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Mount Washington and Valley
New Hampshire

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By Pat Mestern
 

Mount Washington, located in the heart of the White Mountains in the State of New Hampshire is the highest peak on the eastern seaboard. Thanks to man's ingenuity, its peak is also one of the most accessible. First Nations considered the quartz, mica and schist slopes sacred. Although they hunted the valley's hardwood forests, they rarely traveled above tree line.

The first documented ascent was in 1642 by Darby Field accompanied by an Indian guide. By the late eighteenth century settlers had filtered into the valleys surrounding the mountain, including the Crawford Family who by 1819 had cut the first hiking trail to the top. That trail is roughly today's route for Cog Railway.

By the1840's the valleys around Mount Washington were a favorite summer vacation destination. Grand hotels, built in the valleys surrounding Mount Washington allowed folks to enjoy magnificent views of the moody peak. So many hardy individuals made the trek to the summit, that by 1853 a stone shelter was erected on top of Mount Washington. On a clear day, those reaching the summit were treated to a magnificent view of more than one hundred miles in all directions. Before twentieth century pollution obscured views, it was possible to see to the Quebec/Canada border, to the Atlantic ocean on the east, while to the west Vermont's Green Mountains and New York's Adirondacks beckoned.

By the late 1850's a plan was underway to build a road to the peak. As dynamite had not been invented and no heavy machinery was yet in use, a usable road was built in two years by men, beasts and black powder. Known as The Carriage Way, it was opened to the public on August 8, 1861. At its peak, the private company who owned the road had in service, twenty-five mountain wagons, manufactured in Concord, New Hampshire, and a stable of one hundred and twenty horses. Each wagon, pulled by six horses, carried twelve passengers and took four hours to reach the summit. When it was windy, a stop was made above the tree line so that passengers could gather rocks to the increase the weight of the wagon. The ride down took two hours. Each wagon was outfitted with an ingenious leather brake which had to be replaced after each run.

These special wagons were not the only vehicles on the road. A fee was charged hotel coaches, and private individuals who wished to take their own conveyances to the top. By 1890, there was a large hotel and a newspaper office with printing press among other buildings on the summit. All but the 1853 stone house burned during the Great Fire of 1908.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, valleys surrounding Mount Washington were being logged. Extensive clear-cutting left gigantic scars on mountain and valley landscape. Summer visitors, realizing their pristine wilderness was quickly being laid to waste, lobbied various government bodies to put controls on future development and use. Legislation was instituted in 1911 to create the three-quarter million acre White Mountain National Forest, with Mount Washington its crowning jewel.

Hiking up Mount Washington was not enough to satisfy some individuals. Many "odd" events took place, and still do, on the mountain road. One enterprising individual counted his steps to the summit - 16,925 in total. In 1899 the Freeland Stanley "Locomobile" make it to the summit. In 1904, "Climb to the Clouds", the first motor sport took place. This event is still held in late June each year. Race cars reach 90 miles per hour on the ascent, making the climb in under seven minutes. Bicycle races record times that are two minutes faster than foot races. Runners cover the 7.6 mile road in just under 1 hour.

Today, the private road, owned by Mount Washington Road Company is open to the general public for their own thrill of experiencing a "world above tree line", and driving the "Road to the Sky". Visitors can enjoy the adventure in several ways. You can take your own vehicle to the summit. Or you can enjoy the drive in the comfort of a company van, known as the Mount Washington Stage Line. Faint-hearted individuals must seriously consider taking the company van which leaves from the Great Glen. After passing a private car whose driver was "white knuckling" the "Oh My God Curve", I asked our driver if anyone, once they had driven to the top vehicle and refused to come back down again - or if a driver made it half way up, or down, and froze . He said that several times every week, staff has to "rescue" drivers. If on top, they are given a ride down in a company van while an experienced driver is sent up to retrieve their car. If somewhere in the middle, an experienced driver is brought up from base camp to take the wheel.

As we climbed to the summit, our guide/driver gave a fascinating talk about the mountain, its history, flora and fauna and what we were seeing from the van's windows. The road's grade is approximately 12% and there are 99 curves - one way. The summit of Mount Washington is 6,288 feet. The road begins at Great Glen which is approximately 1,500 feet above sea level. The trip by company van is hour each way. Visitors are reminded that Mount Washington has the second highest death rate, after Mount Everest. The Appalachian Trail crosses the Auto Road on its way from Maine to the Carolinas.

Our climb began in hardwood forest, then passed through a "band" of evergreen that diminish in size the higher one travels. Many stunted trees on the mountain are more than one hundred years old. Soon we found ourselves well above the tree line, negotiating the nerve tingling curves and barren slopes of the upper mountain. One passenger spent the time laying on the seat so she wouldn't have to see the "thousand foot drops" out her window. Features such as "The Horn", "Oh My God Curve, "The Craigway" "Mother-In-Law Drop" and "Homestretch" made us glad we didn't opt to take our own vehicle - and hubby is an excellent driver! Moose deer, bobcat, black bear, beaver, raccoons and porcupine inhabit the lower slopes while mice, moles, shrew and voles live above the tree line. From base to top is, in terms of flora, the equivalent of a 600 mile drive taking one from hardwood forest to Arctic tundra, replete with alpine flowers, lichen and mosses.

