Mt. Washington Auto Road


October 5, 2010 — Where I grew up, we had all the usual bumper stickers. The ones about honor students and beating up honor students, Jesus fish and Darwin fish, out-of-date political endorsements, all those white vacation spot ovals whose touted location you were supposed to be able to recognize from three letters or less. However, when I moved to New Hampshire, I frequently saw one I'd never witnessed before: "This Car Climbed Mt. Washington." So I looked up Mt. Washington. I mean, if people are willing to treat a $40,000 car like a high school notebook, it must be important.

Holiest of cows.


Besides being the highest peak in the northeast United States at 6,288 feet, Mt. Washington, located in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, is known for the worst weather in the world. Yup, the world. That's a place that includes Antarctica, Siberia, Death Valley, and Woonsocket, RI (not that Woonsocket has bad weather, I just think it needs more recognition for being in the world). In fact, for decades, Mt. Washington held the record for the fastest recorded wind speed on the planet at 231 miles per hour in 1934. It was only recently officially usurped by a tropical cyclone in Australia, which clocked 253 miles per hour. And it was a cyclone. A cyclone.

Apparently, Mt. Washington is the convergence of three major storm systems and, because there are no other peaks of similar height near it, the place makes its own weather. That's right. Its own weather. The mountain does something that I thought only China and mad scientists were bad-ass enough to do.



It's pretty much always winter at the top, but in real winter there are pictures of sideways-growing icicles long enough to spear planes, buildings and equipment so snow-encrusted they look like shaving cream sculptures, and other images terrifying enough to achieve beauty. There’s even a weather observatory up there, of the type you’d imagine at God-forsaken polar outposts where there's nothing to do but count penguins and figure out which one of you is a shape-shifting extraterrestrial.

Oh, and it's a tourist mecca that you can drive right up to in whatever glorified high school notebook you happen to be driving around.

What???!!!!!???????!!!!!!!!??????????????!!!!!!?????????!!!!!????????????????!!!!!!?????????????????????!!!!!!???????????????????????!!!!!!??????????????!!!!!!?????!!!!!!??????????????!!!!!!!!????????!!!!!!??????????????




As you can see, my Internet research was just confusing me, so I decided to ask some of my native New Englander friends. Most of the people I knew hadn't been up Mt. Washington in many years, but they still had horror stories. Fog so thick you couldn't see 10 feet in front of you. Water stations on the road to cool off your radiators. Vertiginous drops off cliffs with no guard rails. Roads so thin everybody in your car has to suck in to let opposite-moving traffic pass. Random closures for unpredictable storms. Yeti.

Oh, and it has a museum, a cafeteria, and a gift shop.

Obviously, all my New England friends and the Internet must be mixing up two different mountains: some gentle, scenic slope shading idyllic forest land and Mount Doom in Mordor. Finally, after a couple of years gestating this suspicion, we finally got the chance to find out for ourselves.



There are three basic paths to ascend Mt. Washington. There is a hiking trail, the Cog Railway, and the eight-mile Auto Road, which you can take in a tour van or by self-driving. Since I have very little self-drive in other aspects of my life, I like to take advantage when I can. So we cleaned the bumper of our car in preparation for the sticker, remembered that we had forgotten to get the brakes checked, shrugged, threw a couple of winter coats in the trunk, and then headed north through the amazing, foggy Autumn scenery of New Hampshire.

We arrived at the base of the mountain at 9:00 a.m., an hour after its official opening time, and were told at the gate house that due to ice, they couldn’t let anybody in yet. Got it. Ice. In early October. On a basically vertical road. My stomach started pulling a Titanic...until I looked in the adjacent parking lot and saw families pleasantly taking pictures against the mountain and all the surrounding Autumn foliage while they waited for the road to open. Again, this mountain was giving me conflicting signals.



Finally, about an hour later, they opened the road. At the gate house, after paying the toll, we were given a packet that included instructions (keep it in low gear, don't go over 20 mph, pull over if your brakes overheat, don’t pick up hitchhikers, funeral services are located at the base of the mountain, etc.), as well as a CD tour to listen to on the way and the aforementioned bumper sticker.

