Ski East: The Weather Watchers


It is one of most brutish mountains in the lower 48 states-perhaps as awesome as any of the jagged peaks jutting up in the Rockies or Sierra. Towering over nearby New Hampshire ski areas such as Wildcat and Attitash Bear Peak, the rugged 6,288-foot Mount Washington is a place most would consider uninhabitable. There are days when exposed flesh can freeze in as little as 30 seconds. Winds exceed hurricane force (73 mph) one out of every three days. In 1934, brave weather observers recorded the earth's highest wind speed-231 mph-while hunkering down in a wood-frame building shackled with heavy chains to prevent it from lifting off.

But man has somehow learned to survive in this violent place. Situated on Mount Washington's summit is a fortress-like bunker manned by a small crew of professional weather observers, college interns and volunteers who live in spartan quarters. On clear days, you can see the Mount Washington Observatory from Bretton Woods Ski Area 10 miles away, a Tinkertoy plopped on massive rock.

Observatory personnel tout Mount Washington as home to the "world's worst weather." They've slapped the slogan on souvenir T-shirts, postcards, refrigerator magnets and posters sold to the estimated 250,000 yearly visitors, most of whom come in the summer by foot, by car or on the quaint, coal-fired Cog Railway. But come winter, the summit is a lonely place, visited only by an occasional hardy day hiker or broadcast technician manning the Mount Washington transmitters for the Portland ABC-TV affiliate. Even in the harshest weather conditions, work goes on. Every day of the year, at hourly intervals, an observatory staffer ventures outside to check weather instruments. In the winter this assignment includes smashing the rime ice that forms on any solid object within minutes. On severe days, the brittle and frosty-white coating virtually explodes on impact, disappearing into the whipping wind like flak from an exploding shell.

Observatory workers transmit their readings hourly by modem to the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine. Skiers often call the observatory for information-the telephone number is listed in the local directory, and observers are willing to provide personalized advice on where to find the best snow in the region. When strong winds threaten to shut chairlifts, ski area managers from throughout the White Mountains call the observatory for updated weather forecasts. Wildcat, located across the notch from Mount Washington, shares similar weather, and forecasts help the area plan snow grooming operations. Observatory staffers also work closely with the U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Mountain Club to forecast when unstable snow conditions may threaten hikers and backcountry skiers on Mount Washington's legendary Tuckerman Ravine, the East's premier test of skier mettle.

But it's not just weather watching that keeps personnel occupied. The observatory also conducts research projects for governments, universities and private businesses. Recently, researchers worked on developing an "icephobic" material that resists rime ice and field tested a heated anemometer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Aircraft deicing techniques have also been developed with the help of summit personnel. Closer to outdoor recreationalists' hearts, Duofold had observatory personnel evaluate its thermal garments and Sierra Designs researched the effects of high wind on tent pegs and poles.

To observatory personnel, there is no such thing as bad weather. As former weather watcher Norman Michaels, 46, puts it: "We celebrate whatever comes along." At the first signs of heavy weather, the pace quickens and the staff becomes supercharged.

And, there's a sense that the rougher the weather, the better the crew likes it. Research director Ken Rancourt says he prefers temperatures around zero. "That way you can dress warmly without overheating."

While the observatory has a number of back-up systems for power, waterr, heat and lighting and there's enough food to last an entire season, staffers have a healthy respect for what Mother Nature might hurl in their direction. "We are very careful in high winds. Above 100 mph we have to be concerned because, if anything happens, we're toast," says Michaels. During a blizzard a few years ago, winds gusting 145 mph rhythmically rocked the observatory snowcat parked outside and it took a team of three observers to check the precipitation can. "It was wild," says Michaels. "The snow was blowing horizontally into the building."

An odd sense of humor prevails among those living on the affectionately named "rockpile." Many observers have sledded down the Auto Road-a heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping ride when conditions are right. Another rite of passage is the Century Club; membership requires a stroll around the outside deck in 100 mph winds. The rules prohibit use of crampons or holding onto the guardrail. Rancourt has worked on the summit for 19 years and has yet to become a centurion. In fact, in 12 years, only six observers have qualified. No wonder-even at a "mere" hurricane speed of 74 mph, the force of the wind can suck the air out of your chest. "We have lots of fans," says Michaels. "People seem to live vicariously through us, taking a perverse pleasure out of the extreme conditions we face."

Vicarious Weather Thrills
If your TV is constantly tuned to the Weather Channel, consider becoming a member of the Mount Washington Observatory. Annual dues are $25. Members receive a quarterly news bulletin, Windswept, with articles on White Mountain history, mountain safety information and a summit weather log. Other benefits include free tours of the observatory (even in midwinter if you hike up) and free admission to the observatory museum and educational programs. Contact: Membership Secretary, Mount Washington Observatory, P.O. Box 2310, North Conway, N.H. 03860; (800) 706-0432.

The Cold Hard Facts
During Mount Washington's 120-year history of weather monitoring, the temperature has never risen above 72 degrees F.

Mount Washington's average annual temperature is 27 degrees F, and in 1934, the temperature once plummeted to minus-47 degrees F.

Mount Washington's summit elevation is ecologically similar to the subarctic zone. Snowfall averages 20 feet per year, but because Mount Washington sits in the path of three major North American storm tracks, most of it is blown off by fierce winds.

The air at Mount Washington's summit delivers 18 percent less oxygen than at sea level, causing a phenomenon known locally as "Driver's Collapse"-named for the fainting spells experienced by out-of-shape summer visitors who drive up the 8-mile Auto Road and keel over at the top of the 72-step stairway leading from the parking lot.

Mount Washington is the highest point east of the Mississippi River and north of the Carolinas. It is also 1,000 feet higher than Denver International Airport.

Mount Washington has attracted Himalayan climbers preparing for Mount Everest expeditions. While the world's tallest mountain is about 20,000 feet higher, Everest weather conditions are similar to Mount Washington's during its winter worst.