Record blown away, but pride stays put

N.H. summit’s claim to nasty weather intact

By David Filipov
Globe Staff / January 31, 2010

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MOUNT WASHINGTON - It was the signature superlative of a place that prides itself as the Home of the World’s Worst Weather, a claim to fame that attested to conditions few could withstand, much less embrace. For the handful of hardy souls who choose to make their living on the inhospitable summit of Mount Washington, the world record for the highest wind speed ever registered - 231 miles per hour! - was their calling card. For six decades, the record was their identity.

And now it is gone, toppled by a cyclone that pushed the anemometer to 253 on an island off the coast of Australia. For the self-proclaimed “weather geeks’’ who pull weeklong shifts measuring Mount Washington’s extreme meteorological mix of driving blizzards, bitter cold, and blusterous wind, it hurts like snowburn.

“I feel that loss, especially being a person who calls this mountain home for long periods at a time,’’ Brian Clark, a meteorologist for the Mount Washington Observatory, shouted last week over the frigid blast that battered the snow-encrusted summit. “It’s really sad to see this happen, but records are made to be broken.’’

Word that a new mark had been set came last week from the World Meteorological Organization, or WMO, an agency of the United Nations that began a study of global weather extremes four years ago. Scientists poring over records had stumbled across the readings, registered when Typhoon Olivia swept over Barrow Island, Western Australia, in 1996. The WMO sets the standards for how world meteorological events are categorized - the point of the study is to help establish methods to measure extreme weather data accurately - and Mount Washington Observatory had no choice but to accept the findings (although it plans to examine them to see how the Australian results were obtained.)

The news descended like a tropical depression over a state that still grieves for another fallen icon, the Old Man in the Mountain, which crumbled in 2003.

“Mt. Washington record wind blown away,’’ cried Wednesday’s front page of The Conway Daily Sun, which covers the Mount Washington Valley. “First, New Hampshire lost the Old Man of the Mountain, and now, we’ve lost another unique attribute,’’ declared the Nashua Telegraph.

“A sad day for New Hampshire,’’ commented Maryanne Canfield, owner of the New Hampshire Country Store, in Chocorua, N.H., which still sells Old Man refrigerator magnets.

But work went on atop the rockpile, as they call Mount Washington. On Thursday, the temperature dipped into the single digits. Visibility plummeted from 50 miles to about 50 feet. The windchill factor plunged below minus 20, thanks to gusts of 30 miles an hour, which fired frozen fog crystals that stung like tiny blow darts when they hit (foolishly) exposed skin. Rime frost extended like hoary banners from poles and antennas and anything else that stuck up.

“I would say this is a very mild day up here,’’ opined Casey Taylor, one of the observatory’s educators. “I would normally expect not to be able to see 20 feet in front of me. I would expect winds closer to 60 miles per hour.’’

The next day was more like it: freezing fog, winds averaging 60 to 70 miles per hour, temperatures at minus 20, windchill factor around minus 60.

Most people would run from such weather. Clark and his team revel in it.

When they are done measuring snowfall, wind speed, precipitation, and knocking frost and ice off their equipment with crow bars, they like to go outside and play, weather permitting - a phrase that takes on new meaning up here.

“I might go out for a hike, go for a walk, maybe do some back country skiing,’’ remarked Clark. “Everybody who works here loves to be outside.’’

The observatory, run by a private nonprofit, has been recording weather since 1932 (and registered the former record in 1934.) The unique combination of location, weather patterns, and the shape of the Presidential Range conspire to create such severe conditions on a summit that, at 6,288 feet, would rank as a mere foothill in the Rockies. For every 1,000 vertical feet you climb on Mount Washington, conditions change as though you had traveled 250 miles north, said Chris Lewey, a leader of the observatory’s overnight educational trips to the summit.

That means a trip to the top of the rockpile is akin to a 1,500 mile jaunt to the Canadian tundra (only windier). This hits home during the 7.6-mile climb to the summit in the observatory’s tracked snowcat, the only vehicle capable of negotiating the ice, snowdrifts and steep slopes that lend the narrow road the feel of a bad dream. Oak and birch forests quickly yield to conifers, then to low scrub, then to lichen, then to snowcap.

Conditions on the mountain can change so rapidly and violently, even in warmer months, that climbers are often caught unprepared, one reason why more than 140 people have died here since 1849.

“It’s hard to find somewhere where there are such cold temperatures, a lot of snow and such high winds all together,’’ said Clark. “Add to that the freezing fog, which is something you don’t find in many places, and that’s what makes the place unique.’’

It is also what makes the superlative in the observatory’s slogan - “Home of the World’s Worst Weather’’ - plausible. One of the things about the wind speed record is that it drew attention to the fact that people could function up here.

The new Australian benchmark does not change that. Nor does it diminish the status of the observatory that until recently held the officially recognized mark for second highest recorded wind: Blue Hill Observatory in Milton, Mass., which registered 186 miles an hour during the Hurricane of 1938.

Typhoon Olivia knocked Blue Hill down a notch. And Don McCasland, program director at the observatory, is fine with that.

“I have no complaints. I do not want our current high mark to ever be broken,’’ he said, noting that the Hurricane of 1938 killed hundreds of people. “I don’t want any of the records broken anywhere in the world.’’

McCasland and other Blue Hill staff are celebrating a distinction of which they are much prouder - tomorrow is the 125th anniversary of the observatory’s founding. The station is by far the oldest continuously operating in the country. Its mercury barometer has worked for almost 123 years, longer than any of its kind in the country - and over half a century longer than the one on the summit of Mount Washington.

“We definitely have barometer envy,’’ chuckled Mike Finnegan, IT observer at the Mount Washington Observatory, as he fed the data he had collected on the summit into a computer linked to the National Weather Service.

As for anemometer envy? Clark said the sign that proclaims “The highest wind ever observed by man was recorded here’’ had been taken down for the winter. When it goes back up, it may require an edit.

“The record still stands as the highest wind record,’’ deadpanned Clark, “in the northern and western hemispheres.’’

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for a headline in The Conway Daily Sun. It was the Wednesday, Jan. 27 edition.