Although a big part of me wanted to drive up the mountain blasting Zeppelin’s Misty Mountain Hop, the CD turned out to be an interesting enough accompaniment. Besides reiterating the warnings on the packet, it told us a good bit about the history of the Auto Road. How construction of the road began in 1854. How it opened to the public in 1861. How the first motor car ascent was by Freelan O. Stanley in 1899 in one of his newly produced Stanley Steamers. How people had died on the Auto Road.



This was a factoid I had learned just a few hours previously. On the way up I had freaked myself out enough to check on my smartphone how many people had died on the mountain. Turns out, there’s a whole morbidly interesting page on it here that lists every death by name and cause. More than 135 people have died on Mt. Washington, most of whom were hikers. Only three have died on the road itself, though. In 1880, a stage coach driven by a drunken driver crashed, killing one of its passengers. In 1984, a vehicle experienced brake failure about a mile up the eight-mile road, killing the driver. And then in 2009, a biker bit it. That's three in 150 years out of tens of millions of drivers. It's the safest road in America, basically.



You wouldn't know it going up, though. The Auto Road stretches, wends, loops, and rises drastically through eight miles of changing ecological zones. You start out in a leafy forest, in an uphill, but not egregiously so, drive. Eventually, that forest switches to all hardy pines. The pines then shrink to twisted, bent, miserable-looking specimens called krummholtz that only reach heights of a couple feet (some of which, the CD told us, were more than a hundred years old), which do nothing to hide the fact that just inches beyond them are sheer drops of certain death. Then, suddenly you're above the tree line, with only lichens and rock cairns as evidence that you’re anywhere but on a desolate alien planet and your car is vertical enough that you feel like you’re sitting on a launch pad awaiting countdown.



Actually, the drive up wasn't all that bad. I mean, one wrong swerve would certainly kill you, and I couldn’t exactly take in the scenery to the fullest since I was staring potholes into the road ahead and—due to the hairpins—beside of me. Also, near the top, is one harrowing stretch where the asphalt becomes a dirt road, which, added to sharp turns that seem to end in mid-air, make you briefly regret the string of choices that led you there. However, because of the late opening, we were the first group up, so at least there was no two-way traffic to contend with. There were also plenty of pull-offs where you could savor the view or rub the blood back into your knuckles and gather the courage to continue.



Finally, we arrived at the top. Despite my random bouts of worry, a part of me was actually cynical enough to think that the top of the mountain would look extremely touristy, with giant nicely lined parking lots, neon signs, street vendors, four-star restaurants, Broadway-style shows, and laser light water features. Turns out, it’s pretty rugged up there. I mean, it’s nothing like my imagination has always painted the top of mountains to look like: smooth tapering cones of snow-covered rock that end in cartoony, sharpened points. Still, the environs didn’t make me think I was visiting a shopping mall.



The ground was extremely rocky, with areas smoothed for parking and a wooden staircase erected for access to the higher parts of the summit where the few buildings were. The temperature was 31 degrees…cold, but a clean kind of cold. And there was no wind. I even saw one guy with his shirt off, but I’m pretty sure he was a jerk.

Apparently, we caught the mountain in one of its rare good moods, as well. The sky was extremely blue, with a few clouds that added dramatic effect to the vista. In addition, there were a few clouds, well, below us. That first picture in this article was taken from the lower parking lot, and it’s the first time I’ve ever got my picture taken beside a cloud.

And then there was the view.

Holiest of cows.



Online sources tell me that on the best days and with the best eyesight you can see 130 miles, which would include five states, Canada, and the Atlantic Ocean. Since they don’t put giant labels on any of those features, I’m not sure what I saw, just that it looked like distance incarnate to me and that, from that distance, the intense Fall foliage of New England blended into a solid rust color, making the far-off hills look extremely Martian.



Even though there’s no four-star restaurant at the top of Mt. Washington, there are a few things to explore there. There’s a cafeteria and museum, an observation platform, the weather station, and the Tip-Top House, a small still-functioning hostel that was built in 1853 and which is the last of the original buildings that was erected on the summit.

