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Ascending New Hampshire’s Mount Washington
1. Mount Washington:
If the White Mountains wore a crown, it would look like Mount Washington, the highest peak in New Hampshire, New England, and the northeast, cresting at 6,288 feet. Yet, the greater the obstacle, the greater seems to be its attraction, and it is this philosophy which has served as its magnet for hikers, skiers, and technology-tamers-that is, those who sought to surmount it by road and rail-all in the conquering spirit of “reaching the top.”
Originally designated “Agiochooki”-the Indian word for “home of the Great Spirit,” “the place of the spirit of the forest,” and “the place of the storm spirit”-it was seen as the exalted domain of just such a deity, “Gitche Manitos,” and any attempted ascent was therefore considered sacrilegious. Non-Native Americans, however, did not think so and did not hesitate to try.
Its obstacles were not to be underestimated. Surrounded by 5,372-foot Mount Monroe, 5,716-foot Mount Jefferson, and 5,533-foot Mount Clay, Mount Washington itself, a melange of metaphoric rock and characterized by ancient alpine glacier-carved ravines, lies at the center of three storm tracks in the Presidential Range and its prehistoric continental ice sheet covering left vegetation above its tree line only found in the near-arctic regions of Labrador. Its slopes are drained by several rivers, including the Ammonoosuc, the Dry, the Rocky Branch, the New, the Cutler, and the Peabody.
Below-zero temperatures on more than 65 days per year ensure summit permafrost, and hurricane wind velocities of at least 75 mph pound it on more than half of its winter days. Its lowest temperature was -49 degrees Fahrenheit and highest wind velocity 231 mph, as recorded at its summit on April 12, 1934.
Yet, none of this daunted summit-strivers. The initial path, so to speak, was forged in 1642 when Darby Field, aided by two Indian guides, made the first recorded climb, while the first scientific mission, the Belknap-Cutler Expedition, was conducted more than a century later, in 1784, when it was undertaken for the purpose of measurement and alpine plant collection.
Renamed Mount Washington after then-General George Washington, it was also the target of Colonel George Gibbs, a mineralogist, who cleared its first path in 1809, but made several successive climbs since then.
Forging their own summit-surmounting path a decade later, Abel and Ethan Allen Crawford, a father-and-son team, passed it to brother Thomas, who considerably improved it between 1838 and 1840 by widening it and rendering it suitable for horse negotiation. Although it has no current equestrian use, it remains as the Crawford Bridle Path and is maintained by the White Mountain National Forest.
Each “step up” brought those path blazers to new strata as the flora and fauna reflected the climactic conditions generated by their elevation-associated temperatures, which dip three degrees with every 1,000 feet, and wind and precipitation, which commensurably increase.
Between 2,000 and 2,500 feet, for example, hardwood forests-of American beech, sugar maple, yellow birch, white ash, white pine, red maple, red spruce, Eastern hemlock, and red oak-predominate, becoming spruce-fir forests, of balsam and red varieties, up to 4,000 feet.
As if malnourished, the balsam fir trees creating their own system become stunted at about 4,500 feet, yielding to the short transition, or Krummholz, zone, up to 4,800 feet, where twisted and slanted trees mark the end of the forest and the beginning of the alpine area. The latter, considered above the tree line, is no longer able to support tree growth because of its pounding rain, snow, fierce winds, and intolerable temperatures, and instead incubates robust, low-lying plants.
There are two significant plateaus above 5,000 feet: Bigelow Lawn, an alpine meadow with arctic sedges, and Alpine Meadow, abundant, as its name suggests, with alpine wildflowers.
The summit is a rocky, desolate, wind-swept moonscape whose view of the other Presidential Range peaks is awe-inspiring when the clouds allow it.
In order to take up the challenge imposing Mount Washington seems to propose, visitors have three principle means of doing so: by foot, road, or rail.
Most of the challenges early ascenders had faced remain for modern-day hikers and climbers. Because of the mountain’s weather severity and changeability, the season for either is relatively short, running from Memorial to Columbus Day, with often-encountered mud, snow, and ice after this time. Winter surmounts, fraught with the most frigid temperatures, highest winds, deepest snow accumulations, and the least amount of daylight, should only be attempted by the most fit, trained, experienced, and provisioned. Ravines expose climbers to potential avalanches and the summit is usually shrouded in cloud.
