July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
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.
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.
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.
For all that activity, and the civilizations that have come and gone at the top—there are today not only a cafeteria, post office, gift shop, restaurant, and museum but also the weather observatory, radio and television transmission buildings and towers, and an auto-road office—the mountain stays untamed. I was reminded of that as I walked up through the dense, cold fog from the parking lot to the Sherman Adams Building. I hadn’t more than twenty yards to go when a pair of young women looking very cold and wet emerged from the mist and asked me if they were near the summit. They had set out hours earlier on a nice morning hike up Tuckerman Ravine. They straightened and smiled with relief when 1 told them that their goal lay just a few steps on.
The sight of them put me in mind of my own conquest by foot of Mount Washington. As a teenager I climbed it with my father and sister over two days. First we went up Mount Madison to the north and spent the night at the AMC hut on the high ridge between the summits of Madison and Adams. The next day we climbed Adams and made our way around the top of the Great Gulf to Washington before descending via Tuckerman Ravine. We were never in the least actual danger, but we had some genuine thrills. One was when we were making our final ascent from the ridgeline up Washington. Moving from cairn to cairn in thick fog on lichen-covered rocks on what felt to he the remotest place on earth, we detected the distinct aroma of coal smoke. Another few steps through the cloud and we heard a sharp steam whistle. Then we made out the tracks, and toward us moved a little locomotive from another century.