So we have a visitor from Cuba, a person I met on my trip there in 2008. He arrived somewhat precipitously; the tortuous process of obtaining the precious visa to visit the United States lurched in fits, stops and starts and finally produced the visa stamp in his passport without much warning. “I GOT THE VISA!” arrived in my inbox one morning, and the next day he was here.
Because of his profession, many people wanted a piece of him during his visit, which all turned out to be quite complex logistically. But my husband and I got a whole day of his time, and I was determined to take him to a place far removed from street scenes, and to show him something he had never seen before: SNOW.
Well, it’s May here, so where to find snow? Upcountry, as we call it around here. Upcountry to New Hampshire, upcountry to the White Mountains, specifically to the summit of Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet the highest peak in the northeast United States.
There are three means of ascending Mount Washington, well, four actually, depending on the season. You can hike up it (which my husband and I did when we were nabbing all the 4000-foot+ peaks in New England). You can drive up the auto road in your car. In winter, if you work in the weather observatory at the summit you must take the huge CAT through the deep snow burying the road.
Or you can take the cog railway. We figured our Cuban visitor was not likely to have much chance anywhere else to ride a cog railway to the top of a 6,288 foot mountain. So that’s what we did.
People have been ascending the great peak on foot for hundreds and hundreds of years. The local Abenaki Indians felt that its summit was inhabited by powerful beings, a not-unreasonable belief considering the violent weather that surrounds it. In 1642 a local man called Darby Field climbed to the summit, and by 1819 the oldest hiking trail in the United States, Crawford Path, led to the top.
The top of Mount Washington, however, is not attained easily. Its weather is ferocious—changeable and monstrously extreme. Famously, the highest wind speed ever recorded, a mind-boggling 231 mph, attacked the summit in April of 1934.
Recently, from September 2013 to April 2014, the highest temperature at the summit was 60℉, the lowest was -26℉, and the lowest windchill stood at -78℉. The highest wind speed was 130 mph, and on 10 days winds blew over 100 mph. Oh, and during that time the summit received around 300 inches of snow.
Since records have been kept, nearly 150 hikers have died on the mountain, many from hypothermia (cold) in every month of the year. A list of these unfortunates is posted at the summit, along with brief accounts of what went wrong for them. A hiker may begin the trip at, say, Pinkham Notch Lodge in the valley below the great mountain; its altitude is about 2,000 feet. But then there are 4,000 more feet to ascend, and for every thousand feet, the conditions change to resemble those of 600 miles farther north. So that’s 2,400 miles north, more like Labrador, or the mid-portion of Greenland, than New Hampshire. So you don’t set out in your shorts and t-shirt, no matter how benign the weather may be at the start.
Back to the cog railway. Built in 1869, it was a marvel of its day, bringing eager and venturesome people up the mountain, the very first cog railway in the world to be used for this purpose. Using an ingenious system of cogs and grabbers, and powered by a wood-burning engine, up crept the one-car train, taking several hours to reach its goal. Later on coal was the fuel (a ton of it for each trip), and I remember seeing the plume of black smoke in the distance while hiking nearby peaks.
But in 2008, in response to environmental concerns, a new kind of engine, using biodiesel fuel, was perfected and except for one nostalgic steam trip first thing in the morning, these engines are the thing, and your trip up takes about one hour.
Our trip began auspiciously with still-warm blueberry muffins, baked on the premises for the little restaurant at the cog railway station. We’d brought a supply of cold-weather gear for our Cuban guest (who’d complained of the 60℉ cold in Boston), and we suited up.
Here came an engine and its one car easing its way down the track, ever so slowly! Our guest eagerly took pictures as the tiny train settled into its berth in front of us. We gathered trackside, waiting to board, along with several other folks. “Our friend here is from Cuba,” I told them. “He’s never seen snow.” They were pleased to meet such an unusual person.
“ ‘boooard!” called the conductor/guide; we were first in line and I urged our friend to sit in the very front seat, with a view not only to the side but ahead. Our seats were markedly canted back, our knees elevated, to accommodate the sharply upward climb we were about to make.
And we were off! We crept slowly over the Ammonoosuc River, roaring with snowmelt, and on up the Cold Spring Hill, with its 35% grade (note that the maximum grade on Interstates is 6-7%!). Now our seats felt just right. We stopped for a few minutes at the big wooden water tank. When the coal-powered engine comes up once a day, it must stop here to take on water.
The weather was not favorable for seeing long distances, but close to the track, mysterious fog began to rise, and snow patches appeared, first among the shaded evergreens on either side, and then trackside. Our guest was on his feet, taking picture after picture. All the windows were open, and the chill air blew through the car.
I’d explained to our friend about treeline (or timberline as we called it in Colorado), when the air is too cold, windy or dry for trees to grow. Gradually tall vegetation gives way to alpine tundra, with its crisp, beautiful ground-hugging plants.
On either side of our slowly-climbing train we could see how the trees became shorter and shorter, until finally all gave way to lichen-coated granite rocks. We could hardly see them, as the fog was thick around us.
Our little engine that could pushed us up the steepest grade of 37+°, and then we arrived at the summit, where all was snow. But we could see nothing! Cloud and fog swirled around us and the winds buffeted us as we climbed off the train. Our glasses were immediately covered with fog and we wandered around a bit nervously. Our conductor had gestured to “over there” for the entrance to the summit building, which we could barely discern through the whiteout.
But we couldn’t find the entrance! We couldn’t see anything! As mountain hikers, my husband and I were all too aware of the dangers of such a situation, and even though we knew there were other people around us, and that certainly the entrance was around here somewhere, in the whiteness, we moved carefully, staying together with our guest, and not getting too far from the looming building, and wiping off our glasses every few minutes.
Our guest wanted a picture of himself in the snow. We took some with his camera, and some with his phone, that he could send home to his family in sunny Cuba.
We could just barely make out a cairn down the slope from a trailhead sign. A cairn is a large pile of rocks that hikers build along a trail, to mark the way. We have been on White Mountain trails in weather in which the next cairn (the top rock painted bright yellow) is only visible when you have moved to the one you can see. This was that kind of setting. Exhilarating, scary, awesome!
Thank goodness, here was the entrance to the summit building, and we went in. I bought candy bars for everyone, and we wandered around looking at photographs of the old days (ladies climbing the mountain in skirts), and reading the sobering accounts of deaths on this mountain.
Time to go back down. The weather began to clear, and our friend could now see the majestic range of the Presidentials to the left: Mts. Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower, Clinton, Jackson and Webster (honored in these parts as a native son though never president). Several of these are over 5,000 feet, and they were striped with snow.
Our train inched down, down the mountain. Snow became patchy, then vanished. The fog dissipated, and the air warmed, and after an hour we were back at the base. Cuban met snow, and found it startling!
On the way back to Massachusetts we stopped off for a little hike at The Flume, a remarkable narrow gorge through granite. We thought our Cuban guest should see it. Around the gorge is New England forest, and at this time of year, ephemeral spring flowers are blooming in it. I took some pictures; I was happy to be in the forest once again.