Into Deep Slush
A Misadventure on Mount Washington
Seven people signed up for a Mount Washington Observatory EduTrip,
hoping to witness the World’s Worst Weather.
Be careful what you wish for…
“This is as nice as it ever gets,” I announced on a 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. Wind-sculpted snowdrifts buried the road and nearly defeated the combined efforts of the TV-8 and Observatory plows. Getting down the next day proved even more of a challenge.
After reading Jon Krakauer’s exciting tale of mountain adventure, Into Thin Air, I’ve decided to call this episode Into Deep Slush. Here’s what happened.
The Mt. Washington Auto Road.
Photo by Lynne D. Host Cushman.
The distant summit was white with snow and rime on the morning of March 26, 1998, but a warm southwesterly breeze in the valley heralded the start of Spring. I squinted in the sunlight and glanced up at a blue sky decorated with wispy cirrus clouds. No clouds obscured the summit—yet. A nearby river surged and flooded with meltwater. It was so warm, I expected dandelions to pop up through the snow at any moment.
My purpose was to teach a class or “EduTrip” on the summit, appropriately
titled “Life at the Top.” Up one morning, down the next afternoon. Given the calm weather, I didn’t expect any problems with transportation. (A week earlier, I had taught a class on the topic of “Wind,” and, predictably enough, we experienced no breeze stronger than 8 mph. Murphy’s Law. I told the group to sign up next time for the trip called “Calm.”)
This story is an excerpt from Tying Down the Wind, by Eric Pinder
Available as an audiobook on 9 CDs or 7 tapes. Listen to the rest of Tying Down the Wind!
Available for rental or purchase from Blackstone Audiobooks.
Read more about Mount Washington’s wild weather in Among the Clouds and the new children’s book about the summit cats,
Cat in the Clouds.
At the start of this week’s trip a group of seven participants and two trip leaders waited at the base of the mountain, bundled in parkas and coats, plastic boots, ice axes and ski poles—all the esoteric equipment that the winter clothing list required. Despite the summery weather, our group looked ready for a dogsled race to the North Pole. “We probably won’t need all this stuff today, but you never know,” I apologized.
“I hope we get to see some foul weather, too,” said one of the group.
The Bombardier snow tractor traveled quickly over the first four miles of road, until we stopped for a camera shoot at the base of the winter cutoff, just above treeline. Even then, the weather was fair. The wind barely whispered. It was warm enough to peel off a layer or two of wool. But the cirrus clouds were mostly hidden. Fast moving clumps of altocumulus whisked across the sky. Obviously, the wind had started to howl at higher elevations. A grey fog bank hovered ominously just above the highest peaks.
The snow turned dense and heavy, so plowing became a chore. As trip co-leaders, Jennifer Morin and I walked ahead of the tractor at one point, taking the EduTrip on foot over the drifts. Jennifer, a thin, athletic woman with short-cropped hair, led the way; I “swept” from behind, making sure the group stayed together. At a sheltered twist in the road called cragway, we waited until the two SnoCats had plowed the 5-mile grade (WMTW TV-8 in Portland, Maine, maintains a transmitter building on the summit occupied by two technicians year round, and has it own source of transport). The wind began to hiss and bite. We took refuge from the wind behind a wall of snow-covered rocks.
It took four-and-a-half hours before we finally reached the summit that day. But the real excitement occurred on the way down the next morning.
The tractor driver, Chris Uggerholt, called for an early departure. The temperature had risen to a balmy 41 degrees, so he expected a river of meltwater pouring down the Auto Road with a slick layer of ice underneath. “If we get into trouble, I want to make sure we have time to get out of it,” he informed us.
We departed the summit a few minutes after 11 AM, never suspecting we would not reach the bottom until 5 o’clock in the afternoon.
Less than a mile from the summit, passengers felt the snow tractor suddenly lurch to one side. The right end sank into melting snow, like a ship taking on water. A side window slanted down and gave us a clear view of a cold river gurgling and rising around the edge of the tractor. The window was open a crack for air, but we quickly shut it before the unexpected “river” could flood the inside of the cab.
Tractor treads spun noisily on the ice but found nothing to grip. We weren’t going anywhere for a while.
After some heroic shoveling efforts, Chris diverted the Auto Road River down into the Great Gulf, where a glacial tarn called Spaulding Lake undoubtedly got a little bigger. One of the summit crew started to hike down with extra shovels and a thermos or two of hot drinks.
In the meantime, all we could do was wait. Who could have guessed that one day it be possible to kayak down the mountain—on the Auto Road, no less? Someone even quipped that life rafts attached to the SnoCat might be a good idea in the future.
A man named Paul from TV-8 came to the rescue an hour or so later. He navigated the WMTW Piston Bully up a slushy, slippery road, but was still a mile below us when the Auto Road River stopped his progress. Suddenly we had a choice: walk up, or walk down? I supposed, if worse came to worse, we could always swim.
Winds gusted above 70 mph and made a hike in either direction somewhat challenging. The group opted to go down. To make the trek easier, all travel bags, sleeping bags, and other cumbersome paraphernalia were stowed in the Cat.
In single file, we walked down the road to where the TV-8 snow tractor idled. Wet feet were the inevitable result; everyone sunk knee-deep in slush on occasion. One participant even lost a leg--temporarily. We dug her out and continued on our way. The snow was soft and deep. And all the while, a brown river surged and flowed around us. Fortunately, a firm ridge of snow on the high side of the road made the hike bearable. Since the topic of the trip was “Life at the Top,” our unexpected adventure proved educationa, as well.
“We got more than our money’s worth,” commented one of the participants at the end of the long day. All in all, the trip offered a little bit of everything in the weather department, from sunshine to snow drifts to slush.
Snow continued to melt at an unprecedented rate. More than thirty inches had disappeared from the snowstake overnight. We noticed on the way down that cragway—completely buried in snow only a day ago—was now muddy and bare. So much for winter.
Where did all that water go? It was a question I asked myself shortly after returning to the valley. I was already familiar with the phrase “a following sea.” But I never expected to encounter “a following snow” in the town of Gorham.
Record breaking temperatures in New Hampshire—and across New England—burned away mountain snowpacks practically overnight. All that water had to go somewhere, and much of it flowed locally into the Androscoggin River—which flooded its banks in Gorham, where I lived. Sections of road vanished underwater. The parking lot at Mr. Pizza (the favorite restaurant of off-duty weather observers) turned into a pond. Floodwater in the valley turned me back a few days after our ill-fated adventure. I couldn’t drive across town. My boots were still wet from the trip to the summit, so I didn’t relish the idea of turning my car into a boat.
The great irony is that some of that water originated as snow in the Presidential Range. Perhaps it all started to melt on the very day that seven soggy visitors were hiking through slush on the Mount Washington Auto Road. I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
All that water gushed down from the rocky upper slopes, carrying the salts and minerals of the mountains down a string of rivers to concentrate in the vast ocean—which explains why the oceans of the world have steadily gotten saltier over the eons of geologic time. A portion of the meltwater I waded through on Mount Washington that day would later flow into the Atlantic. The sun on the ocean would then evaporate that same water; wind would push it ashore, somewhere, where it would fall again as rain or snow. And so the water cycle that perpetuates our weather continues.