Excerpt of “Will They Believe It?”

By Rachel Slade | April 4, 2024

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is from Rachel Slade’s visit to Mount Washington Observatory last April on the 89th anniversary of the famous “highest wind ever recorded.” The entire feature will appear in the September/October 2024 issue of Yankee Magazine. The excerpt appears here with Yankee’s permission.

Mount Washington’s famously changeable climate makes the summit an ideal location to study the wonders of our restless atmosphere, and 90 years ago this April, three men stationed there experienced some of the most extreme conditions ever recorded while doing just that.

In the fall of 1934, Salvatore “Sal” Pagliuca, Wendell “Steve” Stephenson, and Alexander “Mac” McKenzie accepted the $5-a-week gig to share a tiny timber-framed cabin literally chained to the rocky peak and log the wind, rain, and snow.

Pagliuca, a former electrical engineer with GE who had emigrated from Italy, led the effort. He spent his time assiduously calibrating and re-calibrating their anemometer, custom-designed to withstand the elements. Even so, the instrument, set on the roof of the cabin, had to be constantly monitored. The biggest obstacle to registering wind speed on Mount Washington is rime ice, which transforms the barren summit landscape into a fantastic frosted confection. Rime occurs when super-cooled water molecules carried by the wind across our troposphere hit something solid, such as the cup of an anemometer, or an antenna, or a scientist’s beard. The water molecules then crystallize, accreting into dainty spears that point accusingly in the direction of the wind. Weighted with rime, exposed to hurricane force gusts over long periods of time, meteorological instruments break, freeze up, fly away. Even today, the observer’s job includes breaking the ice, with a sledgehammer if necessary, sometimes hourly under the most challenging circumstances.

In 1934, just as today, there was always something to fix or tweak on the mountaintop. Fresh from earning his engineering degree, Stephenson was an inveterate tinker who earned his keep that winter fixing anything and everything that needed repair. Another key feature of the weather-reporting operation in those days was maintaining radio communication with others in the region. McKenzie, a recent Dartmouth grad, had developed some expertise working the complex radio equipment of the time.

This being the Great Depression, the trio would have been satisfied to have a bed, a roof, food in their bellies, and meaningful work. But all three were also experienced mountaineers, drawn to the perilous edge of life where beauty and death intensify each other. They were eager to test themselves in the unforgiving Mount Washington climate.

Like Pagliuca, Stephenson, and McKenzie, I am drawn to nature’s extremes. I’ve battled gusts while sailing, rowing, biking, and kayaking but I’d never experienced anything like a 100-mile-per hour wind. Sitting in my Boston apartment studying the gray winter sky, I yearned to go all in, to feel the full force of nature. I read about Pagliuca, Stephenson, and McKenzie, and wanted to know Mount Washington’s winter summit for myself.

The Mount Washington Observatory was having a banner year for extreme conditions. On February 4, 2023, temperatures dipped to 47 degrees below zero, matching the previous record—also 47 below—held for nine decades. During that bone-chilling day, newscasters gushed over the 127 mile per hour winds which produced an impossible-to-imagine minus-109 degree windchill.

Yet the highest winds ever recorded—231 miles per hour—had been logged by Pagliuca, Stephenson, and McKenzie in April 1934. I hitched a ride in the Mount Washington Observatory’s snow cat during its weekly climb to the summit to provision the weather station and assist the shift-change. And I could do it on the 89th anniversary of the trio’s remarkable achievement.

At noon on April 11, when our snow cat reached the summit, the wind was blowing up to 100 miles per hour and could be sensed everywhere, even from deep inside the bunker-like 1980 concrete building that houses the Observatory, the seasonal museum, and a few folks from the Mount Washington State Park. The wind felt like an indomitable river of air. To prevent the duffels and boxes of dried pasta, canned beans, and jars of peanut butter from being blown off the cliff, our driver backed the snow cat up to the service entrance of the building so we could be sheltered as we unloaded.

I followed the staff down into the bowels of the building and tossed my duffel on one of the two bunkbeds in my assigned room, named after McKenzie. Cramped and dark, it was like a ship’s cabin. Nearly all the glass in the building had been sandblasted long ago by rushing air and the debris it carried. It was impossible to see through the small, heavily reinforced window in my cabin. Then I waited for the opportunity to climb up the silo and step into the blast.

The room was chilly. I snuggled down into my sleeping bag, flicked on the reading light, and began re-reading “World Record Wind: Measuring Gusts of 231 Miles an Hour,” McKenzie’s 1984 account of that incredible day. The slim volume was filled with log entries made a century ago, when he and the other observers felt, heard, and recorded a wind like no other. As I read, I listened to the low drone of that constant, muscular, unearthly wind, like the dull roar of an airborne ocean.

