Hidden Gems 5 - Worst Weather in the World
February 28, 2013
After the heavy snow this week, Kansas City may think it has the world's worst weather. In reality, this claim is held by the weather observatory at the top of Mount Washington in Northern New Hampshire. This peak is only 6,288 feet tall (as compared to many peaks over 14,000 feet tall in the Rocky Mountains) but lies at the convergence of several predominant weather storm tracks. The extreme weather conditions result in a bare mountain top, well above the tree line. The vertical rise of the Presidential Range, combined with the north-south orientation, result in Mount Washington having some of the most erratic and severe weather, anywhere in the world. On April 12, 1934, surface wind speed of 231 miles per hour was recorded at the weather observatory atop the mountain. On January 16, 2004, a combination of -43.6°F temperature and sustained wind speeds of 87.5 miles per hour created a wind chill of -103°F! On average, snow falls on the mountain about 125 days from September through May of each year. In the wintertime, the mountain top is only accessible by the snowcat.
Since Victorian times, the mountain has been a popular summer tourist attraction. One of my co-workers wore a shirt embroidered with "Mount Washington Cog Railway" a few weeks back. We got to chatting about our experiences visiting the observatory and visitors' center atop the mountain. She had ridden the cog railway, a steam-propelled train which uses a rack and cog to haul itself up the very steep incline, to the top. The cog railway has been running since 1869. I took one of the auto tours (called “stages,” which run on a coach road built back in 1861) for my visit, though.
One of the things I remember about the visitors’ center was a wall of plaques with a long, long list of names of individuals who died on the mountain. At the time, I did not give this much thought other than to reflect on the long history of the peak as a tourist destination and the steepness of the road (after riding the "stage," I was more than glad I had let someone else do the driving on that scary bit of road). It wasn’t until several months later that I happened across my "hidden gem" in a book by Bill Bryson titled A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. This wonderfully funny book is about Bryson’s experience one summer hiking the AT (as the Appalachian Trail is more affectionately known). This hiking trail extends some 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. One of the sites on the AT that Bryson details is Mount Washington. Many deaths on the mountain can be attributed to hypothermia resulting from the harsh, rapidly changing weather conditions.
This "hidden gem" provided me some personal insight into that long, sad list of names I had witnessed during my visit.