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Earl Adams Photo

Jim Salge/Mount Washington Observatory Photo


“From 1932 to 1937 the Mt. Washington Observatory was operated in the Summit Stage office then occupying this site. In a great storm of April 12, 1934 the crew’s instruments measured a wind velocity of 231 miles per hour.” – plaque at the summit of Mt. Washington

Mount Washington Facts
  Location:   latitude 44 16' N, longitude 71 18' W  
  Height:   6,288 feet above sea level  
  Tree line:   approx. 4,400 feet  
  First recorded ascent:   1642, by Darby Field and native guides  
  Composition:   mica schist, approximately 350 million years old; shaped by glaciers  
  Hiking trail distance to summit:   8 to 10 miles round trip on any of approximately 12 trails  
  Elevation gain/loss by hiking:   approximately 4,300 feet  
  Annual number of visitors on foot:   approximately 40,000 to 50,000  
  Auto Road distance to summit:   7.8 miles  
  Average grade of the Auto Road:   12 percent  
  Annual number of visitors by road:   approximately 150,000  
  Cog Railroad distance to summit:   3 miles  
  Steepest grade for the railroad:   37 percent (Jacob’s Ladder)  
  Annual number of visitors by railroad:   approximately 50,000 to 60,000  
Some say that Native Americans called the mountain Agiocochook or Waumbeket Methna – “the place of the Great Spirit.” Another name is Koda Wadjo – “Hidden Mountain.” That’s Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England at 6,288 feet above sea level. As part of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range in the White Mountains, it forms a 12-mile ridgeline along with Mounts Madison, (John) Adams, John Quincy Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, Eisenhower and Pierce.

On a clear day, visitors to the summit can see as far as 130 miles. The Atlantic Ocean and peaks in both Quebec Province and upstate New York are all within view.

Approximately 70 million people live within a day’s drive of the mountain. However, that accessibility belies its potential for the “worst weather in the world.”

About the Weather

Mount Washington is not the tallest mountain in the United States. There are many in the contiguous 48 states that more than double its elevation – to above 14,000 feet. Just as with other real estate, though, what differentiates Mount Washington is location.

Just as with other real estate, though,
what differentiates Mount Washington is location.

Earl Adams Photo

Mount Washington Observatory Photo
In the winter, Mount Washington lies at the confluence of three major storm tracks. Moisture from as far as the Gulf of Mexico can travel to the mountain from a southerly track, and snow and frigid temperatures from Canada and the Great Lakes can travel from the northwest on “Alberta Clippers.” Perhaps best known are the northeasters, which bring prodigious snows from Atlantic moisture. In addition to these three storm tracks, the geography surrounding Mount Washington and its own elevation enhance the cold, wind and cloudiness. The results of all these factors are extreme weather phenomena involving cold, wind, fog, icing and precipitation. As an example, the average wind velocity during the months of December through March is more than 40 miles per hour (November just misses this group with an average of only 39.7 miles per hour). Winter isn’t the only time for high winds. Every month has had peak wind gusts measured at more than 136 miles per hour.

Mount Washington Weather
Mountain Averages:
Annual temperature: 27.2 F
Annual precipitation (measured as water): 101.91 inches
Annual snow, ice pellets, hail: 314.8 inches
Annual wind speed: 35.3 mph
Annual number of days wind speed exceeds hurricane force (75 mph): more than 100 per year  
Mean number of days with heavy fog: 310.9 days
Mountain Records:
Low temperature: -47 F – January 1934
  Maximum precipitation in 24 hours: 10.82 inches – October 1996
Maximum annual snow, ice pellets, hail: 566.4 inches – 1968-1969
Maximum wind: 231 mph – April 12, 1934
Weather measurements taken at the summit.

Derek Brown/Mount Washington Observatory Photo

Mount Washington Observatory Photos

Jim Salge/Mount Washington Observatory Photo

The wind, precipitation and temperature extremes have profound effects on the mountain’s environment. The Presidential Range has the largest area of above-tree-line and alpine vegetation in the eastern part of the United States. Trees cannot thrive above the tree line because of the thin soils, cold temperatures, short growing season and the destructively high winds, blowing snow and ice. In addition to the effects of their velocity, high winds cause plants to lose moisture, which also contributes to the challenges of the alpine region.

Mount Washington’s unusual environment is reflected in its vegetation, with many plants here more typically found at higher altitudes or higher latitudes. Two plants – the Mountain Avens and Robbins’ Cinquefoil – are found almost nowhere else on earth.

Roads to the Top

Mount Washington has a rich history – most of it having to do with reaching the summit. Perhaps the claim that it has the worst weather in the world enhances the inherent conflict between man and mountain, making Mount Washington even more appealing to “conquer.” Footpaths and hiking trails, roads for carriages and automobiles as well as the steam-engine-powered Mount Washington Cog Railway have all been means to reach the top.

