Mt. Washington


Before the ascent: the base of Mt. Washington, Oct. 2010

A meteorologist’s dream, Mt. Washington is one of the most unusual places on earth.  The weather is completely erratic and mostly unpredictable.  One moment there is 100 mile visibility, and 10 minutes later it is shrouded in fog with 0 visibility.  Gusting winds of 60-80 mph are not unusual – the record is 231 mph. Hikers and climbers have literally been blown off the mountain; there are fatalities nearly every year.

There are four ways to reach the top of Mt. Washington.  Which ever way you decide, check the weather first.  Unless it will be clear, it will be a waste of your time, money, and energy.

There is a small train – called a cog rail which belches black smoke – and recently they added an ecologically-correct train fueled with bio diesel.  I don’t recommend either – they are very overpriced at $62 per person.

Weather permitting, you can take your own car.  The advantage is that you can stop at various turnouts to admire the amazing views and you have plenty of time to walk around – there’s lots to see and it’s not all about the fantastic views.  However, the steep grades are murder on your car’s transmission and brakes and frankly, it’s not worth the wear and tear. Plus, the road is excruciatingly narrow in parts:  it’s not for the fainthearted.  It costs $25 for the car and driver, and more for extra passengers (but you do get a bumper sticker that says, “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.”  Which means, if you ever see a car for sale with this sticker, do not buy it! Probably the transmission and brakes are compromised lol)

You can hike up.  There are several access trails with various levels of difficulty (rated hard to impossible on the jock scale. If a trail is rated “moderate” don’t believe them – they are lying!).  Going back down is a killer on middle-aged knees.  Since it takes several hours to make the climb, there is little guarantee that the weather will hold.  Mt. Washington’s uppermost sections are above treeline, so if a thunderstorm rolls in you are in danger of being hit by lightening.  While the risks of a summer climb are less than other times of year, there can always be surprises.  That said, if you are up for it, it’s an amazing experience on a nice summer day, as long as your backpack holds plenty of water, food, emergency supplies and adequate clothing for all kinds of weather.

Fifteen years ago my spouse and I took 3 of our children to the top; the youngest was only 9 years old (the incentive for her was the purchase of a t-shirt from the gift store that said “This Body Climbed Mt. Washington” but those were more innocent times – – that would never work today!) By the time we were rested enough to descend, fog rolled in and we couldn’t see a thing and descending was no longer a safe option by foot.  You can’t exactly get stuck up at the top, so we had to pay big bucks to go down via the train.  (And the train has no bathrooms which is not a good thing when you are traveling with children, but that’s another story for another time…)

The fourth way to climb Mt. Washington is via van service, which costs $29 per person r/t.  The disadvantage is that you are at the mercy of your driver, who decides if s/he wants to stop at a turnout, and determines how long you get to stay up at the top before the return trip.   Thirty minutes  of wandering around is really not long enough for a first-time visitor.

Unless canceled by inclement weather, there are also races to the top by automobile, bicycle and by foot.  To give you an idea of the steepness of the climb, there was only a 5 minute time difference between the winning bicyclist (51:56) and the fastest runner (record time is an incredible 56 min 41 seconds, but even more incredible, in the 85 years old and over category, the record is 2:33:30!!!).  The top speed of the best driver was 113 mph – a psychotic death wish imo.

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to the Mt. Washington weather report and they called for almost-unheard of perfect weather.  No wind! Clear skies! Warm temperatures!  I knew what I had to do:  I dropped everything, drove an hour to the base of the mountain, got on the van, and started taking pictures.

About 1/3 of the way up to the top. Fall colors are past peak but still nice.

Still climbing, this section of the road is called "The Cow Pastures"

Now at the top, there was about 1" of ice on the ground due to a storm the previous day

At the top of the world: down below in the middle of the picture you can see Lake of the Clouds, where there is a hut for hikers run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. It's located 1.5 miles beneath the summit.

Above treeline. As you ascend, the trees become dwarfed and bent from the wind, until they cease to exist at all further towards the top.

Feathery rime ice is created when freezing winds hit incoming fog. It forms on protrusions such as rocks and structures like fences, signs, and buildings.

Finale to a great day


One response to this post.

  1. The following links give some great info about Mt. Washington:


    Mt. Washington Observatory:

    Mt. Washington Auto Road:


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