Indeed, a sign located at the mountain’s approach warns, “Stop! The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad. White Mountain National Forest.”
Trails vary according to length, elevation gain, gradient, severity, and obstacle, and run the spectrum from short, low-elevation hikes to full, summit-surmounting climbs. Of the latter, there are several.
From the west, for example, the Ammonoosuc River Trail, passing waterfalls, the Lakes of the Clouds, and the Appalachian Mountain Club hut, offers a 3,800-foot elevation gain and covers a 9.2-mile round trip distance. The Jewell Trail, Gulfside Trail, and Trinity Heights Connector, with only a 100-foot greater elevation gain, offers a ten-mile round trip path that initially follows the westerly ridge of Mount Clay before leading to Mount Washington and crosses both the Ammonoosuc River and the Cog Railway tracks.
There are two approaches from the east, both of which are accessible from Route 16 in Pinkham Notch. The first, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, offers a 4,250-foot elevation gain and an 8.4-mile round trip distance. Because of its moderate grades, it is the most popular. The second, also encompassing the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, as well as the Boot Spur Trail and the Davis and Crawford paths, entails a 4,300-foot elevation gain. At 10.6 miles in length, it is both rougher and longer than the previous routing, but is also considerably more scenic.
The Glen Boulder Trail, combined with the Davis and Crawford paths, affords a southeasterly approach, again from Route 16, and entails a 4,400-foot elevation gain during its 11.4-mile round trip stretch.
From the northeast, the Great Gulf and Gulfside trails, with the Trinity Heights Connector, penetrates the deep, secluded Great Gulf Valley and proceeds over the 1,600-foot rocky headwall, delivering a 5,000-foot elevation gain and the longest, 15.8-mile round trip distance.
Present-day sport, of mountain climbing, followed and emulated past-day necessity to reach Mount Washington’s summit, but a designated trail for equestrian and wagon negotiation was soon proposed. Abel Crawford, reaching the top on horseback as early as 1840, paved the way-at least in idea.
Access, to the mountain’s peak, is exactly what bred it-in the form of rail to its base. In order to provide an overland route to transport wheat from Montreal to Portland, the Atlantic and Saint Lawrence (later Grand Trunk) Railroad laid track in 1851, carrying passengers into Gorham, New Hampshire. Quickly assessing the area’s tourism potential, it invested in infrastructure, including the Alpine House Hotel, a road to Pinkham Notch, and the peak-pinnacling Glen Bridle Path, at the foot of which rose the First Glen House.
But the desire to triumph over Mount Washington’s imposing height provided the impetus for a road that could support horse-drawn tourist-transporting omnibuses and a peak hotel in which to lodge them, and Governor Noah Martin granted a charter to the Mount Washington Road Company on July 1, 1853 for an eight-mile artery from the Glen House to the summit. David O. Macomber, of Middleton, New Hampshire, was appointed Project Manager.
Not all visions, however, are transferred into reality. Construction in pre-motorized and relatively primitive times was daunting. Residing in shanties or tents, and devoting between ten and twelve hours per day, workers often relied on their own strength and brute force to transport supplies to the site from an eight-mile distance, relying on horse or oxen, hand-boring their own blasting holes, filling them with black powder, and then removing the explosion’s resultant gravel and rock.
Yet, by the time the project had reached its halfway point in 1856, funding had been as exhausted as the men performing the job.
Assuming the project three years later, the newly formed Mount Washington Summit Road Company completed the artery, and the Mount Washington Carriage Road-the country’s first man-made tourist attraction-officially opened amid a ceremony on August 8, 1861. Earning the title of “first to the top” had been coveted by many, particularly Joseph Thompson, proprietor of the Glen House, and Colonel John Hitchcock, landlord of the Alpine House.
Ascending in a horse-drawn carriage three weeks before the road’s completion, and negotiating still-existent boulders near its terminus, the former succeeded.
