Mt. Washington Auto Road celebrates its 150th anniversary and radio personality Mike Morin is on hand to honor the spirit of stunt man Alton Weagle...On October 24, 1901, schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to tumble over Niagara Falls in an old wooden pickle barrel. She lived. On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary was first to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. He returned alive. Just one day short of the 58th anniversary of Hillary's feat, on May 28, 2011, I entered the record books as the first person to ever drive a car to the summit of Mt. Washington wearing Groucho Marx glasses and nose. And, yes, I too survived, as did 13-year-old Oscar the dachshund, who came along but was reluctant to don Groucho glasses. The Contenders:Meg Skidmore, Dayville, Conn., unicycleJesse Lyman, N. Conway, N.H., inline skatesBen Hvar, Berlin, N.H., and Fla., antique phone booth on wheelsSue Wemyss, Randolph, N.H., roller skisSteve Caming, Madison, N.H., drove car in reverseAnna Murphy, Elise Murphy, both Bedford, N.H., and Aidan Foley, Nashua, N.H., Irish dancingJon Pesak, Weston, Mass., roller skisMay 28th dawned gray at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road in Pinkham Notch. It was Alton Weagle Day and I arrived at 5:45 a.m., just minutes after seeing my first-ever moose along Rte. 16 in Jackson. My pulse quickened at the thought of joining the handful of adventurous folks who were about to ascend the Northeast's highest elevation in ways that had never been done before.Alton Weagle must've been smiling that May morning, somewhere in the clouds well above the 6,288-foot summit that we all aspired to reach. Weagle, who died in 1984, was known in these parts as Mr. Mount Washington. The Auto Road is celebrating its 150th anniversary and this day was set aside to honor the spirit of the safe hiking advocate and stunt man by encouraging new and crazy ways to conquer the mountain. Even though 300 drivers that day would be given Groucho glasses when the road opened at 8 a.m., I was given a two-hour head start, allowing me to claim the first-ever Groucho title. I expect there will be an asterisk next to my name for that reason when the record book is written for Alton Weagle Day.Weagle's claims to fame happened in the 1950s, when he became the first person to run up the auto road barefoot. He also made it to the top running up then down blindfolded and another time running backwards. Perhaps most curious was his run up the mountain pushing a wheelbarrow that held a 100-pound sack of sugar without stopping."There's definitely an intangible appeal this mountain has for some people. It draws you here. You want to feel like you're a part of it and the history that's made here," says 51-year-old Steve Caming, a publisher and historian from Madison. Caming became the first person to drive a vehicle in reverse the entire 7.6 miles of the auto road. His Toyota SUV got to the top in one hour and nine minutes, beating me with my funny glasses, a dog and two passengers by about 30 minutes."It was a pain in the neck, literally and figuratively," he winces. "I didn't spend that much time [with my head] out of the window. I found it was very disorienting so I had to keep switching between looking in the mirror and out the window and out the back. I did end up at one point with one tire off the road, which physiologically I now understand the use for adrenaline in the human system."Long before Weagle, Caming or the other nine of us attempted to enter the record books, other stunters found their 15 minutes of fame as well. On July 25, 1855, a 230-pound woman won a $1,000 wager by walking to the summit and back in one day via the Glen Bridle Trail, then danced at the Glen House all evening.From the New York Times dated August 12, 1883 comes this story: "Mt. Washington, N.H, Aug. 11 - Mr. C.E. Heath, of Chicopee, Mass., rode down Mt. Washington this morning from the Summit House on a tricycle. The distance, eight miles, was made in 55 minutes. The previous record was 1 hour and 15 minutes. The start was made at 6 a.m."Not nearly as amusing but more impressive was my 26-year old fellow climber Meg Skidmore, who became the first woman to peddle her way to the summit on a unicycle. Skidmore handles social media for the Mt. Washington Auto Road and assured me she would not be tweeting and riding along the