Two Roads To The Top Of The World

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I boarded the cog railway for the trip up New Hampshire’s 6,288-foot Mount Washington on a sunny, warm morning in September. An hour and a quarter later, I stepped out onto the roof of New England, a desolate landscape of rock,precipice, and cloud stung by lashing sleet, brisk wind, and air chilled to thirty-nine degrees. In so doing, I was enjoying what could be called the original American tourist attraction. The cog railway opened in 1869, and already by then the mountain had half-century-old hiking trails, a carriage road to the top, and even a squat stone hotel at the summit. People loved the trip up for the adventure of traveling to a truly alien, even dangerous world.

The cog railway has hardly changed at all since horizontal boilers replaced vertical ones on its locomotives in the 1870s. I rode in a wooden car pushed by the Ammonoosuc , built in about 1875. The stumpy, insatiable little steam engine—it takes a ton of coal and a thousand gallons of water to get to the top—streamed black smoke and white steam as it blew its harsh whistle and began the slow ascent in a straight line up through a broad clearing dotted with blueberry bushes in a forest of spruces, firs, and maples.

Two heavy toothed wheels—the cog-wheels—under the engine engaged a ladderlike center rail to pull the train up an average grade of twenty-five degrees. After only twenty minutes the landscape was changing. The trees glistened with dew from encroaching fog, and they were shorter and more predominantly evergreen, and the breeze blew cooler through the car’s open front door. After half an hour our brakeman jumped down, swung a switch lever, and we pulled onto a siding to let a descending train pass. Soon we were looking out above the trees to vast rock-strewn open slopes. On a barren ridge away up to the right we could make out the Lake of the Clouds Hut, a stop-over for hikers high on the mountain, run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). Then we were atop a broad ridge ourselves.

Our pitch increased until, thirty-feet in the air on a trestle, we reached Jacob’s Ladder, the steepest part of the climb, where the train angled up at thirty-seven degrees, and the passengers in the front of the car were fourteen feet higher than those in the back. Now there was nothing around us but rock, grass, and stunted, gnarled, earth-grabbing spruce trees, none more than a foot or two high, an environment known by the term Krummholz , German for “crooked wood.” The sky shone blue down behind us, but the mountaintop ahead lay hidden in sodden cloud. A lone hiker in shorts and a parka and gloves, passed in the distance, bent under his backpack and using two walking sticks. Behind him, to the north, the earth dropped off into the Great Gulf, a huge cirque surrounded by gravelly cliffs and filled with roiling masses of cloud, the farther high peaks of the Presidential Range-Mounts Madison, Adams, Jefferson, and Clay—ringing its top.

As we rose into the cloud cover of the summit, we passed a wooden marker memorializing Lizzie Bourne, a twenty-year-old woman from Maine who died of exposure at that spot during a hike with her uncle in 1855. Then we were at the peak, at the modern steel-and-concrete Sherman Adams Building, constructed into the mountain’s highest reaches in 1980 and home to a cafeteria, gift shop, post office, museum, and observatory, and, above and behind that, little Tip Top House, made of boulders and standing there since 1853.

The first house on the summit opened in 1852; five years later Sylvester Marsh had a rough climb to it in a bad storm and resolved to devise a better way up. He had previously had great success inventing meat-packing machinery; now he invented the cog railway. Meanwhile, on the opposite, eastern flank of the mountain, the carriage road was being built, by Gen. David O. Macomber, of Middletown, Connecticut. It opened in 1861, eight years before the railroad.

Completion of the two routes opened the golden age on the summit of Mount Washington. In July 1873 a nearly hundred-room hotel opened. The two-and-a-half-story wooden structure held down by cables bolted to the rocks was open, like everything on the summit to this day, only in the summer, the least treacherous time of year. By the 1890s the hotel had been joined by a stage office, a train station, a weather observatory, a survey tower, and even a twice-daily newspaper, Among the Clouds , with its own steam-powered printing press. Early on the evening of June 18, 1908, before the hotel had opened for the season, a fire broke out and, fed by the fierce summit winds, destroyed the entire community except for a couple of stables and old Tip Top House.

In July 1873 a nearly hundred-room hotel opened on the subarctic summit; for a time there was a twice-daily paper.

As I warmed myself by drinking hot chocolate and watching hikers come in out of the cold, I noticed a wall display listing the mountain’s 122 recorded fatalities. Can it still be so dangerous? I was startled to see that 6 of those 122 had died this year. The most common causes: exposure and falls. I thought of the mountaineer Barry Bishop. When I was in high school in Massachusetts in the 1960s, he came to talk to us about his ill-fated 1963 Everest expedition, on which he had lost half his fingers and toes and one comrade. One of the survivors had died the next year on Mount Washington.