The road’s popularity, confirming its concept, progressively increased, as did the number of first feats accomplished as a result of it. Three members of the Dartmouth Outing Club, for example, made the first ski ascent in 1913, and they were followed by the first husky team to reach the summit in 1926. Four- to six-horse wagons, accommodating between nine and 12, transported as many as 100 daily passengers.
But, although the road in and of itself did not change, its use did when Freelan O. Stanley had earlier made the first steam-motor climb on it in two hours, ten minutes on August 31, 1899 and it paved the way for the first gasoline powered automobile to follow in its motorized tracks, sparking its redesignation from its initial “Carriage” to a final “Auto Road.”
A graph line representing the annual number of cars using it is as steeply angled-and rising-as the mountain it represents: 3,100 in 1935, 6,600 in 1955, 12,800 in 1961, and more than 45,000 today.
Present-day motorists can “take the high road,” as it advertises itself, by accessing it from Route 16 in Pinkham Notch on the mountain’s east side. The Great Glen Lodge, with a restaurant for breakfast and lunch, and the adjacent Douglas A. Philbrook Red Barn Museum, are located at the Auto Road’s base. The latter, the last of the many horse and hay barns which had been integral to the then Carriage Road’s staging process, is complementary and features a collection of restored wagons, carriages, stagecoaches, and automobiles that once left their own imprints in the path up the mountain.
The basic fee to enter the Auto Road includes the car, its driver, an audio or CD cassette tour, and the famed, “This car climbed Mt. Washington:” bumper sticker, with separate and supplemental charges for additional adults and/or children and motorcycles.
Guided van tours, including commentary and admission to the Mount Washington Observatory Museum at the summit, last 90 minutes, with a third of the time at the top, while season and time-of-day tours entail those conducted at dawn, in the evening, and during winter, in which case ski-equipped vehicles operate “SnowCoach” trips.
Intermodal climbs, offered between late-May and early-October, enable the hiker to travel one way by foot and the other by van, with hiker’s shuttle stops at the Auto Road base, the Great Gulf Train Head, and the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Camp.
Driver and mother nature respectively produce ever-changing vistas and weather, as the car negotiates the winding, climbing, partially paved and partially graveled, mountain surmounting road that once bore the imprint of horses’ hooves.
Passing through a ravine on the mountain’s east side, the 7.6-mile-long Mount Washington Auto Road ascends from 1,543 feet to 6,288, with an elevation gain of between 594 and 880 feet per mile, passing Two Mile Park; the Mycko’s, Jenny Lind, and Twin bridges; the Halfway House and Horn Park; and negotiating S-turns and Five Mile Grade. Moving northerly, it widens and commences a distinct climb on the crest of Chander Ridge, passing Cragway Spring and Six Mile Park and ascending Six Mile Grade.
Prior to the motorized days, Mount Washington’s pendulum had swung to its west side and to yet another peak-pinnacling method-rail-each technological step having provided another step up the imposing New Hampshire monolith.
Its catalyst-once again proving the validity of the “turn pain into purpose” philosophy-had been the climb that Sylvester Marsh, a Campton, New Hampshire, native and wealthy Chicago meat-packing veteran, had made in 1852. Caught and lost in a fierce snowstorm, he was forced to spend the night on the mountain, almost succumbing to its arctic temperatures and vowing, upon his return, to devise a means of ascending it that was rapid, comfortable, enclosed, and safe.
Mechanically-minded, he had already had considerable experience with applying for farm machinery patents, such as for grain conveyor belts and dryers, and therefore parlayed this background into a rail system whose technology would enable a locomotive and at least one car to negotiate, climb, and surmount grades hitherto impractical for conventional railroads.
Devising a plan for a mountain-climbing cog rail system, he applied for a patent for it on August 24, 1858, but it was rejected the following month, the New Hampshire Legislature claiming that five similar submissions had already been received between 1836 and 1849 and laughing at the idea with the now-famous statement that Marsh “might as well build a railway to the moon.”
Undeterred, he applied for an amended one three years later, on August 3, and it was quickly granted.
