Winter Mount Washington Summit Attempt
by Antioch University New England President Steve Jones
Antioch University New England alumnus Will Broussard, Master of Science in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Conservation Biology, is Outreach Coordinator at the Mount Washington Observatory in North Conway, NH. Mount Washington at 6,288’ reports some of the “world’s worst weather.” Will hosted my wife, Judy, and me last summer when we visited the observatory and the Extreme Mount Washington Museum. Breathtaking describes both the museum and our summit experience. Will invited me to return for a winter visit. On February 12, 2015, Will drove me from headquarters in North Conway to the Snow Cat garage at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road, closed during the long winter season.
We boarded the Snow Cat, a powerful tracked vehicle with its heated ten-passenger cab and hydraulic plow blade, at 9:30 am for the ascent. Breezy and zero degrees at the base, the summit observers reported 60 mph winds and negative 18, forecasted to intensify to negative mid-20s with gusts to nearly 100 by early afternoon. We could see the spindrift racing across the Presidential Range upper slopes; clouds capped the summits. A series of lenticular clouds 8-10 miles downwind evidenced the powerful winds. The scene spurred our excitement for entering the alpine zone and experiencing a bit of extreme weather.
We enjoyed the rumbling, vibrating ride through the northern hardwood forest, transitioning with elevation to spruce, which gradually gave way to spruce shrub cover. Entering the shrub zone introduced the gusting wind and blowing snow, which yielded as we climbed to a howling gale and near-whiteout. The open tundra that followed exposed us fully to hurricane force winds and nearly continuous whiteout in the ground blizzard. A State Park tracked plow had led our way to this point, slowing often as it pushed through deeper and deeper drifts. We stopped and disembarked to both experience the conditions and give the plow a chance to gain some distance. I wore my Alaska arctic gear, leaving no skin exposed. This proved to be the worst winter weather I had seen or felt across my life. Nature’s fury leaves no doubt of its dominance over us. I felt humility in its teeth and inspiration as I glanced at the tremendous heights still above us.
Returning to the cab, we continued our journey. We stopped at a turn-out clearing to await the State Park plow, which reported by radio that it had encountered impossible conditions not far ahead. We again disembarked to feel the fury. The wind threw one of our traveling companions to the ground. I fought to keep my feet. The State Park plow passed by us on its descent, stopping briefly to report the conditions to our driver, who then advised us that we, too, would head back to the base. He suggested that we first walk a bit further to a point several hundred feet ahead where we could see what brought us to a halt. The wind buffeted us as we rounded a curve. We saw where the plow had stopped; a wall of snow marked the terminus. Huge drifts lie ahead for as far as we could see during brief lulls in the continuing whiteout. We struggled to walk. Blowing snow almost immediately obscured our footprints, and rapidly-growing drifts had begun filling in behind the departed plow.
So, we failed to summit, forced to turn at ~5,300′ by ferocious winds, total white-out, and drifts up to ten feet blocking the road. The air temperature stood at negative ten with wind chill at negative 45-50. Observers at the summit reported temperatures in the negative 20s, with winds gusting above 100, and wind chill approaching negative 80! I would have been disappointed had we turned with just marginal conditions. However, we faced a no-brainer decision. Outside the Snow Cat from that point upward we would have been in severe peril. Good sense prevailed.
Once again in my life’s journey, the twin lessons of humility and inspiration imparted wisdom for living, learning, and leading. As I braced with back to the wind, my senses sharpened by the sight, sound, feel, and fury, I could only imagine what it must have been like still higher. That we occupy such a hostile environment 24/7 at the MWO for the sake of science and learning is testimony to our hunger for knowing more and more about our place on this Earth.
Yes, we failed to summit, but we did not fail to learn. The lesson? That we are not apart from nature; we are one with nature.
Perhaps one day by understanding the extremes we can better live sustainably within the calmer zones we inhabit. We must remember that this land sustains us. Acting otherwise places us at ultimate peril. Let nature’s extremes remind us of our vulnerability and of our obligation to informed Earth stewardship.
Will’s role as MWO Outreach Coordinator provides him a wonderful opportunity for sharing those lessons and reminders with all whom he touches, young and old, through his outreach and education efforts. Each person he persuades and informs represents a step toward ensuring a brighter tomorrow, and stands as one more potential victory for humanity! Our graduates inspire me, and assure me that I am where I belong.
I am grateful for the chance to attempt the ascent, experience what Robert McGrath described as nature’s “pleasurable terror,” and to return comfortably to the base.
(Note: Windswept: The Quarterly Bulletin of the Mount Washington Observatory published this article in their Winter 2015-2016 edition.)