Local

Life in the extreme: What it’s like to be an observer on Mount Washington

Kept company by Nimbus the cat, observers keep tabs on New England's wildest weather.

Mount Washington Summit
A view of the Mount Washington Observatory. Via the Mount Washington Observatory

New Englanders leaving their homes on Tuesday morning were greeted by the jarring, breath-stealing realization that the coldest temperatures so far in 2022 had arrived.

Arctic air invades,” noted a National Weather Service synopsis of the conditions, highlighting the potential danger for those venturing outdoors.

Yet however frigid it might be across the region, there is one place where it is, as always, definitively colder.

Sitting at an altitude of 6,288 feet, the peak atop Mount Washington is the tallest point in New England. And because of the longstanding nonprofit weather observatory perched at its summit, it is also a convergence of both extreme weather and rigorous scientific measurement.

Advertisement:

The result, as has been ongoing virtually every hour since 1932, is documentation of some of the world’s most inconceivable weather readings. For example, the Tuesday summit forecast noted that air temperatures would be “starting around 30 below then slowly rising through the day to around 15 below by sunset.”

Wind chills, dictated by gusts ranging up to 85 mph, would reach “70 below to 80 below.”

As unfathomable as those conditions may seem, they are far from the most notable that the station has witnessed. The observatory still holds the record for fastest gust ever recorded by a manned weather station when winds of 231 mph roared past in April of 1934.

That the station is permanently staffed by a rotating group of observers has created a fascinating level of first-hand documentation of New England’s most intense weather over the years.

On Tuesday, the observatory’s Twitter account shared a photo of pasta frozen in place almost instantaneously:

“Living up here is definitely extreme,” observer Jacquelyn Bellefontaine told Boston.com in a recent interview. “The average temperature for January is about six degrees. And it’s also our windiest month of the year. So we’re seeing gusts over 100 mph, near-hurricane force winds throughout [the month].”

Rotating through 12-hour shifts, observers go through daily tasks.

Advertisement:

“Officially every hour on the hour we’re going out and taking weather observations,” Bellefontaine explained. “We’re looking at things such as precipitation, temperature, sky variables or sky condition, like what the clouds are doing around us, and visibility.”

On a clear day, observers can see as far as 130 miles away. More often than not, however, visibility is restricted due to constant cloud cover. On those days, as Bellefontaine put it, “we can’t even really see across the deck, which is a 16th of a mile.”

To conduct observations, it ideally requires going outdoors at the summit. Given the frequently occurring inclement conditions, observers have safety measures to follow.

“Everyone kind of has their thresholds that they’re comfortable with and that has a lot to do with the observer’s experience,” said Bellefontaine. “Even just the size of the observer, you know, because someone who’s much smaller might only be able to go up to like 90 mph winds.”

A metal A-frame built on the observatory helps protect anyone venturing outside from high winds and ice. The only part of the routine that can’t be accomplished in the safety of the A-frame is the precipitation can (which has to be in its own area for accuracy).

Advertisement:

“It’s out there in the open,” Bellefontaine noted. “Once you get past that break at the end of the building, you’re for the most part, depending on the direction of the wind, feeling it pretty hard.”

In harsher conditions, observers are permitted to space out checking the precipitation can over longer periods of time for safety.

Despite the occasional challenges of the role, Bellefontaine—who has been at the observatory for a year—said she relishes the uniqueness of the position.

“I definitely did not expect to have a job this cool,” she joked. Having studied earth sciences at the University of Maine, the job of an observer on Mount Washington aligns with her particular focus.

“I was always interested by dynamic environments, especially ones that can sometimes be similar to Arctic environments,” said Bellefontaine. “That’s definitely like Mount Washington in the winter time. It gets close to that.”

When not braving the cold and wind to make hourly notes, observers have carved out a lifestyle living on top of New England.

“We kind of have like a little family-style dinner, which I guess is also breakfast from the night observer,” Bellefontaine said of end-of-shift meals. Two observers work the day shift, with one handling the nighttime.

Along with interns and visitors (reduced in recent times due to the pandemic), the other member of the team is Nimbus, a cat who Bellefontaine estimated was “about a year old.”

“He has a lot of kitten energy still,” she noted. Nimbus is far from the first cat to find a home atop Mount Washington.

“The observatory has had cats since we were founded in the 1930s, it’s always been a thing,” said Bellefontaine.

Advertisement:

“Actually one of my favorite things that I learned when I was giving one of my first presentations on our 231 mph [wind] event was that in addition to observers, there were like four cats and five kittens I believe in that building as well and they outnumbered the people,” she added.

On top of a practical role (catching mice), the cats have helped keep observers company over the decades.

“He has so much personality,” Bellefontaine said of Nimbus. “There have been times where I’ve come down and our night observer is almost kind of having a conversation with him, like a back-and-forth.”

Each day, after taking over from the nighttime shift, Bellefontaine explained what it feels like to head out into subzero temperatures.

“I have like three jackets on, we have lots and lots of layers, goggles, mask, the whole thing,” she detailed. An obvious necessity is to have no skin exposed.

“You will know if your [mask] is slipping down. You’ll feel it immediately.”

Bellefontaine recalled one moment when she was going through a regular task of breaking up ice accumulation on the observatory.

“I remember being up on the tower de-icing in cold weather and my glove just being blown up out of my jacket and that little bit of exposed wrist was just immediately felt,” she remembered. “It was a little painful and it turns red pretty quickly. You have to make sure you’re covered up and in very limited exposure because frostbite can set in pretty quickly in those types of conditions.”

Mount Washington Observatory summit
Observatory interns shovel snow and rime ice on a recent morning, keeping the thermo shack and A-frame clear. – Via Mount Washington Observatory

Even with the risks associated with the work, or the strange conditions—Bellefontaine said that “entire shifts” sometimes go by where cloud cover is so thick she almost doesn’t see the sun—observers have adapted to it.

Advertisement:

“I am so grateful for this opportunity,” said Bellefontaine. “Mount Washington is a very dynamic place. Every day is unique, as is every weather observation. It’s something I’ve been thoroughly enjoying.

“It’s set the bar pretty high for the rest of my life.”

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com