The secret to the system’s ascend-ability was a small cogwheel positioned below the locomotive whose 19 teeth would bite into the cylindrical rungs of a center track, pulling it and its cars up the mountain, like tiny hands grasping bars, on a trestle that, depending upon its section, was positioned somewhere between the horizontal and vertical and thus formed an angled ladder. The engine itself would provide the propulsion and the traditional rails would guide otherwise standard wheels.
Financed with an initial, $20,000 of capital, the system’s underlying Mount Washington Steam Railway Company was organized. Marsh would serve as both its president and construction agent.
After several mountain surveys, it was decided to adhere to the route laid out by Ethan Allen Crawford in 1821 on the mountain’s west side and to begin track laying at its base near the Ammonoosuc River. Access to it, however, was hardly obstacle-free. An old logging road, extended from Fabyan’s Station, terminated half a mile from the construction site, and the remainder of the distance was densely forested.
A rudimentary, oxen-traveled trail hacked out ultimately enabled men to reach the construction worker-housing log cabin. Timber had to be hand hewed.
The Cog road consisted of 12-foot sections, or “bents,” and progressed in number from “1” at the base to “1200” at the summit
Each component of the construction process, which itself commenced in May of 1866, made the proceeding one possible. Marsh himself, for example, built the first 40-rod test track. The first locomotive, still in sections, was then ox-pulled to it, and a platform car to transport construction materials followed it.
The geared locomotive itself was cabless and featured a single pair of cylinders and drive wheels. Although it had been called “Hero,” its vertical, pepper sauce bottle resembling boiler quickly earned it the nickname of “Peppersass.”
Pushing a flatbed car during a two-hour test run on August 29, 1866, it successfully demonstrated the cog concept, construction, and capability, and attracted the necessary additional investment from initially skeptical railroad companies.
Reaching a section designated “Jacob’s Ladder” two years later, on August 14, the world’s first rack-and-pinion Cog Railway reached the summit in July of 1869 after a $139,500 construction project, becoming the second steepest-after one in Switzerland-and it is today both the oldest and a National Historic Engineering Landmark.
Cog Railway access was improved in July of 1876 when the White Mountain Railroad completed a spur line from Fabyan’s Station to its base.
Other than “Peppersass,” it had initiated service with three other upright boiler configured locomotives: the “George Stephenson,” built in 1868, and “Atlas” and “Cloud,” which followed two years later.
Employing wood for the first 40 years, these and the 18 other engines in the fleet subsequently used coal, each ascent requiring a ton of it, as well a 1,000 gallons of water. Combining original, 19th-century cog and 21st-century “green” technologies, the four locomotives introduced since 2003 are bio-diesel types and burn between 16 and 18 gallons of fuel per trip.
The Mount Washington Cog Railway, reached by the six-mile base road leading to it from Route 302 next to Fabyan’s Station, offers three-hour round trips to the summit between May and October, with time at the top varying according to steam or diesel locomotive propulsion, and one-hour halfway trips in November and December.
Unlike the Auto Road’s east side access, the Cog Railway’s track climbs the west side and enroute views and vistas are therefore different. All trains depart from and return to its Marshfield Base Station, named after the railroad’s inventor. The depot itself offers reservations and ticketing; a self-service restaurant, Catalano’s at the Cog, with prime views of the train departure point; a gift shop; and the Cog Museum.
Aside from showing the “Railway to the Moon” film, the latter provides a glimpse into early cog technology. A 1908 boiler, for instance, was continually used by the Number 9 locomotive– itself constructed by the American Locomotive Works-until it was replaced by a Hodge Boiler Works-furnished contemporary boiler in 1986. The devil’s shingle, employed between 1870 and 1920, had enabled railroad workers to descend the track’s length in less than three minutes. A frame section demonstrates how the cogwheel’s gears mesh with the track’s rungs. A log cabin office offers insight into the life of Sylvester March-promoter, as well as inventor and builder, of the railroad. The Mount Washington Cog Railway Shop furnished all but one of the seven currently operating locomotives and cab and boiler sections illustrate their construction.
“Old Peppersass,” the very first engine to propel the railroad up Mount Washington and into National Engineering Landmark fame, is displayed outside. Built, of course, by Marsh himself and ox-transported to the track in sections, it weighs four tons, cost $3,000, and could transport a payload equivalent to 60 passengers. It presently sports the letters, “N. 1 Mt. W. R.” on its side. It was withdrawn from service after it literally wore itself out and succumbed to mechanical exhaustion.
