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Lange: Washington In Winter

01/24/11 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(HOST)  However cold it was at your house last night, commentator Willem Lange can think of at least one spot in New England where it was probably colder... maybe a lot colder... really.

(LANGE)  It was sunny when I pulled up to the gate at the foot of the Mount Washington Auto Road, but the wind rocked my truck back and forth, and once started it rolling forward toward the gate.  Far above me, the peak was shrouded in fog and blowing snow.  I wondered whether the layers of fleece and down I'd brought would be enough up there.  But that wouldn't matter if the wind blew me off the mountain before I even had a chance to get cold.

Instead of trudging up the mountain, we were going to climb in a sno-cat from the Mount Washington Observatory.  The observatory's been up there year-round since 1932.  Until recently, Washington held the record for the greatest wind gust ever recorded - 231 miles per hour.  If you check out the observatory's web site, you can see the current weather conditions and a forecast.

It's possible now for visitors to spend nights in the living quarters at the summit.  As often as I've been on the mountain, I'd never penetrated beyond the snack bar and the men's room.  What would it be like inside with wind chills outside below -60?

Gus, the tractor driver, fired up the huge Bombardier sno-cat: steel tracks about three feet wide, a cab with floor-to-ceiling windows, and a coach with bus seats for about a dozen people.  Remembering how narrow the auto road feels in the summer in an automobile, I wondered how Gus was going to avoid sliding off the lower side into oblivion.

The windows iced over from our breath as we ascended.  At the top, Gus backed up to the observation lounge door, and we piled out into -40 temperature and gusts to 80 miles an hour.  We ferried gear and supplies inside.  I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to climb the mountain that day on foot.

The observatory comprises four levels: an observation tower, an outdoor deck which is visited hourly for direct experience of the weather; a control room lined with more electronic displays than CNN; and a subterranean level with bunkrooms, lounge, kitchen, and bathroom.  No showers in the winter.

Volunteers are an important part of the staff.  A retired couple, Charlie and Jeanine Kinney, cooked three meals a day, and Jeanine produced a steady stream of hot cookies.  Two plumbing-and-heating volunteers from Long Island showed up, ready to tackle anything.

I tried the observation deck to see how long I could stand it.  In ten seconds, my nose turned white.  My wool balaclava only filtered the wind, but didn't stop it, and my specs froze over.  It was a chance to experience conditions we normally only read about.

This morning's weather is relatively salubrious: blowing forty and temperature up almost to zero.  We can see the Atlantic Ocean.  Gus is coming up with the sno-cat for the ride back down.  I don't know if Michelin would give this place five stars; but if you just look up during the night, you can see at least a million.

This is Willem Lange on Mount Washington, and I gotta get back to work.
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