The Unexpected Vacation
For Christmas last year, my husband, Ryan, and I received a particularly exciting gift from my father – two seats on a Mount Washington Observatory Winter Overnight EduTrip! Each of the Observatory’s EduTrips are themed, with most trips focusing on weather and climate. While many of the trips sounded appealing, as three-season hikers who have just begun exploring winter hiking, the Winter Mountaineering Essentials EduTrip scheduled for February 23-24 of this year was undeniably the most enticing option.
Along with four other participants and two trip leaders, the plan was to spend two days and one night on the summit of Mount Washington, learning about mountaineering and experiencing the infamous weather firsthand. If things had gone according to plan, it would have been a memorable weekend, but what came to pass was unforgettable.
We arrived at the summit on Saturday morning via the Observatory’s snow cat and spent the day under bluebird skies learning the basics of mountaineering. Under the direction of awesomely experienced guide Joe Lentini, we practiced using crampons, dug a snow cave, and learned how to self-arrest with an ice axe. That evening, we bundled up to view the breathtaking sunset from the Observatory deck and enjoyed a hearty dinner with observatory staff and volunteers. At dinner, someone mentioned that there was a powerful wind storm coming in the next day, so we’d likely need to depart earlier than anticipated.
After spending the night in our Observatory bunkrooms, we awoke Sunday morning to a very different scene outside – gone were the sunny skies and miles of views, having been replaced with a dense cloud covering. The original plan for Sunday was to hike down to tree line, putting our newly-acquired mountaineering skills to use, and then meet the snow cat and hitch a ride the rest of the way to the valley. However, that morning, Will, the Observatory’s wonderful Education Coordinator, called the trip participants together for a meeting. He let us know that the snow cat had been headed up to meet us, but due to deteriorating weather conditions, the driver was forced to turn back. The storm was coming in a bit earlier than expected, and due to the intense wind and low visibility forecasted for the next few days, it was unlikely that we’d be able to head down the mountain before Wednesday.
While some individuals may have been less than thrilled to discover that they would be trapped on a mountain during a powerful wind storm for three more days, I think the general reaction from our group could be described as giddy, or even elated. (Reactions from friends and family back home were split between “OMG that’s terrible” and “OMG I’m so jealous.”) Ryan and I couldn’t believe our luck! Mount Washington is well known for its fierce weather, and we’d have a front row seat to one of the peak’s most powerful wind storms in decades. This did, however, necessitate somewhat unusual emails to our supervisors and colleagues letting them know why we wouldn’t be in to work for most of the week…
That evening, as forecasted, the wind began to intensify. The sound slowly grew to a dull, constant roar, punctuated occasionally by louder gusts. The windows in the visitor’s center began flexing inwards and outwards, and the floor by the windows began to rumble slightly. Built to withstand 300mph winds, the Observatory is the perfect place to watch an intense storm. I don’t imagine there are many other buildings where it’s safe to stand next to a window during a storm whose winds would eventually pass the threshold of a category 5 hurricane.
Our group was soon huddled in the weather room alongside the observers, eyes glued to the Hays Chart. The Hays Chart measures wind speed, and as we watched the needle creep higher and higher, indicating increased wind speeds, the air of excitement grew. Each time the graph reached a new high, someone would check a digital monitor to check the exact speed, and call it out to the rest of the room. “130….144…151….!”
Soon, it was time for dinner, and we headed down from the weather room to the Observatory’s kitchen. We were captivated by a monitor showing a graph of the ever-increasing wind speeds. Soon, the wind spiked to 171 – an all-time high for February, and the highest wind speed recorded at the Observatory in decades! After that peak gust, it was funny how quickly we all became blasé about lesser, but still mighty, gusts – “Oh, that one was only 140mph.”
Over the next few days while we waited for the winds to abate and visibility to increase, we kept busy by reading, learning more about the weather, playing Scrabble and indoor cornhole, and getting to know each other while enjoying the view whenever the clouds broke. (Note to future visitors: we also discovered that the visitor’s center ceiling may be slightly too low for indoor cornhole…) As somewhat of a nod to our “predicament,” we also watched the 1982 movie “The Thing,” a sci-fi horror film about a group of researchers stranded in Antarctica.
When the winds had subsided a bit, we had the opportunity to head outside for some fresh air and to learn more about mountaineering from Joe. It was still bitterly cold outside, with the air temperature around -20 and the wind chill at -65, so before heading out we checked each other over to ensure that not a centimeter of skin was left exposed. A definite highlight of the trip for me was experiencing the incredible power of a 120 mph gust from the relative safety of the Observatory turret. With the turret coated in rime ice and the thick cloud cover, when looking out into the distance it seemed almost as though I was seeing the world in black and white.
On Wednesday morning, the wind had died down even further, and visibility had increased substantially, so we woke up early to catch the sunrise. Some watched from the comfort of the visitor’s center, while a few of us geared up and headed to the Observatory turret, where we were rewarded with sights of a breathtaking sunrise and stunning alpenglow.
Later that morning, conditions improved sufficiently to allow us to safely descend. Unfortunately, the winds were still too high for us to be able to hike partway down, as was the original plan, so we boarded the snow cat, and enjoyed a pleasant, uneventful ride back down to the valley.
I’m so grateful to the Observatory for keeping us safe, well-fed, and entertained during our adventure. If you’re interested in an adventure of your own, I’d definitely recommend checking out an EduTrip!