The 4.8-foot-wide cog track (a half inch less than the American Standard Gauge), commencing at the 2,700-foot base station and entirely laid on a wooden trestle, spans three miles as it ascends a narrow ridge line between the Ammonoosuc and Burt ravines at an average 25-percent, or 1,320-foot-per-mile, grade. Its nine curves vary in radius from 497 to 945 feet.
All trains consist of a steam or diesel locomotive attached to the back of a single wooden or metal passenger coach in pusher configuration and, after pulling away from the slender platform, almost immediately cross the Ammonoosuc River and then begin their climb up Cold Spring Hill, the track’s second-steepest section.
It next arches to the right, facilitated by solar-powered, hydraulic switches, circumventing Waumbek Tank at a 3,800-foot elevation, and either awaits the descending train so that it can pass it on its own side track or replenishes itself with water, if it is a steam engine.
Visible in the distance on the right side is the Appalachian Mountain Club’s camp and hut and several Presidential Range peaks, including Mounts Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower, Clinton, Jackson, and Webster.
Passing the Halfway House at 4,500 feet, the locomotive-and-car pair now surmounts Jacob’s Ladder, whose grade is an astonishing 37.41-percent (and renders it impossible to walk down the car’s aisle without grasping its seat backs), and transcends the tree line.
Crossing the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Maine to Georgia, the train approaches the summit, with views of the Great Gulf Ravine on the left and its dramatic, 2,000-foot drop to Spalding Lake.
5. The Summit:
Converging point-and mountain-luring goal-of all hikers, drivers, and rail riders is the summit, location of the 59-acre Mount Washington State Park, which had been established in 1971.
Vistas from this desolate, wind-swept moonscape, when not obscured by cloud or precipitation, are part of the purpose of the climb and encompass a 130-mile radius. The four states of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and New York are visible, along with the province of Quebec in Canada and the glimmer of the Atlantic Ocean. Across the Great Gulf are numerous Presidential Range peaks, such as Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, and all are below the viewer-as often occurs with the clouds themselves-explaining the American Indians’ belief that the lofty, exalted position had been the exclusive domain of the Great Spirit.
With the exception of the State Park and an additional 60 acres of private land, most of the visible mountains belong to the 725,000-acre White Mountain National Forest, itself the spawning ground of four major New England river tributaries.
Visitor services are located in the Sherman Adams Summit building, the fourth and only non-hotel Summit House to grace the peak. Serving as the Mount Washington State Park’s headquarters, the building, constructed in 1980 as an integral part of the north slope, features a cafeteria, two gift shops, a post office, a museum, and the Mount Washington Observatory, the latter of which is a Class A weather station for the US Weather Bureau.
Another vistable structure is the Tip-Top House. Built in 1853 at a $7,000 cost from stone blasted from the very mountain that supports it, the 84-foot-long, 28-foot-wide hotel rose from the ruble to compete with the neighboring First Summit House, which had been completed the same year. A pitched roof, containing 17 tiny bedrooms, was later added.
Abandoned for 35 years, it regained its purpose when the Great Fire of June 18, 1908 ravaged the subsequently built, 91-room Second Summit House. Resurrected and remodeled, the Tip-Top House itself became the mountain top’s only hostelry for seven years until a replacement Summit House had been constructed in 1915–at which time it had let its guard down and was itself the victim of fire.
Reconstructed and relegated to a Summit House annex, it was vacated in 1968 before being restored for a second time, in 1987, so that it could begin its third life-this time as a National Historic Landmark.
Another significant structure is the Summit Stage Office, which presently serves as a souvenir shop and the hiker’s shuttle depot. Having housed the Mount Washington Observatory from 1932 to 1937, it was the location of the world’s highest measured wind velocity, of 231 mph, on August 12, 1934, as indicated by its outside sign, which reads, “The highest wind ever recorded by man was here – 231 mph.”
The actual, 6,288-foot summit can be reached by following Crawford Path, which was first laid in 1819 and is therefore considered the oldest mountain hiking trail in America.
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