread around the building. We were marooned. We knew it could happen because the observatory stated that as a likelihood in the advance literature.
No one complained.
I have a personal experience on this mountain that is keeping me indoors on this day. It happened 15 years ago on my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. I was approaching from the south. I crossed Mount Eisenhower, Mount Monroe and probably another mountain that day, mostly above tree line, in high winds and fog. It was only six miles but it felt like 20.
When I got to the Appalachian Mountain Club hut at Lakes of the Clouds, I went inside and checked the current conditions on the top of Washington, a thousand feet higher than the hut. The wind speed on the clipboard, updated hourly, read 90 mph. I felt lucky to escape there with my skin still attached. I had no desire to experience that again, even though now I felt absolutely safe. Now, I could have buddied up with one or two of the others in our group and gone outside hanging on to handrails, but no thanks.
So, with a lot of free time until tomorrow, I spent the day talking to the weather observers and the members of our group who did go out. It is, after all, the longest manned weather observatory in the country and the place where the world’s highest surface wind speed was recorded in April 1934, among other distinctions. The anemometer that measured it is downstairs in the weather museum. That thing turned in a 231 mph wind. They don’t have a category for that type of hurricane wind speed.
It’s called super hurricane winds.
That night after supper of salad, pasta and sauce made by Mike Fresolone, we watched another movie, “Blazing Saddles,” and I turned in for the night. The wind was still increasing when I went to the bunk. I didn’t go outdoors all day except to shovel snow with Chris Uggerholt, the state worker.
The winds peaked last night at 125 mph, the same force winds as in a Category 3 hurricane like Hurricane Andrew. All night I could hear it roar past the iced-over window in the bunkroom. I also was awakened several times by banging. It sounded like a door banging, but this morning I found out from one of the observers it was them taking turns clearing ice from the fixtures that hold the instruments on top of the tower.
They went up there in over 100 mph winds every hour all night with a crowbar to clear accumulating rime ice. The instruments themselves froze even though they’re heated. To clear delicate instruments the observers use a compressed air tank to blow out the ice. It’s extremely dangerous even with handrails. I was glad it wasn’t me.
Winds this morning at 9 o’clock are averaging 94 mph but decreasing quickly, according to the LCD readout. The visibility has improved enough for the cat to come and bring us down. The readout shows every time the instruments froze up last night by dropping from 110 to 20 miles per hour instantly. The wind never does that naturally, so when an observer sees it on his gauges, he suits up to go outdoors.
Some of the guys in our group went out at various times yesterday and last night to see for themselves the power of extreme winds. We were required to buddy up. No one could go out alone. Even then, they were restricted to the top of the tower or the observation deck, both places with handrails.
While we were waiting for the cat to appear on the auto road, I got a chance to hand around this month’s issue of National Geographic, which featured the mountain in winter. I brought it up there for the the weather observers — Stacey Kawecki, Steve Welsh, Mike Carmon and intern Jordan Scampoli — to sign as a souvenir. I took some time to talk to Stacey about her job. I was surprised to find out that the danger and the extremes weren’t the most difficult parts for her.
“The hardest part of this job is being away from loved ones in the valley for a week at a time,” she said.
The cold front passed and with it the clouds, which left the entire summit caked in six inches of rime ice. The cat arrived and we all got into the passenger box except me. I’m riding up front with Gus, where I can see the view out the windshield of the cab, looking down on the skiers on Wildcat Mountain across the valley.
To book a Mount Washington Observatory EduTrip, go to www.mountwashington.org. All the information is there: price, schedule and equipment requirements. The site has everything you need to know.