The Outsider March: Peak Experience

Bring your ice axe…Mount Washington is New Hampshire’s most famous peak. At 6,288 feet, it is the tallest in the Northeast. The mountain holds the title of receiving the strongest recorded wind gust on the planet, an astounding 231 miles per hour that thundered across it nearly 75 years ago on April 12, 1934. Tourist destination, research station, state park, hiking magnet and backcountry ski mecca, the summit is also home to the Mount Washington Observatory.The non-profit Observatory shares that mountaintop real estate with the Mount Washington State Park. Though visitors may be familiar with the seasonal summit gift shop and cafeteria and both the Mount Washington Auto Road and Cog Railroad, the Observatory is staffed year-round. Teams of researchers called observers collect and record weather data 24 hours a day. During their weekly shifts where they live in the tight Observatory quarters, they go outside every hour to check the weather instruments. This time of year, the weather can be horrific and observers can do everything from taking a crowbar to knock the tenacious rime ice off surfaces (called de-icing) to venturing out in hurricane-force winds.Though visitors may be used to summer and fall visits, it is possible to not only visit but stay at the Observatory any time of the year.”There isn’t a lot of room,” says observer Stacey Kawecki, but the staff always has time to answer questions. The observers are an intrepid bunch and Kawecki has some advice for an off-peak peak experience on the Rockpile.Gear BoxThe Observatory has a complete list of clothing and equipment for their EduTrip participants. The winter list for going outdoors includes:Long wool or synthetic top and bottom underwearWool or synthetic (fleece, etc.) pants, shirts, balaclava and sweatersInsulated double plastic mountaineering bootsTwo pair of wool or synthetic socksInsulated jacketWind parka with attached hoodWind pantsSki goggles, face maskDown mittensSleeping bag rated below freezingCrampons for bootsIce axe or ski poleSpare set of socks, gloves, mittens, hat, etc.Rain gearExpert AdviceStacey Kawecki’s fascination with weather started at age 11 when she saw its severity in the movie “Twister.” Kawecki graduated from the meteorology program at Rutgers University and is now employed as the Mount Washington Observatory’s educational outreach observer. Stationed at the summit, Kawecki is heard throughout the state on various radio stations with daily weather reports.When there is snow on Mount Washington, how do you – and visitors – get to the Observatory at the summit?In the winter the Cog doesn’t run to the summit and the Auto Road is closed, but people can still hike to the summit. The crew uses a snow tractor, what ski resorts use to groom the slopes, with a passenger cabin on the back. The operator follows the Auto Road, but it is generally covered in feet of snow.How do you dress for going outside this time of year?Usually during the winter I wear long johns, fleece pants and snow pants with one or two pairs of socks and insulated waterproof boots on the bottom half. On top, it’s usually long johns, fleece jacket, down jacket, Gore-Tex shell, face mask, hat, goggles and heavy gloves. With the winds and cold temperatures seen on Mount Washington, it is very important to have no skin exposed, because frostbite can occur in minutes at times.The Observatory runs trips – EduTrips – to the summit where people can spend the night. What kind of accommodations are there?There’s a bunk room with six beds in it, two sets of beds, three beds high. There isn’t a lot of room, so only essentials are kept in a cubby or small day pack in the room. Meals are usually something delicious. As far as things to do, that’s what an EduTrip is all about. Depending on the subject and weather, this could mean taking winter hikes around the summit for photography, learning what to do in an avalanche or staying inside and learning via power point and interactive activities.I hear there is something called the Century Club. What is it and are you a member?The Century Club is an exclusive club, populated by those who have completed the challenge: one must circumnavigate the observation deck in winds sustained over 100 mph. One cannot wear crampons, use an ice axe, hold on to the railing and, if one falls to the ground, the attempt is deemed null and void. If winds are sustained at 100 mph, and the temperature is 15 degrees, with the barometric pressure of 800 mb (typical conditions for attempting the Century Club), there is about 240 pounds of force applied to your body. It’s similar to trying to walk while a smaller linebacker is pushing you backwards. I am not a member. There have been a few opportunities for me to attempt, but my co-workers who had attempted it deemed it unsafe for me to try because I was smaller and lighter than they were.Everyone hears about skiing Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. Where else on Mount Washington do the weather observers ski, snowboard, snowshoe or hike?I attempt to sled on the Yankee Drift. It’s a drift that forms in the corner of the Yankee communications building. Besides the Tuckerman Ravine, crew members have been known to ski in the Great Gulf, and the east snow fields, which start near Ball Crag and end at the Alpine Garden Trail. Snowshoeing isn’t usually seen on the summit.The high winds and fog usually create a crust of rime over any snow. More often crampons are the footwear of choice, to help one stick to the icy terrain. As for hiking, we like to go everywhere from quick trips to the AMC’s Lakes in the Clouds hut over to the summit of Jefferson. It’s beneficial for us to know the trails and terrain, so we make a point to hike where ever and when ever possible.Have you ever had to stay up there longer for a shift because of bad weather?Only once, and it wasn’t exactly weather related. Our shift change occurred on Thursday, Valentine’s Day. The windshield wiper motor failed on our snow tractor. It was snowing, but not too heavily, but there was no way the operator could have safely brought the tractor and the crew up with no windshield wipers!