80 DESIGNNEWENGLAND.COM NOVEMBER/DECEMBER2014
Journey to Sublime
Fantastical extremes of weather and beauty are found atop Mount Washington’s storied summit
written by bruce irving • photographed by bob o’connor
George Washington did not sleep here — but if he had, he would have been very, very uncomfortable. At the time of its naming in his honor, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington had just experienced its first sci- entific expedition, a 1784 six-person ascent led by a woodsman, a minister, and a scientist. The minister
didn’t quite reach the top, but the rest of the party did, right before the
July sky disappeared in a thick and freezing fog. As the temperature
dropped, the scientist found that “my teeth chattered most violently
in my head, and … when I repacked my thermometer and barometer, I
had almost lost the use of my fingers.” The climbers then became disoriented, eventually groping their way down to the tree line 2,000 feet
below the summit. There, “parboiled and smoke-dried,” they huddled
around a fire in the rain, becoming the first people on record to spend
the night on the mountain.
Conditions haven’t changed one whit since then. To that I can
attest. After three separate weather-aborted attempts, photographer
Bob O’Connor and I finally made our way to the summit on a crystal-clear January morning last winter. Chugging up the Auto Road in a
snowcat with Slim, our driver, and Mike Dorfman, a recent Bates College graduate with an interest in meteorology on his way to a six-day
posting as a weather observer, we passed through still woods, finally
breaking into a wind-swept snowfield where the cat’s plow pushed
away deep drifts and the windows quickly steamed up. (The outside
temperature had dropped to 11 degrees in a matter of minutes.) We
were happy to learn that each window comes with its own squeegee.
The cat has been known to get stuck and its passengers forced to
evacuate on foot, which is why we’d had to sign a health disclosure,
read a lengthy safety warning, and pack according to a 14-point gear
list (from wicking layer to insulated boots to ski goggles).
welcome to the “Home of the
World’s Worst Weather.” The
summit of Mount Washington
features hurricane-force winds
110 days a year, fog 60 percent of
the time, and snow in any month.
During the winter of 1968–69,
more than 47 feet of snow fell.
our journey to the top