On April 12th, 1934, Wendell Stephenson awoke in his bed at the Mount Washington observatory to the sound of rushing wind. After stirring the rest of his crew, Stephenson examined the anemometer and noticed it was stuck at 105 MPH.
“I think the anemometer is iced over,” he informed his team.
“Humma hmph duma,” they murmured sleepily.
“Someone should go take a look,” Stephenson added.
The wind howled, but no one spoke.
Stephenson murmured some choice words about how “I gotta do everything around here” and suited up to take a look. Grabbing a wooden club, he opened the door and was blown away by what he saw. That’s only partially hyperbolic.
The force of the wind initially knocked him to the ground, amidst the chorus of “SHUT THE DOOR!” from his oh-so-considerate crew.
Somehow he managed to get out the door, close it behind him, and with the wind at his back, ascend the ladder to the observatory roof. There he found the anemometer, as he’d suspected, immersed in a block of ice. He chipped away the block, then turned into the wind and struggled down the ladder. While descending, he lost his grip on the club and it went sailing off into the fog.
Miraculously, Stephenson made it back into the observatory, and was greeted for his heroic efforts with another chorus of “Are you kidding me? CLOSE THE $%@# DOOR!!” If I had to guess, I’d say Wendell went and took a whiz in each of his teammates water bottles before collapsing in front of the instruments.
The anemometer, now free from the ice, was recording wind speeds over 150 MPH. With the understanding that he was about to witness something remarkable, Stephenson convinced the rest of his crew to get out of bed, felt remorse and warned them before they took a swig from their water bottles. They spent the rest of the day monitoring the unbelievable winter storm that was occurring right outside their door.
Then, at 1:21 pm that afternoon, the crew on Mount Washington recorded something that many did not think possible, and indeed has yet to be recorded by man anywhere else on earth: a wind speed of 231 MPH.
“Gee whiz,” Wendell remarked upon seeing this reading, “And to think that I stepped out into that weather.” He glanced at the awestruck crew, “Good thing I wasn’t alone or anything.”
The crew said nothing, but continued staring at the reading in disbelief while Wendell excused himself to once again take a whiz in their water bottles, this time with no remorse.
I stumbled upon this quaint little anecdote while researching my climb. It was underneath the header “Mount Washington: Home of the Worst Weather in the World.” At first glance, I considered this to be a wee bit of an overstatement. At 6,288 feet it is not even the tallest peak on the east coast of the United States and is less than half the height of over 60 peaks in Colorado alone. Personally, claiming “the worst weather in the world” seemed slightly ridiculous for such a relatively small mountain. It was about as preposterous as a plump chicken telling an eagle it’s the greatest predator in the world. Unless, of course, that chicken lays nuclear warheads instead of eggs.
You see, Mount Washington is the highest peak in New England and is conveniently located (for your immense displeasure and danger!) at the confluence of three major storm tracks. It also features a lovely north/south orientation which, combined with the steepness of it’s slopes, cause the winds to accelerate dramatically coming up from the valleys. Although summer ascents are sometimes as easy as a car trip (thanks to an auto road that was completed in the late 1800’s) or a long hike, reaching the summit during the winter requires an ice axe, crampons, and a certain sense of masochistic adventure. Conditions on the summit are frequently worse than those in Antarctica, or even Everest.
Furthermore, I did a little more research and learned that Mount Washington was anything but a walk in the park. In fact, people have died on Washington; lots of people. Some even within the past few years. Causes of death included hypothermia, lightning strikes, falling rocks, exposure and avalanches. Indeed, on the morning of March 19, 2011, less than a year before my attempt for the summit, four avalanches occurred on the approaching slopes to the summit. Count ‘em: four. Four walls of snow rushing down the slopes with just enough noise prior to arrival to prompt a “now what the-?” from an unsuspecting Ohioan. Although none of these four proved deadly, this wasn’t because the mountain had just been skeet shooting or something. The event stood as testimony as to what exactly what the mountain was capable of.
Not only that, but I learned that more people have died on Mount Washington’s slopes than those who have passed on due to snake bites, shark attacks, vending machines crashing on top of someone while they were angrily shaking it back and forth (which, I was depressed to learn, has happened) and even planking.
Can you imagine just how startling this was for me? I was more likely to die climbing Washington’s summit than retrieving my Diet Coke at work or perhaps laying down in a completely rigid position in some obscure location so someone can take a picture of me to post online: an attempt at internet fame that, I dare say, is as ridiculous as blogging.
How scary is that?
Nonetheless, having breached Washington’s summit during the summer, the allure of a winter ascent outweighed any risk I had found. I was driving home to the Midwest to visit my family and girlfriend for Christmas and my route would lead within a couple hours of Washington’s slopes. I couldn’t pass it up. So I decided to stop purchasing my drinks from vending machines with the hopes of evening out my life expectancy and began assembling my gear.
This, inevitably, involved talking to myself:
“Oh! Found the helmet! Slow down!”
* Siiiiggghhhh * “Now do you have the jacket?”
“Chec- wait why?”
“In case you get buried by an avalanche, my man. You’re gonna need a way to pass the time.”
“Why, thank you.”
“Rubric’s cube. Check.”
As it turns out, all my potential climbing partners were either on the opposite side of the continent or had better things to do than attempt to climb the mountain with the worst weather in the world a few days before Christmas. How lame is that?
I considered my options. I could not climb Mount Washington and just drive home (logical) or I could climb Mount Washington, face the worst weather in the world and perhaps return to the trailhead…alone (completely illogical).
And I’ll have you know, dear readers, that I really did think about it. But when it came down to it, I felt confident in the fact that I’d received a lot of training on Mount Rainier and furthermore had previously partaken in a slew of other outdoor activities alone. A solo winter ascent on Washington would be a challenge, but it was one I felt prepared to handle.
“I sure hope you know what you’re doing,” my graciously-tolerant-of-way-more-than-most-would-ever-consider-putting-up-with girlfriend said when I mentioned my solo aspirations to her.
I gulped. “So do I.”
“What was that?”
“Er…I said: ‘Look at the sky! It’s gorgeous today up here in Maine…’”
“Just promise me you’ll be careful.”
And that settled it. I would be climbing Mount Washington. Alone.