THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

For the hardy, a lesson in extremes

Email|Print| Text size + By Peggy Hoffman
Globe Correspondent / October 29, 2006

MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. -- "It was scary. It was a scary, scary ride."

That's how John Bruni remembers his trip in March to the highest peak in the Northeast. He and six other curious individuals were tucked inside a snow tractor plowing its way yard-by-yard through a blinding blizzard.

They were participating in an educational seminar sponsored by the Mount Washington Observatory and were getting exactly what they signed up for: sub zero cold, white out conditions, hurricane-strength wind gusts, and a chance to experience what often is described as the "home of the world's worst weather."

Their trip leader was Peter Crane, director of programs for the observatory, a private, nonprofit organization that operates a year-round weather research facility at the summit.

"In the summer we go up and say 'It's so pretty,' " said Bruni, 63, of Jackson. He had wondered what it was like on the 6,288 -foot summit in winter. He got his answer in no uncertain terms.

The wind was blowing hard, and from inside the tractor Bruni and the others could see nothing outside. At times, neither could the driver. So they stopped. They sat. They waited, until the visibility improved so they could at least see the edge of the road, where the cliff begins.

One of the things that makes Mount Washington unique is its wildly unpredictable and extreme weather, the result of its geography and topography. This combination of factors makes the mountain an ideal place for the weather observatory -- and makes its summer and winter educational seminars so enticing.

"It's like going to the beach in a storm," Crane said in explaining the lure. "People can experience the extreme without having to travel thousands of miles. On Mount Washington, they can sample the elements and no one gets hurt." He cited the damage caused by tornadoes and the devastating flooding left by Hurricane Katrina as examples of fascinating but unwanted extreme weather. "Most people want to know what an 80 -mile-per-hour wind feels like, but they don't want it in their neighborhood," he said. "Up here, we look forward to it."

It's not that the staff doesn't appreciate clear days. But in their meteorological world, the opportunity to experience and measure the worst the mountain can throw at them is what keeps them going through the tedious days of relentless fog and rain.

Situated halfway between the Arctic and the equator, and near the border of North America and the Atlantic Ocean, Mount Washington is at the confluence of three major storm tracks: coastal (such as northeasters), Appalachian (sometimes fetching moisture from the Gulf of Mexico), and Canada and the Great Lakes (often propelling cold air).

The conflicting dry, humid, hot, cold, and maritime air masses , pushed along by prevailing westerly winds, barrel up the mountain slope and collide with an area of lower pressure that can yield cool, cloudy, wet , and windy conditions -- often tallied in extreme degrees.

Since 1932, observatory staff have monitored these elements. In 1934, they recorded the world's highest surface wind speed at 231 miles per hour. Put in perspective, a Category One hurricane begins at 74 miles per hour; a Category Five hurricane has sustained winds greater than 155 miles per hour. While visitors are unlikely to be blown away by a record wind gust, they likely will struggle against mean wind speeds of 25 miles per hour in summer and 50 mils per hour in winter.

Winds up to 100 miles per hour are common enough in winter that staff and guests vie to join the informal "century club." Although no roster is kept, those who manage to walk the several hundred feet around the observatory deck under their own power -- no crampons, no poles -- can claim membership . For those who fail, or rather fall flat from a gust of wind, there is the "crawl of shame," also with no official roster.

The summer and winter seminars on the mountain offer in-depth discussions of the mountain's natural history, the basics of life and work by the summit staff, climatology, meteorology, and even cold-weather photography.

Once at the summit, Crane takes the group through the staff quarters, which includes one small bathroom, a bunkroom, dining table, kitchen, and a pantry stocked with donations of pasta, tuna, chicken noodle soup, coffee, and a case of plastic honey jars. Overnight seminar guests eat and sleep in this same cozy space as the staff and volunteers.

In the observatory, Crane explains in detail the instruments that measure wind speed, wind direction, temperature, barometric pressure, and precipitation.

Some instruments are less intricate than others, such as the snow blast tool -- made of wood, lead, metal strips , and a little rubber -- resembling in detail a No. 2 pencil. This instrument is meticulously stuck into the ground and later measured for its weathering.

There is a drawer labeled for each instrument and one drawer labeled, "Nin's Treats and Toys." Nin is the 16-year-old observatory cat, snowball in color and shape . Another drawer is labeled "Recreational Activities." Inside are a few Frisbees, a football , and a soccer ball -- all mostly used inside.

A quick, hot cup of coffee, and Crane helps everyone prepare to go outside. Putting on all the gear made Bruni feel like an astronaut before an extraterrestrial walk. "Everything I'm putting on," he said, "is protecting me from something that's two inches away."

To reach the top of the tower, they clamber up two steep and narrow ladders, then crawl through a 2-foot - by - 4-foot opening onto a circular platform. On a clear day, this small space affords the only 360-degree view from the summit. It always offers 360 degrees of exposure to the elements.

To reach the observatory deck, they crawl back down the narrow stairs and through a one-story-high, A-frame of red metal beams designed to block larger chunks of ice from falling on their heads.

"All of a sudden you're in a totally different environment where it's hostile," Bruni said. "Your brain is thinking, 'Don't fall down because you're going to blow off the mountain.' "

Not all winter seminars are so extreme. A week after Bruni's trip, Cathi Belcher, 52, experienced unusually mild weather. A temperature inversion created a shelf under which pollution blown in from the Great Lakes was trapped.

"You could see it quite dramatically," said Belcher, who owns The Lodge at Jackson Village. "There was a gray line of haze in all of our photographs. This really surprised me, and made me realize that even way up here . . . we cannot sit back and take our precious natural environment for granted."

Crane hopes the observatory seminars are a way to spread that same message of not taking Mount Washington for granted, whether it is an issue of pollution or being unprepared for sudden shifts in the weather.

Contact Peggy Hoffman, a freelance writer in Boston, at inkysedits@comcast.net.

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