Ernie, my photo-junkie companion, spent three years driving tourists to the summit of Mount Washington, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. If you’ve not driven, or ridden, The Road it simply cannot be imagined.
We’ll try. Just imagine the narrowest, twisting, steepest road that you can and then imagine that it climbs 4000 ft in just 8 miles (In a recent hill climb a driver topped the mountain in just 6 minutes!) Then imagine ice and snow (every month) and 60, 70 and even 100 mph sustained winds. That’s a little like this road. (I didn’t mention the 500 – 600′ shear drops. Guard rails? Hah!)
Not only was this road built in such an unlikely place, it was built before the Civil War. At that time the road led from a valley summer house (The Glen House) to a smaller hotel on the summit (The Tip Top House). Folks rode in carriages. The ride took four hours up mountain and 2 down. Most folks take about 40 minutes in a car (Ernie did it in a little less time!)
Folks die on the summit from falling, exposure and getting lost. In the long history of the road there has only been one accident with two fatalities. This safety record indicates the road safer than most neighborhood roads. These folks work very hard to maintain this record.
The Mount Washington Weather Observatory claims the mountain has the worst weather on earth. Throughout its history the MWOBS has reported the world’s fastest winds and some of the most extreme temperatures. Visibility changes in seconds as the clouds wrap around the summit. It’s an mecca for weather watchers.
We arrived at the base of the road before the 8:00 open time. We were told by the folks at the toll house (all friends of Ernie’s) that we would be held for and hour or so. While we waited we visited the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinkham Notch We began our of the summit ascent at 9:15. Ernie was anxious to be at the summit before the tourists and through his knowledge of the road we were able to be the first to arrive.
Ernie, the folks at the summit, the drivers that we hung out with, the experienced climbers all called today the perfect day. There are only 30 fog free days a year and today was crystal clear. The weather had been bad (we were turned away earlier in the week) so the summit was covered with a thick layer of rime frost. It was warm for the summit, about 28 degrees with moderate winds. When we reached the summit we had a clear view of the Atlantic from Portland, Maine to Portsmouth, New Hampshire (Well over 60 miles). On the other side of the summit we looked down on a solid mass of stratus clouds that wrapped and spilled around nearby peaks and dissipated.
From the backside of the mountain the world’s first cog railroad operates. About a half hour after we arrived trains began to arrive. The first train of the day is always pushed by a tiny steam locomotive shrouded in a plume of black coal smoke.
Adjacent to the weather observatory is a visitor center with a museum, post office, two gift shops and a restaurant. I enjoyed a wonderful bowl of chicken and dumplings.
After our descent we parked and hiked the Alpine Garden Trail. This trail leads through boulder fields, along the head wall of a huge glacial valley (I stayed back from the edge) across a tiny stream and through a huge meadow of rare and tiny alpine flowers. The path, like all AMC alpine paths is marked with a series of ancient cairns. It was a tough hike. We walked less than a mile, but the elevation varied by several hundred feet.
Our last stop of the day was to Glen Ellis Falls. The Glen Ellis Valley was blocked by a series of ancient avalanches. The tiny river fights and twists as it drops down from the mountain. The largest drop is 65 feet into a series of pools. Beautiful stuff!
I’ve been carrying around a Zoom digital recorder. I’m not sure why I brought it, but I’ve been setting is along various babbling brooks, roaring surf and waterfalls. It’s nice to listen to.
We’re in southern Vermont tonight and planning a drive towards home tomorrow. We’ll see what’s in store.