Each night on Mount Washington, I set my alarm for 6:30 a.m. If a sunrise is happening, I have to see it. If the weather conditions are bearable – say, above minus 20 F, with winds in the 40 to 50 mph range – then I must get outside to witness the dawn over the Presidential Range.
As I brew coffee, I check the monitor: visibility, 60 miles. Not 120 miles, but better than 1/16 of a mile. Time to move. I pull on my snow pants, heavy boots, multiple layers and a ski parka, then head upstairs. By the door, I attach microspikes to my boots and pull on my mask, goggles and gloves, then step outside.
The wind pushes icy shards into my cheeks. As I step further away from the protective shelter of the building, a wave of wind pulls at my ski poles and threatens my balance. I brace myself and step forward into the rosy light. I am exactly where I want to be, fully alive in the dead of winter.
During this stay on New Hampshire’s highest peak, I am working as a volunteer cook at the Mount Washington Weather Observatory. The mountain is “only” 6,288 feet high, but has a reputation for the world’s worst weather. Until recently, Mount Washington held the record for the highest recorded wind speed, a 231-mph gust clocked back in 1934. Although Mount Washington is often crowded in the summer, thanks to an auto road, cog railway and many hiking trails, the weather conditions are constantly changing, making it a dangerous place. More than 130 people have died here. Spending a week here in January is a bit like spending a week in Antarctica, without the long plane flight.
I love the simplicity of my days at the Observatory. A friend and I work together, baking sweet breads and desserts, serving up the occasional lunch for 15, and cooking dinner for the staff. For entertainment, the cramped quarters have a television, Wi-Fi, plenty of books, and a cat. All nice to have, but not necessary, because I’m here to seize moments and experience extremes: sustained high winds, bitter cold, blue sky afternoons, gray mountain fog, crystal clear night skies.
At least once a day, we head outside into the subzero cold for a short jaunt. We tromp around the summit, take photos, and chat with the small stream of winter hikers who make their way here on clear days. I admire their stamina and ability to use an ice axe, if they should slip while hiking down the steeps of Lion’s Head. But even though I am a hiker myself, I don’t envy the hikers. I’m already here. And I get to see the sunset.
Every day, I plan ahead for sunset. We serve dinner at 6 p.m., after the observers have finished their 12-hour shift. Sunset begins around 4:45 p.m. In the afternoon, I prep the salad, chop up meat, stir sauces. Then it’s time to pull on the snow pants and head upstairs.
On day four, sustained winds of 100 mph blow at the mountain. Two observers decide to make an attempt at the Mount Washington Century Club. To earn membership, you must make your way around the Observation Deck during 100-mph winds. No holding onto the railing, no sitting down, no crawling. You have to make it on two legs.
Why not give it a try? I pull on my gear and step into the “A frame” structure that offers shelter from the wind. The boys dance sideways across the deck so as to create a narrow profile. I try to follow their example. The wind is behind me. Quickly, I realize that the key to not getting blown away is to keep my feet solidly planted on the ground and take micro-steps forward. But moving through the wind is like pushing against a wall. I make it to one end of the deck and turn around. Now, facing the full force of the wind and breathing hard, I try to inch forward, but without success. I’m not to going to make it, not today.
I sit down on the pavement and try to crawl towards the A frame. The wind is a mighty force. Rethinking my strategy, I turn my back to the wind, and begin a backward crab walk that propels my body one concrete tile at a time. Behind me, the observers have almost made it, but then a 121-mph gust knocks one guy ten feet across the deck.
I lean back into the wind, which holds me as if I’m sitting in a big chair. The wind chill is minus 76 degrees, but I’m sweating from exertion. I wave my arms and whoop.
By Diane Fallon