On the Rockpile: A Winter's Night in the Obs

by Brenda

I always jump at the chance to go north for a hike or a ski, so when Pam called and said she had an story assignment on the Mt. Washington Observatory for the Washington Post and wanted to bring me along, I said, "I'm there!" All I had to do was take pictures. Easy enough.

Our journey started Tuesday afternoon from Boston. We drove north in a rented Montero packed with borrowed gear and cameras. We crossed the Kanc in a snowstorm, catching a rare glimpse of moose butt in winter, and made our way to the AMC's Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch. The rooms were wood paneled and cheery, if somewhat chilly at night. Wednesday morning we rose early and drove to the parking lot of the Glen house. Here we met up with the crew of the observatory: Sarah Curtis, chief meteorologist; Anna Porter and Brian Post, observers; and John Hopewell from Montana, the new intern. They were going up to start their Wednesday to Wednesday shift. Bryan Yeaton, Education Outreach Coordinator for the Discovery Center, and Sean Doucette, Webmaster for mountwashington.org were riding up with Olof Ekbergh to film an educational video about the observatory. Also along for the ride was another journalist-Jamie Fargo Balliett, a reporter from the Burlington Free Press. We all crossed the road to where the Bombardier Sno-Cat sat, and without giving it much thought, placed our luggage--and our lives--in the remarkably capable hands of the driver, Chris Uggerholt. The group rode in the back of the Cat, with room for one person up front with Chris. As we headed up the potato chip pillows and from our heady anticipation for what lay ahead. The ride was smooth until we hit treeline, when the Cat moved backward with a jolt. Then forward. Then backward. "We're plowing the road," said Sean, as he scraped the window clear of frost. Ahead we could see a huge drift of snow blocking our way. My heart settled back into its usual position in my chest and I grew hopeful that we could get out and walk-the motion was a bit like being on a mechanical bull and it tossed us into one another like drunks. About a minute later, Chris stopped the Cat and walked around back, "You might want to get out for awhile, it's going to be rough." He didn't need to say it twice, and we piled out. Even at this elevation, we needed full winter gear. As we walked along the Auto Road, we took pictures as Chris cleared the road. It was an impressive sight-there was no room for a mistake. The drift had stopped us at the 5 mile post, and as we walked toward the Nelson Crag turn, the wind really picked up, so we huddled by a metamorphosed rock to wait for Chris.

After plowing about a quarter mile section of road, Chris drove up and we all got in. Sarah, who had been riding in the cab, offered to let me sit up front to take pictures. It was a decision she would regret. Ten yards around the turn lay another, smaller drift. Chris began plowing once again. I felt fortunate to be able to watch him work and see what the inside of the cab looked like. After asking a few questions, I soon realized that he needed all of his concentration for the task at hand, so I shut my trap, watched the action, and shot off a few pics. After about ten minutes of plowing, the intercom buzzed and Sarah's voice came across the line, "Can we get out and walk? We're not feeling so great back here." "Hang on for a couple of minutes," was Chris's reply. Soon we were past the last major drift and conversation picked up. Chris, I learned, had been a fisherman on Cape Cod, and had moved north over 10 years ago. The juxtaposition of the two jobs struck me. Both required risking one's life in extreme outdoor environments. Chris clearly enjoyed what he did and felt that the ocean and mountain environments were very similar-wind, isolation, and fog. Being on a mountain-on this mountain-was like being at sea. I was just beginning to get a glimpse of what he meant.

We arrived at the summit two hours after leaving the base of the Auto road. After plowing a drift from the front of the Sherman Adams building, Chris parked the cat and opened the doors to the back. Seven green faces peered out at him. The group pushed its way out into the fresh air and began unloading the Snow cat. Once everything was unloaded, we descended into the observatory. It didn't take long for Pam and I to make ourselves at home.

The outgoing crew made us lunch, and then we went to work. Pam observed a staff meeting, and I nosed around the observatory. The living quarters were cozy if unremarkable, with the exception of the kitchen. One of the main jobs given to volunteers who visit the Obs is to cook for the crew-and as a result they eat very well. The pantry is stocked to the ceiling with food, and I marveled at the selection. They have enough canned pumpkin for 5 years of holiday meals, and ample pickle relish to feed a stadium full of Red Sox fans. A sign on the refrigerator warns of an insatiable wild beast. On the drive up, we had heard tales of Nin, the only year-round resident. A group of feminist observers named the cat after Anais Nin without bothering to determine gender. Not that it matters-Nin is comfortable in his own fur, especially when atop other people's gear.

My explorations took me upstairs to the observatory. The obs has recently had a face lift, with a new panel for the instruments, and additional room for the computers. As I looked around, Olof filmed Bryan interviewing Sarah about her work, as Sean worked sound. Watching them film was a great way to learn about the observatory. Sarah pointed out which instruments recorded wind speed, humidity, and temperature. We also saw the disc that recorded the highest wind speed in the last 20 years-over 182 MPH on December 4, 1980. During a break in the filming, Bryan took us on a tour of the observatory. First we went outside to see what 65 MPH winds really feel like. He showed us where observers take hourly readings, and then we headed up to the parapet, the highest point of the obs, where wind speed is recorded. The intrepid reporter and her trusty sidekick braved the wind long enough for a photo opp.

While we were outside playing in the wind, Sean put down his microphone, picked up a chef's knife, and began cooking up a storm (cough, cough). Promptly at 7 P.M. we all sat down for a delicious meal of tossed salad, tempeh stew, rice, asparagus, and jug wine.

After dinner, Olof wanted to do some filming outside. The wind had picked up-averaging around 85 mph-and it was really howling (or bellowing, screaming, raging-choose your adjective). We geared up and headed out. Olof had set up the camera just inside the doorway to the deck of the observatory. I climbed above the filmmakers for a better vantage point. They were working without a script, which is always tricky. However, Bryan is a natural in front of the camera-he knows a lot about weather and the observatory, and he usually managed to be articulate and interesting. After they finished, we all went out on the deck into the strongest winds of the day. As we played, Olof shot some hilarious footage. At one point he caught three of us leaning at a 45 degree angle into the wind. Sean by far had the best form and managed to lean so far into the wind that he was nearly nose to concrete. We returned, exhilarated, covered in rime. After a couple of games of Toss the Pigs, we retired to bed. Bryan promised to knock on our door and wake us up early. It had been too cloudy on the summit to see sunset, but we had hopes it would clear up.

At 6:10 the next morning, someone grabbed my toe, and I shot upright in bed. It was Bryan and Olof with news that the clouds were beginning to lift. I quickly dressed, grabbed my camera and headed out. Pam wasn't feeling well and opted to get adequate sleep for the drive home later that day. We bundled up and headed out into the morning. We witnessed a stunning play of light and shadow and color that I won't attempt to describe.

After about an hour outside, we came in to hear Sarah give her morning radio show. Out the window I caught sight of a raven, riding the 40 mph wind. We went outside several times that afternoon and took many more pictures. After a lunch of Sean's pizza, we loaded up the Snow-cat and drove down the mountain. The trip down was mildly terrifying for me-something about gravity, ice, and the proximity of the Great Gulf to our immediate left made for an exhilarating ride down the summit cone. Once we hit treeline, my nerves resumed their normal frequency. As we pulled into the parking lot at the base of the Auto road, I was sad to say goodbye to these interesting, talented, and fun people. It had been a magical 24 hours.