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Edutrip to Mount Washington Observatory 4/3,4/04
8 miles Elevation gain 4500' in Bombardier Snow Tractor via Auto Road

As Christmas presents go, this one was definitely up there with the trains my father got me when I was about nine. Thanks to my wife for this one. Knowing my love of the cold weather and beautiful scenery of the White Mountains in winter, what better gift to give me than a trip to the Mount Washington Observatory in January? It was all planned, I had the releases and had picked up several new items of gear for the trip, then I waited, like a little kid waiting for Christmas, delayed until January. The weeks passed, Christmas came and went, the time was getting near and, yes, I was excited! I think the last time I was this excited was probably as a child around Christmas, so everything was working as planned. The week came. I was told by several people at work, no doubt looking forward to their Florida and Carribean winter vacations, that I was completely insane and they were afraid for my wife. As the week went by, dragging unbearably slow, I felt myself getting younger by the day, feeling again like that kid waiting for school vacation, or Halloween, or the best of all, Christmas! Each day I would go to the Mount Washington Observatory website to see how they were fairing on the “rockpile”. To my delight the weather worsened. Snow and ice were building by the day in the mountains. The temperatures were dropping into the 30 and 40 below range with steady 50 to 100 mph winds for days at a stretch! Wind chills were in the 100 below zero marks and I was psyched to go! Every day on the local news the Observatory was making the news for it’s ferocious weather, then they even made the national news with record setting cold even for Mount Washington. People gave their sympathies to my wife. This was great, it couldn’t be more perfect. Then, disaster struck! It seems even Santa’s sleigh could get grounded in weather like this, and even Rudolph couldn’t help Santa out on this one. You see, the hydraulics on which the Snowcat rely to safely operate as it brings supplies and passengers to the summit in winter begin to freeze up when the temp dips below the relatively balmy minus 25 mark. No trips up, no trips down in this sort of weather. I received the email from the head of the Observatory, Peter Crane, telling me, and the other unlucky souls scheduled for this trip that it was cancelled. I was crushed. It was like the Christmas that almost wasn’t! Peter was great, though. He quickly offered a refund, or if I preferred I could choose from a list of openings on other trips. Well, I wasn’t about to miss a trip to the summit of Mount Washington because of a little wind, so I quickly signed up for another trip, and the waiting began again. This trip was after March 21st, the official end of winter, but as any New Englander can tell you, it would still be winter on the summit of Mount Washington. I passed the weeks taking many snowshoing hikes, breaking in my new mountaineering boots and checking and rechecking my gear. Finally the day came. I arose and loaded my gear in the car and made the 120 mile trip up to Pinkham Notch and the Auto Road where I would catch a ride on the Snowcat to the summit. The weather forecast was for rain, and it was right on the money. The drive was miserable. As I approached Jackson the rain began to turn to snow. This lifted my spirits some as I would rather have snow than rain any day. I resigned myself to the fact that I would see nothing but fog for the next 36 hours. This was OK with me, it was what I expected even before I was told to expect it. The experience was why I was going, if I happened to see some other mountains or something, well, that was extra, and I wasn’t going to set my hopes on having beautiful views. Soon we had all gathered and met informally and we trekked from the parking lot over to an office in a building at the base of the Auto Road where we were briefed, signed our last releases and loaded our stuff into... a pickup truck? Wait I thought we were going to ride in the Snowcat? It turns out there was not enough snow for the Snowcat, so we had to ride up to where there was enough snow, at the 2 mile marker. Here we unloaded the heavily chained pickup and began loading the Snowcat. I am jealous to this day of the Snowcat driver’s job. That, to me, would be a dream job, driving up and down that road in all weather. Being the only link to the rest of the world. Well, all of our heads were in the clouds, literally. As we began the the Snowcat ride to the summit everyone’s spirits began to lift, this was fun even with the fog. What we could see of the winterscape around us was beautiful, and