On top, we found a rock strewn summit with a relatively flat parking lot surrounded on two sides with buildings, including the restored "Tip Top House" the Sherman Adams State Park Building, the Mount Washington Observatory Museum and the Summit Stage Office which cannot be missed because it is chained to the ground. This is the building in which the big wind of 1934 was recorded. The true summit of Mount Washington is between the Tip Top House and the Sherman Adams Summit building and marked. It is accessible by a short climb through schist and mica boulders.

Mount Washington generates its own climate and weather conditions. Change comes quickly. Some days visitors are literally in the clouds. It can be sunny and warm in the valley, snowing on the summit. It can by July at the base, November at the top. Known as the "Home of the World's Worse Weather", there are harsh extremes on the mountain. Average temperatures are 27degrees F. There are 100 days of hurricane force winds. 100 mph is common for winds. Snow fall averages 244 inches per year. During the winter of 1968/698 more than 500 feet of snow fell. On April 12, 1934, a Southeast wind of 231 mph blew over the summit.

When we visited in May, temperatures were a pleasant 65F in the valley with a gentle wind. Temperatures on top were below freezing, 30F with a 40 mph wind. It was almost impossible to climb the short way from the parking lot to the pole that marks the summit of Mount Washington. The wind howled around us, and the cold cut right through what we thought was adequate clothing. Views were spectacular. Because of the wind, we could see for seventy miles in all directions. Below us Tuckerman Ravine stood out in high relief. In disbelief we watched "extreme" skiers negotiating the "Ravine. Great Gulf Wilderness, where no timber harvesting, mining or building is allowed was spectacular. Valley lakes looked like very small puddles of water. We eventually retreated to the summit building and studied the various exhibits while wrapping our hands, and lips, around a cup of hot coffee.

If you do take your own vehicle to the summit, there are certain rules you should be aware of. You will be given a package of information when you pay admission, including instructions on how to drive the highway. Here are some "do's" and "don'ts". The mountain road does have two way traffic. For those afraid of heights, be aware that certain parts of the road, are "interesting" - to say the least! Drivers should use low gear, and stay in low gear both going up and coming down. Drive at 15-20 mph, depending on the traffic flow. Do not use your air conditioner. If you are personally hot, open your windows. If your engine overheats, turn on the car's heater to cool the engine. It is a good idea to drive with your lights on at all times, but especially in a fog. Pray you are not half way up and experience fog! There are lots of pull offs where you can cool both brakes (on the way down) and engine. Do not ride your brakes as they will overheat. If you do run into trouble, car or otherwise, stay put. The road is well patrolled. Staff will find you.

The Mount Washington Auto Road is closed to the general public during the winter. There are people who do live on top to monitor weather conditions. Snow cats replenish their supplies. Each spring it takes crews more than one month to clear and repair the road for summer traffic. They dig their way through twenty foot deep drifts that stretch for three hundred feet.

Don't forget camera and film, binoculars and warm jackets - even in the middle of the summer, and definitely in September/October.

Driving to the White Mountain area of New Hampshire is a visual pleasure. The approach from any direction takes you over Notches, including Pinkham, Crawford and the lesser known Bear Notch Road. Byway #112, known as the Kancamagus Highway is a real treat. Plan to stay several days in the area taking advantage of the Great Glen trails, Conway Scenic Railway, family friendly "Heritage" and "Storyland."

There are lots of great places to stay in and around Mount Washington and valley. North Conway is close by and has, among other things become a shopping Mecca, boasting a large number of outlet stores. Gorham, is also close by and is more a traditional New Hampshire town with interesting main street including a marvelous hardware store. Both Gorham and North Conway have a variety of accommodation and restaurant facilities. We stayed in several and enjoyed ourselves immensely. The Colonial Comfort Inn not only offers comfortable motel rooms, but also is Hiker's Paradise Hostel for those who are traveling on a budget. It is open all year round and serves a huge breakfast for hungry hikers, skiers and travelers.

IF YOU GO:

  • Accommodations include
    • Colonial Comfort Inn
      Corner Rtes 2 & 16 (At the lights)
      370 Main Street
      Gorham, New Hampshire 03581
      #1-603-466-2732

      www.hikersparadise.com

      Red Jacket Inn & Resort
      P.O. Box 2000, Mountain View Rte #16 North Conway, New Hampshire 03600
      #1-800-RJACKET

      www.redjacketinns.com

  • For information on Mount Washington Auto Road

  • Information on the White Mountains can be had by writing
    • White Mountains Attractions Association
      P.O. Box 10PM
      North Woodstock, New Hampshire 06362
      #1-800 FIND MTS

      www.visitwhitemountains.com

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