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 The ones about honor students and beating up honor students, Jesus fish and Darwin fish, out-of-date political endorsements, all those white vacation spot ovals whose touted location you were supposed to be able to recognize from three letters or less.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.


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.