we dared to say how beautiful it would be in the sun, and wouldn’t it be awesome if we rose above the clouds and had an undercast! This exact scenario played out, just as if we had planned it. At the 4 mile marker, sure enough, out of the clouds we rose. The sun was shining brightly the sky was clear, and we left the fog below. We were hooping it up like little kids at this point. Peering down into the Great Gulf we saw our first amazing sight, a “White Rainbow”. This is caused when the sun shines through fog onto fog. It was so cool to look at I didn’t try to photograph it, bouncing along in the Snowcat. I wish I had, but I also feel I was given a gift of a day up there and I was able to get many excellent shots, so missing this one was no big loss. Soon we were at the summit. We unloaded our gear and were shown the emergency escape routes, how to use a vacuum toilet, where our bunks were etc. By this time we were all frothing at the mouth to get outside and enjoy the day. Finally we got our chance. The views were spectacular! A total cloud undercast was visible to the horizon in all directions. Mountaintops were sticking up out of the clouds like islands in a slow motion sea. Part of our planned “Education” on this trip was to learn to identify the surrounding mountains. Most were under the undercast, but we were still able to identify several. Mount Carrigain to our south, Mount Monroe stretched out below us with the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Beyond that we could see a small part of the Franconia Ridge to our west. Arround to the northwest Mounts Clay, Jefferson, Adams and Madison were visible. To our east we could see Carter Dome, occasionally other Carters and even the Wildcats would pop there heads out of the clouds, then be swallowed again. This was awesome! We walked around the summit, down to the edge of Tuckerman Ravine, over to Ball Crag, down to the edge of the Great Gulf. Outstanding! And unbelievable conditions, bright sunshine, beautiful cloud formations above us, and most incredibly of all, almost no wind with temps in the 30’s! After an excellent homestyle lunch where we got to meet the rest of the summit crew we were given some more White Mountain education in the form of railroad history and the story of “English Jack, the Hermit of Crawford Notch” provided by Ben English. After another excellent family style meal at suppertime we went back outside to take in the beauty of the low afternoon sun. Soon it was time for the sun to set and I noticed that everyone that was on the summit was out to see it. The entire crew, cook, interns, everyone! Hey! these people are like me! They love this stuff, too! The sunset was phenomenol, the sun coming down between cloud layers, casting alpenglow all about us and then creating a Sun Pillar as it set, and as it was setting, the moon rose behind us! Witnessing this majestic symphony of Nature I felt a spiritual cleansing. Anger and frustration were washed away, a renewed drive to live life to the fullest was instilled. About this time I came to the realization that we had been blessed with the opportunity to experience the best weather in all of New England on the top of Mount Washington on this day, how often does that happen in a year? In ten years? I went to bed giddy! Over night the summit was swallowed in fog and we awoke to a more reality filled world of Mount Washington. No Mountains were visible, in fact we couldn’t even see the summit buildings that made such beautful pictures in ice the day before. After breakfast we were given an excellent slide show of Mike Dickerman’s winter exploits in the White Mountains. I have my patch for having done all 48 4000 footer mountains in New Hampshire. I don’ know how anybody could do them all in winter! I salute Mike and anyone else who has done them in winter. An amazing feat! After visits to the other summit buildings led by State Park Manager Mike Pelchat we had another great lunch, but alas it was time to get ready to leave. I was personally hoping for some of the weather that had cancelled our trip in January to arrive and keep us on the mountain for a few more days. The ride back down in the Snowcat was bittersweet, I didn’t want to leave but knew I had been blessed with a once in a lifetime experience. As we said our good byes and made our departures, I was already trying to devise a way to return. I will have to be especially good this year and perhaps I will get an Edu-Trip in my stocking again this Christmas!
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Next Mountain
Crawford Path 7/3/05
MWO Volunteer 4/13-20/05
Edutrip 3/12,13/05
Trip to Auto Road 10/00
Huntington Ravine 8/6/00
Jewell Trail 8/18/98
mountwashington .org
Mount Washington Scenics