road that is filled with steep dropoffs and no guardrails to protect distracted drivers. And the hardest part? "The dirt after Cragway, about five-and-a-half miles up the road. I kept falling off the bike, then getting back on. I kept trying and made it." Skidmore exceeded her expectations by unicycling all the way in two hours and 37 minutes. Dense fog along several sections added to the degree of difficulty. "Oh, man, wicked! I tried not to look up, then I'd get all confused. I was just focusing on the road and my pedals," she adds.Though the sun made few appearances that morning, the occasional parting of the fog gave me glimpses of the road's incredible views. I was careful not to get caught sneaking peeks of the scenery as my passengers were counting on me to reach the summit without any unexpected side trips off the road. The ever-changing conditions, for which Mt. Washington is famous, created a weather parfait with a different new layer at nearly every turn.We had to break the news to Oscar that he was not the first creature with four legs to make the ride into the clouds of Mt. Washington. On April 3, 1932, Mrs. Florence Clark became the first person to drive a sled dog team to the summit unassisted. Seven decades later in 2009, Josh the camel lumbered to the top along with his handlers and an Irish wolfhound. Last August, Lucy, a dog that uses a form of a wheelchair called Walkin' Wheels, made the summit in six hours with owner Courtney Dunning from Peterborough.As we made our way along the barren rocky stretch above the tree line, I began thinking about the advice my radio listeners had offered as I told them of the plan to drive my way into the record books. I ultimately decided that if a few hundred thousand people a year can do this, so can I.One listener sent me an e-mail that was cautionary but supportive: "Don't listen to those cowards. My family went up a few years ago and the view is breathtaking. Yes, there are some times when you don't see the road to the side, but if you like roller coasters, you will be fine." Another offered: "Be the driver. Gives you something to hold on to. White knuckling as the passenger is not becoming. People, especially your kids, will make fun of you later. And getting those finger impressions out of the dashboard is a real problem. They never completely come out!" And from another caring person: "My advice is to check the summit weather because once you've made the drive, you want to be sure you can see the awesome views from the top, all the way to Maine, Vermont and Canada!"The view? What view? The Alton Weagle Day finish line at the summit was wrapped in the thickest, most smothering blanket of fog I've ever seen. Forget Canada or Vermont. I couldn't see my nose. I also had never seen fog blowing sideways until that morning. One of the participants even got lost in the clouds. Forty five-year-old Jesse Lyman, a teacher from North Conway, the first-ever person to inline skate to the top, fought the fog and the fog won."I made a wrong turn down here. Where is everybody? So I kind of had to cycle back," Lyman admits after his skate to the summit parking lot.The only incomplete attempt that morning came from 74-year-old Ben Hvar of Berlin and Florida. The self-proclaimed "World's first and only firecracker artist" was unable to push his antique phone booth on wheels to the summit. His teammates never showed up to help."I need a dozen people to help me. Seven of them were coming. They found out it was six in the morning, so I don't have a soul [here now]," he says. Hvar's Mt. Washington attempt was just another day at the office for him."Well, it's performance art and I've done many things in my life. I've driven a lawn mower from here to Miami to Los Angeles and I've also flown a plane from New York to London and didn't have enough fuel. I was short 99 miles worth of fuel. I made it anyway." It may be best he never had to push that thing up the rock pile."They [doctors] won't even let me walk, never mind walk the phone booth. I've had many heart attacks," he chuckles.Other successful first finishes were turned in by roller skiers Jon Pensak of Weston, Mass., and Sue Wemyss of Randolph. Bedford's Anna Murphy, 14, and sister Elise, 12, plus friend Aidan Foley, 12, of Nashua jigged and jogged up the road by doing an Irish step dance number at least every mile as well as at the base and summit for