No New Hampshire landmark looms as large — literally and figuratively — in the state’s outdoor history and culture as Mount Washington. In the summer, hikers scramble up the rocky Huntington Ravine trail; in winter, backcountry skiers head to famous Tuckerman Ravine. Whether you study the rare flora of the Alpine Garden, camp overnight in the Great Gulf or enjoy sunrise over the Carter Notch, you’ll agree Mount Washington is truly a magnificent landscape with only one glaring flaw: the summit, perhaps the only place on Earth where meteorological and cultural wastelands coincide.
I first climbed Washington with my Dartmouth College outing club, which traditionally in the early summer carries a canoe from the western parking area to the elevated Lakes of the Clouds, paddles around, then continues on to the summit. Everybody who attends college does silly things; some silly things are just more elaborately planned than others.
We passed a man just before the summit who, a mile above the nearest law enforcement officials, was smoking a
marijuana joint in plain sight. He eyed us warily. Finally he spat on the ground, muttering loudly enough to hear, “I may be stoned, but at least I’m not carrying a canoe.” Well, we were carrying a canoe, all the way to the summit. And why had we come that long way?
Washington’s summit is crowded all summer long with visitors who either brave the steep trails on foot, take the white-knuckle drive up the auto road or enjoy the nostalgia-inducing ride in the historic cog railway. However they get there, all can enjoy the view from Washington’s summit, the tallest point in all of New England, which consistently offers the stunned visitor a sweeping, 360-degree panorama of dense, impenetrable fog. Sometimes the fog thins for a moment, offering the tourist a breathtaking glimpse of the smoke-spewing diesel generators, torn orange safety netting, bags of trash, rusted antennas, and a few mangy-looking wooden buildings that surround the “Tip Top House.”
Now, don’t think I’m opposed to development of our natural spaces. Many mountains have tastefully developed summits. Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts has a nice white cabin where local musicians play unlistenable music for the aging hippie community. A little to the northwest, Mount Greylock has a tasteful park with a wooden lodge and entirely inexplicable (but attractively designed) lighthouse. And here in New Hampshire, the summit of Mount Monadnock is one of the fastest-growing suburbs in the Boston metropolitan area.
What makes Washington’s summit so wretched is not the fact of its development, but its uninspired tackiness. Want a “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” bumper sticker? How about an Old Man of the Mountain bobblehead doll with a hastily rendered “IN MEMORIAM!” sticker slapped on the box? A bag of Live Free or Die jelly beans? Then remember your wallet for the summit gift shop!
Note that these made-in-China knickknacks are being peddled in a location that is nearly inaccessible and highly inhospitable to both tourists and structures. Mount Washington proudly advertises itself as “Home to the World’s Worst Weather,” in the same way Disney World claims to be the “Happiest Place on Earth,” but with a masochistic kind of bent to it. The highest wind speed ever recorded happened on Mount Washington: 231 miles per hour. The buildings on the summit are chained down. Dozens have died on Washington’s summit from “exposure,” a obituarial euphemism for “blowing away like a paper bag.”
I offer the following deal to my fellow lovers of the outdoors: There’s a lot to offer on all sides of the summit, so let’s only visit the portions of Washington inaccessible by car or train. Then the summit itself can serve in its one truly useful capacity: keeping the herds of day-tripping Bostonians away from the rest of us. NH
Nicolas Duquette is a Dartmouth College student and editor of the campus humor magazine, The Jack-o-Lantern.
This article appears in the May 2004 issue of New Hampshire Magazine