THE WORST WEATHER IN THE WORLD

   Hike any of the trails leading up into New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, and at some point you’ll see this sign:

   Seems unlikely doesn’t it? After all, we’re only a couple hundred miles north of Boston, and while winters can be cold and snowy, it’s not really The Arctic, is it? Even here in the mountains – wait, mountains? There are only seven summits in the entire range that are higher than 5000 feet. Those are hills, not mountains!

   But consider: The highest wind speed ever experienced by a human was recorded on Mt. Washington  - 231 miles per hour. (I say “by a human,” because an unstaffed weather station in Australia measured a wind speed of 253 miles per hour during a 1996 typhoon.) Hurricane-force winds (75 mph or greater) are recorded on average more than 100 days each year. Winter temperatures have reached -50 degrees Fahrenheit, colder than anywhere on earth except the South Pole. With strong winds, the wind chill factor can dip below -100 F. Snowfall averages almost 300 inches a year, with a record of almost 50 inches in one 24-hour period. Put that all together, and it sounds pretty severe.

   Obviously, those extremes are not daily features, and not at the times of year that most hikers are in the mountains. But violent storms can develop suddenly, it can snow any day of the year, dense fogs are common, freezing temperatures can occur in mid-summer, and daytime temperatures on the peaks seldom exceed 60 degrees Fahrenheit, even in July and August. With a wind that seldom completely stops, and that regularly blows at 30, 40 or 50 miles per hour, the summer wind chill can be surprising.

   One well-known story of a weather-related disaster on Mt. Washington occurred on the last day of June 1900. Two experienced hikers, William Curtis and Allan Ormsbee, set out on the Crawford Path to climb to the summit. They knew a storm was coming, but the trip was less than 10 miles long over a well-marked trail, so apparently they felt confident in their abilities. High winds and heavy icing brought both of their journeys to an end. Their bodies were discovered the next day, Ormsbee’s within sight of the summit buildings and that of Curtis a little farther down the path.

  To show how quickly the weather can change and catch unprepared hikers off guard, I’ll tell you about one trip that I took with my daughter, Sara. We had stayed overnight at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s hiker hostel at Lakes of the Clouds, located at about 5,000 feet elevation. It was a nice, bright mid-summer day, with very little wind, and no predicted storms in the area, so we decided to hike a loop below the summit. The route is rocky, with almost no vegetation tall enough to give shelter, but it’s well-marked, has little elevation gain or loss, and is only about five miles long. 

On the Camel Trail, looking back toward Lakes

Our first mile or so was completed in bright sunlight, but by the time we reached the east face of the mountain, it was looking a little murky around us. 

Within a few minutes, we were enveloped in a dense fog that stayed with us all the way across the Alpine Garden to the summit road. 

As we neared the end of our circuit above Lakes, we were almost in the clear, again.

   We were never in any danger. We hadn’t expected the fog, but we were well prepared, we knew where we were going and knew to watch for the rockpile trail markers, and we were careful of our footing on the rough terrain. Nevertheless, it would have been easy to miss trail signs, or  to misjudge the landscape features. Had there been a little more “weather” with the fog – wind, or colder temperatures, for example – it could have been quite a different trip. Over the years, many hikers have made mistakes, and suffered the consequences of not giving the mountain its due respect.

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© Sanford Wilbur 2020