Two Roads To The Top Of The World

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Down a flight of stairs beneath the Sherman Adams Building’s main level is the Mount Washington Museum, where I learned of species that live nowhere on earth except for the high reaches of this and the surrounding peaks, among them dwarf cinquefoil—down to a couple of thousand individual plants at last count—and the White Mountain butterfly. A number of plant species are found only on Mount Washington and in New-foundland or Labrador; ascending the mountain is in environmental terms equivalent to a trip one thousand miles straight north. The best-known statistic about the top of Mount Washington is that the highest wind ever measured on the surface of the earth blew there, at 231 miles per hour. But of all the dramatic numbers (average snow-fall, 21 feet; average July temperature, 49 degrees; days a year of greater-than-hurricane-force winds, 104; record cold, -47), my favorite is the highest temperature ever reached: One day in August 1975 the mercury hit 72.

I rode back down the mountain in a car led by the engine Agiocochook (the old Indian name for the mountain), built in 1896, reversing the trip across landscapes and climates, from a hard wintry waste of rock and cloud to an ordinary sunny day in New Hampshire. Two days later I went up the opposite side of the mountain by what began as the carriage road in 1861 and is now, still in private hands, the Mount Washington Auto Road.

The day was warm in the valley under fast-moving clouds; the previous one had been rainy, and the skies hadn’t decided to clear yet. The whole top of the Presidential Range was in cloud. I paid the toll for the road and was given an audiotape to listen to along the way, a THIS CAR CLIMBED MT. WASHINGTON bumper sticker, and a set of instructions such as, Stay in low gear all the way up and down, Don’t run the air conditioner or you’ll be more likely to overheat. I had driven up this road with my parents as a child in the early 1960s, and our 1956 Plymouth certainly overheated. But cars are so much better made today that it rarely happens anymore.

At first I was on just a sloping, winding road through lush green woods of maple and birch. But after a while it turned from paved to dirt; then the trees almost imperceptibly grew shorter and changed to firs and spruces, and the fog came down. I had to turn on the heat. After two and a half miles I had climbed from 1,560 feet to 4,000, and the trees were down to tortured Krummholz size. On a clear day that height would have offered a commanding view into and across the Great Gulf. However, the fog looked almost solid, and I could barely see beyond the margin of the two-lane road. I moved slowly and looked out for headlights or taillights. A van materialized just in front of me—it provides service for those who don’t want to drive them-selves—passed, and immediately disappeared. The feeling was eerie. I could tell that the land dropped off to either side of me, but not seeing where it went made a grander, stranger effect than looking clearly out and down.

After six miles I passed the Alpine Garden Trail. The Alpine Garden, farther south on the mountain, between Huntington and Tuckerman ravines and reachable only by foot, is a place where in springtime, which here means in June and early July, plants blossom that you’d otherwise have to travel to Alaska or Greenland or Lapland to see. Tuckerman Ravine, an almost perfectly bowl-shaped glacial cirque with a nearly vertical face, is best known as one of America’s most challenging ski slopes —people trudge up for hours for one imprudent schuss down—but the Tuckerman for whom it was named was a botanist, and it is never more amazing than in spring, when its half-mile-wide, thousand-foot-deep cliffsides glisten with numberless rivulets and the colors of alpine azalea, white-petaled diaspensia, and other tiny mountain blossoms.

At mile seven I was above trees completely and in an area once known as the cow pasture, for the dairy herd kept there in the days of the summit hotel. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel and hear the gusts of wind blowing across it at the car. After another half-mile a parking lot emerged before me. I parked, got out, buttoned up, and climbed a wooden staircase toward the Sherman Adams Building.

The auto road has become a constant object for record seekers over the years. In 1887 one Charles O’Hara set a still-standing horse-drawn vehicle record of one hour and nine minutes. The first automobile was a Stanley Steamer in 1899, driven by Freeland Stanley himself. An annual Climb to the Clouds auto race began in 1904 (the Manchester Union Leader called it “an unmitigated nuisance”) and is still held late each June; the current record is under seven minutes. A solar car has made the ascent in bad weather in less than thirty minutes, a runner in just under an hour, a bicyclist in only two minutes less than the runner (it’s not an easy ride), and a four-wheel-drive car without chains in winter snow hasn’t done much better than seven hours. The climb has also been made, according to the auto road audiocassette, on roller skates, llamas, skate-boards, and unicycles.