Jim Salge/Mount Washington Observatory Photo

Derek Brown/Mount Washington Observatory Photo

Structures at the Summit

Jim Salge/Mount Washington Observatory Photo

Rime Ice

“Whenever the temperature drops below freezing – and it does on 243 days of the average year – and the summit is in the clouds, rime ice forms on all exposed surfaces. Very simply, rime ice is frozen fog. It is deposited whenever super-cooled water droplets strike and immediately freeze to objects whose surface temperature is freezing or below ...

“Rime ice accumulation is a function of air temperature and wind velocity. Conditions ... are ideal when an air temperature in the upper 20s is combined with an 80 or 90 mph wind. At such times the icing is heavy; as much as five or six inches may accumulate in an hour. Frost feathers over 30 feet long have been observed ... .”

From “The Home of Boreas: Mount Washington’s Meteorological Phenomena,” by Greg Gordon, Mount Washington Observatory News Bulletin, Vol. 21, Number 2, 1980

All roads to the summit – hiking trails, Auto Road and Cog Railroad – converge at Mount Washington State Park. There, the Sherman Adams Building and the Mount Washington Observatory’s Museum are open to visitors. Other structures at the summit include a television transmitter, two FM-station broadcasting sites, a host of two-way radio repeaters, the Cog Railway platform and the Auto Road Stage Office (chained to the ground!).

The Sherman Adams Building houses the visitors center, with viewing from inside or the rooftop and amenities for travelers. The building also houses the museum run by the Mount Washington Observatory.

The Mount Washington Observatory carries on the work of tracking the summit’s weather, having its roots in a private scientific expedition that spent the winter of 1870-1871 on the summit. That led the U.S. Army Signal Service to establish a weather station there from 1871 to 1892.

The current Observatory is a private-nonprofit, membership-supported organization. Founded in 1932, it has provided continuous reporting for more than seven decades.

Jim Salge/Mount Washington Observatory Photo

The Observatory has three principal activities. These include environmental monitoring, scientific research and educational activities.

The Observatory’s environmental monitoring goes beyond the weather observations that are of primary importance. The staff also monitors cosmic radiation, air quality and other related activities.

Scientific research ranges from basic research on subjects such as cloud physics and atmospheric electricity to testing various equipment. The Observatory has tested such things as visibility sensors, weather instruments, tents and outdoor clothing.

Perhaps the Mount Washington Observatory is best known for its educational initiatives. These include museums (the Mount Washington Summit Museum and Weather Discovery Center in the valley), summit overnight programs (Summer Seminars and winter “EduTrips”), school outreach programs, a popular Web site and The Weather Notebook radio program heard on many National Public Radio stations.

Find more information on Mount Washington, its weather and the Observatory at www.mountwashington.org.

Approach, but with Respect

Born of the earth and shaped by the forces of nature over millions of years, Mount Washington is the crown jewel of the White Mountains. Ever changing in its beauty and mercurial in its moods, the mountain beckons explorers.

Approached with respect, Mount Washington holds something of interest for almost everyone.

Jim Salge/Mount Washington Observatory Photo

Mount Washington – A Chronology
  1642   The first recorded ascent of the mountain, by Darby Field  
  1784   The first recorded overnight on the mountain, by companions of Rev. Jeremy Belknap (who named the peak in honor of George Washington)  
  1819   Hiking trail constructed from Crawford Notch to the top of Mount Washington – the oldest continuously used hiking trail in America and, in part, a link in the Appalachian Trail – by Abel and Ethan Crawford  
  1852   Summit House built (the first hotel on the summit), by J. S. Hall and L. M. Rosebrook (the 64-foot-long stone house was anchored by four heavy chains over its roof)  
  1853   Tip Top House hotel, which stands today, built; and Glen Bridle Path opened to the summit  
  1854   The Carriage Road started by the Mount Washington Carriage Road Company  
  1856   The Carriage Road Company went bankrupt – development of the road halted at about the halfway point  
  1859   The Carriage Road development resumed, by the Mount Washington Summit Road Company  
  1861   Carriage Road opened August 8  
  1869   Cog Railway completed July 3 – the world’s first mountain-climbing “cog” railroad  
  1870-1892   Regular meteorological observations conducted by the U.S. Signal Service  
  1873   Second Summit House hotel opened  
  1878   Summit Stage Office constructed  
  1899   First motorized ascent by Freelan O. Stanley  
  1908   All the buildings except Tip Top House burned  
  1915   Summit House hotel replaced  
  1932   Mount Washington Observatory pioneered by four men (daily records of the weather on the summit have been kept since)  
  1968   Tip Top House abandoned  
  1973   Summit Museum created  
  1976   Summit Stage Office rebuilt  
  1979   Construction began on Sherman Adams Summit Building  
  1980   State Park building replaced Summit House  
  1987   Tip Top House restored