More about Mount Washington, and insanity

I’ve mentioned this place at least once here lately, and will have to physically visit the place soon–but not until spring. It’s an unseasonable 62 degrees here and an equally unlikely 34 degrees on the summit of the mountain, which is less than 100 miles from here and regularly features sub-zero temps for half of the year and has experienced snow in every calendar month.

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On April 12, 1934, during a freak storm, the weather observatory on the summit of Mount Washington recorded a gust of 231 miles per hour, still the world record for land-based locations (tornadoes and hurricanes in the sky don’t count). (The anenometer allegedly snapped in mid-gust, meaning that the actual wind speed was even higher, but I can’t verify this.) This is remarkable as much for the capricious nature of the mountain as it is for the blazing violence of something powerful enough to flip over a Greyhound bus as if it were nothing. One account of the days leading and into the day on which the record was set tells the story.

“April 10. A perfect day. Cloudless and calm. Hazy. Sun dogs at 5:30 p – a refraction phenomenon of no special importance.” – Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca

April 11: “The meteorological notes for today do not say much. They only show a falling pressure, normal temperature, generally in ‘rough frost forming’ clouds, and rapidly increasing wind. Yes, rapidly increasing to values never dreamed before.” – Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca

April12: “There was no doubt this morning that a super-hurricane, Mt. Washington style, was in full development.” — Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca

As the day wore on, winds grew stronger and stronger. Frequent values of 220 mph were recorded between Noon and 1:00 pm, with occasional gusts of 229 mph. Then, at 1:21 pm … the extreme value of 231 mph out of the southeast was recorded. This would prove to be the highest natural surface wind velocity ever officially recorded by means of an anemometer, anywhere in the world.

“‘Will they believe it?’ was our first thought. I felt then the full responsibility of that startling measurement. Was my timing correct? Was the method OK? Was the calibration curve right? Was the stopwatch accurate?” – Log Book entry, Sal Pagliuca

I believe it. Every time I have climbed that mountain, be it in a car or on foot, conditions at the base (Pinkham Notch in Gorham, elevation approximately 1,800 feet) have been startlingly different than those on top. You can start a hike thinking that the windbreaker you’ve packed is useless and be begging for a parka once you pass the Alpine Garden. The place is simply not to be fucked with.

What I can’t believe is that someone has driven a car up the 7.6-mile auto road in six minutes, forty-four seconds. Someone else has been clocked at 113 miles an hour in the course of heading up. If you knew what this road looked like, with its various obligatory swerves and its average grade of 11.5 percent, along with the threat of zooming into the Great Gulf, you wouldn’t believe it either. I can only conclude that people who take part in the Hillclimb Auto Race are out of their fucking minds, the kind of people who put workaday adrenalin junkies to shame and probably steam through tollbooths at 80 MPH just to see if they can toss their required three quarters into the basket without a pause and with virtually no lateral clearance.

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  1. #1 by The Science Pundit on November 12, 2009 - 10:56 am

    I can only conclude that people who take part in the Hillclimb Auto Race are out of their fucking minds

    Indeed! But what about people who take part in Autoroad Bicycle Hillclimb? :-P

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