While we were there, the Cog Railway train arrived, a strange contraption with an angled-engine that looks like it rammed into one of the railroad cars. Built in 1869 as the world’s first mountain-climbing train, it’s currently the world’s second-steepest railway, but is still the only one built on a trestle.



After we had spent enough time up there to forget the scary parts of the ascent, we headed back. The way down was a bit rough in places, both because our lane was now the outside one and because this time we had to share the road with cars heading up. Also, now we had to unintuitively limit brake use on this extremely downhill road. Low gear helped immensely. Also helping was the fact that we’d already driven up, which punctured the terrifying mystery of the road a bit.

“Climbing” Mt. Washington via the Auto Road was one of the coolest things I’ve done in a while. I should conclude, though, just by way of disclaimer, that I’m not saying it’s not a dangerous place to visit, just that you’ll only be the fourth person to die on the road if you do so.




22 comments:

  1. I don't think it is that high. It is only 6,272 feet higher than my house. Sounds like a wonderful place. I should go there someday, do some kite flying. Maybe even fly my youngest son like Piglet on the Blustery day.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Holiest of cows." Jason, you crack me up!

    That museum, cafeteria slash weather station looks more like Dr. Evil's lair. Or someone's lair.

    Just curious also if you saw any of the Mt. Washington weather cats?

    Thanks for the post(s)!

    JD

    ReplyDelete
  3. No, I didn't see any of the weather cats. Didn't even know about them until your comment. Now that I've looked them up, would've dug accidentally stumbling across them up there, just so I could chalk them up to altitude hallucination.

    ReplyDelete
  4. We drove to the top ten years ago...it scared the crap out of me!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Born and raised in MA and my uncle had a campground by the Twin Mountains (right down the road from Washington), so I grew up seeing those bumper stickers my whole life.

    I always hated those damn things for no real good reason. I suppose in my childhood mind it went something like "So you drove up a road, big deal..."

    I'm in VA now, so I love coming here and getting all nostalgic about the New England sites you hilariously write about. Keep up the good work!

    ReplyDelete
  6. We drove up Mt. Washington about 30 years ago. Although only 3 deaths, there have been cars that have gone over the edge and no fatalities. We saw a car down in the tree tops that had gone over, I decided at that point "never again" and I haven't gone up since. But it is neat to do it once.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Looks like a real tough road over there. A car must have a long lasting radiator to keep up with the changing temperature here in Mt. Washington. But mind you, the scenic view is worth seeing.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Just climbed this two weeks ago, my wife cried from the dirt road the rest of the way up, No way was I turning around! Scary road, but very cool, something every New Englander should do once. Winds were blowing 55 to 60 mph with 100 ft of visibility the day we went.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Driving it isn't bad, but being a passenger in that car is the WORST! The passenger looks out their side window and sees nothing but straight down. You can't even see the edge of the road. That's how skinny that road actually is. As a passenger, it's terrifying. Joe R, I totally understand why your wife cried half the way up there. With that said, I've been up there more times than I can count. It was a family destination every summer. My Dad refused to let us ride the train given the accidents it's had and the pics showing it hanging off the side of the mountain back when . . .

    ReplyDelete
  10. Great article, You can't help but be fascinated by that mountain. Took the cog rail up a few years back. At one point you hit a section called "Jacob's ladder" and they suggest if you dare to carefullly stand up. I could not believe how close my head was to the floor with the steepness of the rail at that point. Curently staying at Omni hotel at the base and as usual cannot see the top although the view is stil breathtaking. I was told that on average you can see the mountain top from the base once every 11 days. Haas anyone else heard that?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Just went up it today...it was the worst possible thing we could have ever done...have been completely stressed and traumatized by it for 2 days...they should really warn you how bad that road is...I cannot believe it is even open to the public in the state it is in....would never recommend it to anyone and never ever wAnt to travel that death trap again....it is not...I repeat NOT A PLEASANT TOURIST TRIP....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You may have gone on a bad day....the views are beautiful (and scary) but if it's a clear day then it shouldn't be so bad. Just have to use common sense on if you should turn around. The road is narrow and there are no guardrails...but it's not a death trap.