their five-hour dance marathon. Anna's dad Peter says this accomplishment was on his daughter's bucket list.Though being the first-ever Groucho guy to drive the Mt. Washington Auto Road was never on my to-do list, I did add "Do not drive off the road and ruin Oscar the dog's day" to my personal bucket list just prior to departure.Like my intrepid friends, I had been bitten by the Alton Weagle bug to do something no one else had done. What will my next stunt be? If they ever have an "Annie Edson Taylor Day," you might look for me to be the first person rolling down the auto road in a pickle barrel. NH First-ever Mt. Washington Auto Road stuntsWho Are These People?Be honest. Had you heard of Alton Weagle before today? Probably not. And you didn't learn about Harlan Page Amen, Colonel Joseph Thompson, Freelan O. Stanley and Arthur Walden in history class either. Each had very different but interesting backgrounds. It's time they had their day in the sun or more likely ... clouds.Colonel Joseph Thompson, 1861 - Thompson was first to drive a horse-drawn vehicle up Mt. Washington. He was also proprietor of the Glen House. Thompson wanted to assure his place in Mt. Washington lore by beating his friendly rival, Colonel John Hitchcock, who ran the Alpine House, so he drove his horse and carriage to the summit three weeks before the auto road officially opened.Harlan Page Amen, 1875 - Page Amen was the first person to run up the mountain in a time of one hour and 57 minutes, then down in 54 minutes. He served as principal at Phillips-Exeter Academy for 18 years until his sudden passing in 1913. He attended Phillips as a young man and was active in religion, social and athletic events. He loved New England and was a member of the Appalachian Club.Freelan O. Stanley, 1899 - Stanley and wife Flora drove the first engine-powered vehicle, a steam Locomobile, to the summit in two hours and 10 minutes. Shortly after his historic ride, the Stanleys moved to Colorado due to his health issues. By 1909, he opened the now-famous Stanley Hotel near Rocky Mountain National Park. The Stanley Hotel is best known for its inspirational role in Stephen King's thriller, "The Shining." Stanley became a major force in business development in Estes Park and to this day, The Stanley Hotel is known as one of America's most haunted hotels with countless ghost stories from employees and guests alike.Arthur Walden, 1926 - Accompanied by friends and photographers, Walden drove the first dog team of huskies to the summit. Round trip took 15 hours. After spending time in Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush, he learned to drive mongrel dog teams and eventually found success breeding dogs designed for power and gentle dispositions. Walden and his Boston-born wife settled in New Hampshire where his breeding programs became well-known. He accompanied Rear Admiral Richard Byrd's expedition to Antarctica as lead dog trainer and dog team driver in 1928.Other Mt. Washington Auto Road Firsts1857 - Using the half-completed road as far as it went, George S. Dana counted 16,925 steps from the Glen House to the summit.1861 - The Mount Washington Carriage Road opens to the summit.1887 - The record for a horse-drawn ascent was set by Charles O'Hara: one hour, nine minutes, 27 seconds.1903 - First officially-timed ascent by automobile, L.J. Phelps in one hour, 48 minutes.1904 - First Climb to the Clouds Auto Race held. Harry Harkness wins in 24 minutes, 37 seconds.1907 - Norman Libby and a companion make the first road ascent on skis, to the Half-Way House. Their return trip down took 20 minutes.1913 - First round-trip to the summit on skis by Carl E. Shumway, Fred H. Harris and Joseph Y. Cheney, all members of the Dartmouth Outing Club.1975 - An Alternative Energy regatta finds an odd assortment of vehicles powered by wood, steam, garbage and chicken manure making their way up Mount Washington.2003 - A Segway from Heritage New Hampshire is ridden to the summit.2010 - Travis Pastrana sets the unofficial world record for fastest ascent of Mount Washington in a car, using his Subaru WRX STi: 6 minutes, 20.47 second.
Average speed: about 72 m.p.h.2011 - David Higgins from the Isle of Man eclipses Pastrana's year-old record in the Climb to the Clouds auto race, with an official time of 6 minutes, 11.54 seconds.
This article appears in the August 2011 issue of New Hampshire Magazine