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Clouds wash over Mount Katahdin's Tablelands, just a mile or so from the northern terminus of the Appalachian TrailNin the cat on Mount Washington. Illustration by T.B.R. Walsh from Cat in the Clouds







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Mt. Washington ObservatoryMount Washington Observatory

Where meteorologists really do have their heads in the clouds

Where in the world can you build a snowman in June, commute from work by sled, and witness hurricane-force winds twelve months out of the year? The answer: Only at the 6288-foot-high Mount Washington Observatory, perched amongs the clouds in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. A record-breaking (and window-shattering) 231-mph gust of wind shrieked across the summit in 1934, earning the mountain its nickname: “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.”

Undercast clouds are a common sight on Mt. Washington An amazing undercast below the summit of Mt. Washington.

Mount Washington’s combination of wind, ice and fog make it a weather wonderland. The summit is shrouded in fog 300 days a year and experiences hurricane-force winds (greater than 74 mph) more than 100 days per year. Rime and glaze ice can coat the summit in all seasons.

My first encounter with Mount Washington’s winds occurred on a a chilly day in May, when freezing rain buried the peak under a glassy sheet of ice. Winds gusting to 80 mph nudged me across the summit like a helpless hockey puck. How could I stop before being plunged over the edge?

The Bombardier plows snowdrifts on the Auto Road on shift-change day.
The Observatory Bombardier plows through snowdrifts on the 7.6-mile Mount Washington Auto Road on shift-change day. But you don’t have to go all the way to the summit to learn more about the Observatory.

Just click these links to tag along with a weather observer in this minute-by-minute account of a typical day in the life on top of Mount Washington. Read about an exciting Observatory EduTrip in which the weather turned bad in an unexpected way. And don’t forget about the Mount Washington Observatory cats. Cat in the Clouds, a new children’s picture book, shows you the Observatory through a cat’s eyes

Observatory cat Nin wanders down the trail.
The crew, sometimes including the summit cat, will hike down the trail toward Mount Clay. (Illustration © T.B.R. Walsh from the new children’s book Cat in the Clouds).

Books about the Mount Washington Observatory:

 

 

 

 

Fortunately, wool gloves provided better traction than my slippery shoes. I was forced to literally claw my way back to safety.

An undercast is a beautiful sight on top of Mount WashingtonWeather misadventures have always been part of the Mount Washington’s history. The mountain has claimed more than 140 lives since 29-year-old Frederick Strickland lost his way and froze in an October storm in 1849. But some mountain misadventures have a happier ending. “This is as nice as it ever gets,” I announced one late March morning at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road. “It shouldn’t take very long to get to the summit.” Four hours later, I was still eating my words. Getting down the next day proved even more of a challenge. You can read about the rest of this unusually exciting Observatory EduTrip in a story called Into Deep Slush.

Although places like Antarctica can have colder weather (the lowest temperature every recorded on Mount Washington was -47 degrees Fahrenheit, and the highest was 72 degrees) few places on Earth can match Mount Washington’s deadly wintry mix of freezing fog, savage wind, heavy ice, and snow. Nearly 96 inches of snow fell on the mountain in May 1997 alone! I once stumbled over a snowdrift while hiking to the summit in June. During the winter of 1968-69, Old Man Winter dumped over 566 inches of snow on the Rockpile.

Not all mountain weather is fierce or foul. When the fog lifts, those of us who live on the summit see the yellow glint of sunshine on the Atlantic Ocean. At dusk, we gaze west at the distant blue peaks of the Adirondacks, 130 miles away. Or we admire the spectacle of early summer snow on the Northern Presidential range.

Mount Washington is a 400-million-year-old spike of metamorphic rock thrust high above the trees. Continental collisions and eons of upheaval and erosion made the mountain what it is today. During the last Ice Age, alpine glaciers carved out great ravines, such as the popular Tuckerman Ravine, which still offers terrific skiing in late spring and even summer.

For additional information, pictures and the Mount Washington summit weather cam, please visit the Mount Washington Observatory homepage. Or visit any of these pages on this site.

Hikers and tourists say the strangest things. Enjoy a funny excerpt from the new Mount Washington book Among the Clouds. (Scroll to bottom of linked page.)

Pizza is serious business at the Mount Washington ObservatoryHigh Altitude PizzaA history of pizza on Mount Washington, with a funny picture from the Obs kitchen and a quick and easy recipe.

Fun Weather QuizTest your weather knowledge with this 10-question multiple choice test.

Changing the Hay's wind chart at midnight is a regular part of the routine.A Day in the Life What do weather observers do on the summit of New England’s highest peak? Find even more Mt. Washington weather wisdom and statistics in the revised, updated 2009 edition of Life at the Top.

Gifts for meteorologists and weather watchersNeed to find a gift for a meteorologist or weather aficionado? Shop for weather bumper stickers, mugs and t-shirts like this one.

The summit stage office  was where the world record 231-mph wind gust was recorded in 1934. Camden Cottage is on the right, with the Cog Railway separating them. Neither building still exists.

The summit stage office (left, above) was where the world record 231-mph wind gust was recorded in 1934. Camden Cottage is on the right, with the Cog Railway separating them.

 

Remember this face. That's what a meteorologist typically looks like at Mt. Washington or the South Pole. Photo by Anna Porter Johnston.There once was a blank gray postcard for sale in the gift shop at the Mount Washington State Park. The postcard’s humorous description: “typical view on Mount Washington.” With blinding fog 300 days a year, Mount Washington gets more zero visibility days than at London’s Heathrow Airport). Throw hurricane-force winds and blowing snow into the mix, and hikers and meteorologists sometimes can barely see as far as their own feet, much less the nearest cairn. Without a good pair of goggles to protect against glare, frostbite, wind and blowing snow, they wouldn’t be able to see at all.

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Text and photographs © Eric Pinder