      Delete
    2. You may have gone on a bad day....the views are beautiful (and scary) but if it's a clear day then it shouldn't be so bad. Just have to use common sense on if you should turn around. The road is narrow and there are no guardrails...but it's not a death trap.

      Delete
  12. Just went up it today...it was the worst possible thing we could have ever done...have been completely stressed and traumatized by it for 2 days...they should really warn you how bad that road is...I cannot believe it is even open to the public in the state it is in....would never recommend it to anyone and never ever wAnt to travel that death trap again....it is not...I repeat NOT A PLEASANT TOURIST TRIP....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with you 100%! I was shocked that there weren't even guard rails. I was terrified going up because you can see the gravel falling away on the sides of the road from the cars going down, and knew that was where we were going to be next!

      Delete
  13. Come on people! This road isn't that bad if you follow the instructions; keep it in low gear going up and down and pull over to cool your brakes once and a while. I'm pretty sure the road is as wide as a normal road. Problems arise when people want their half of the road to be in the middle. I've driven up it at least 6 times in my life and the only time I was even a little nervous was one morning when it was so foggy you could barely see the white stripes on the sides of the road (that was what I followed down). They open for sunrise three times a year (June, July, and August) which allows you to drive up there in the complete dark and witness/photograph sunrise. My advice is: if you are afraid of heights don't attempt it, if you think your half of the road is in the middle - don't attempt it (that makes it more dangerous for others), if at any point up you get nervous or afraid: TURN AROUND and go back down. You can always opt for the Mt. Washington Auto Road van service to take you up and return you to your car ---- at the bottom. It's an experience you won't soon forget.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Love your closing paragraph!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I rode my motorcycle up (and down) today and it was exhilarating to say the least. I quit reading the warning when it mentioned "fear of heights". I'm glad I did it, but that will be the last time.

      Delete
  15. It was my husband's idea to go up Mt. Washington, and he tells me I cursed out four generations of his family on the way down! Going up was ok. Going down though...!!!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. First I am afraid of highs... :)
      And for me going up was extremely terrifying until I get to use to see ONLY road and slope of mount.
      I was expecting to die from fear on my way down, but it was almost pleasant!- finally I can see and enjoy nice views up front of my car.
      Actually if this auto-road would be ONE WAY road - no problem. Because passing cars was horrifying experience.
      And I took for this trip my Honda Pilot wide car... :)

      Delete
  16. My husband and I went up this road of terror on Sept. 20, 2016. I clearly stated, "this sign says there are no guardrails on the road, maybe we shouldn't go." He never thinks anything bad is going to happen, so he said, "relax, it'll be fine." The first 2 1/2 to 3 miles weren't too bad, then we drove out of the trees on both sides area. As I've gotten older, I've developed a fear of heights & death!! Pretty soon I started saying OH MY GOD!!!!At least a million times. I had a death grip on the door handle of the truck with my right hand & a death grip on my purse with my left hand-- not sure what help I thought either might be. And I was pressing myself so far into the back of my seat, it's a wonder I didn't end up behind it. I was so petrified that I never had a seconds thought about taking pictures, even if I had thought of it, I wasn't letting go of my door or purse!!! My hubby Joe was very calm & tried to keep me from totally losing it. He would say, relax, we're ok. Or my favorite, "close your eyes." HAHAHA!!! As if!! I can just imagine opening them up only to be looking out at... NOTHING!!! I accidentally saw clouds below us & started praying out loud for God to get us off that effing road!! But by the time we hit the 5 1/2 mile mark, Joe found a place to turn around & drove us back down toward the bottom. I think this was almost worse than going up!! He is my HERO!! The next day, Joe turned 65 & the day after that, we celebrated 43 years of marriage. We've had some rough roads during our marriage, but none as bad as this one.

    ReplyDelete