The catalyst for Mount Washington’s official winter occupation in the 1930s was a call by the Second International Polar Year Commission to “record continuously the variations of all the meteorological elements” at high altitudes around the planet. Scientists hoped that by logging the conditions and analyzing data “at levels uncontaminated by local irregularities and peculiarities on the earth’s surface,” they would unlock the secret of the earth’s atmosphere in its entirety.

At the time, scientists understood very little about the larger forces that create droughts, hurricanes, and deluges, but they were gathering clues. In 1926, Japanese scientist Wasaboro Oishi published a 1,300-word paper (surprisingly, written in Esperanto) about a phenomenon he had observed while launching weather balloons near Mt. Fuji. Once released, Oishi’s balloons would float up thousands of feet, then inevitably got swept east by a powerful and consistent westerly that appeared to blow more than 200 miles per hour—faster than any wind yet recorded on the planet. His findings were largely ignored by westerners.

By the 1930s, more accurate weather forecasting was seen as a way to build a more robust economy. Aviation was in its infancy but people were already imagining an era of passenger flights which would be quite vulnerable to atmospheric shifts. Better weather forecasting would also benefit agriculture, trade, and shipping. If there was something significant happening a couple of miles up, only mountaintop observers would be close enough to the upper atmosphere to gain a clear picture of the engine driving the planet’s weather.

Mount Washington was a particularly desirable location to build a weather station because it was accessible—close to civilization, with a cog railway and auto road that could facilitate provisioning the weather observers with coal, gasoline, kerosene, and food.

All that winter, Pagliuca, Stephenson, and McKenzie recorded the mountain’s many moods. They kept their equipment running, jotted down their findings, and sheltered adventure-seekers who braved the elements to reach the summit. They regularly encountered triple-digit winds, but also spent inordinate time feeding kerosene and coal into their stove and generator.

On April 11, 1934, there was much life inside their minuscule cabin just a few hundred feet from where I bunked. The three Depression-era weather observers had been joined by two friends of Pagliuca who’d climbed the mountain the day before, plus three grown cats and five newborn kittens—feline residents that have remained a constant presence at the summit ever since.

Throughout that day, the weather gave ominous signs. In the morning, a wind stirred from the southeast sending ice crystals sweeping across the blue sky in the form of wispy cirrus clouds. The idea of the weather front was brand new—its nomenclature an artifact of its discovery right after World War I. The phenomenon was first proposed by Norwegian scientist Vilhelm Bjerknes who argued that weather was dictated by the movements of cold and warm pockets of air swirling around the planet. When they banged up against each other, he wrote, that’s when we experience all the gifts and punishments of the skies.

Bjerknes’s observations and mathematical analyses of these systems shifted meteorologists’ interest from the barometer to the sky, and Pagliuca read the clouds as portents. On that morning, he stood on the summit of Mount Washington, gazed clear to the Maine coast, and pronounced it an “emissary sky.” A few hours later, stratocumulus clouds gathered into a dome above the mountain, then settled down and enveloped them.

Carried from the east by high winds, these clouds brought “rough frost,” wrote McKenzie, quite different from the dry rime to which they were accustomed, creating a dangerous dampness for the men going about their chores on the exposed mountaintop. Rough frost, McKenzie wrote, “tended to permeate our garments and then freeze into a thin ice armor.”

Throughout the day, McKenzie maintained radio contact with colleagues at the Blue Hill Observatory in Massachusetts, some 180 miles away, and other amateur radio enthusiasts following the weather in the surrounding country. The barometer in the cabin continued to drop and wind speeds increased to 124. The men were both anxious and excited to see what this storm had in store for them. After evening chores, everyone but McKenzie climbed into the attic to nestle under blankets in close proximity to the warm stovepipe.

All night, the wind assaulted the cabin, sending the anemometer pen zigzagging madly across the record sheet and shaking the door unnervingly in its frame. Arctic blasts splintered through cracks in the window sash; the stove struggled to emit any warmth. The cats smartly piled into a cozy feline mound in a box on a shelf behind the stove.

The maddening wind shook the hut with every gust, threatening to blow apart and sail away into the ether. Although experience had taught the men to trust their shelter, now insulated with a foot of ice all around, they listened, even in their sleep, for the terrifying sound of a snapped chain.

Before dawn on the morning of April 12, 1934, Stephenson awoke, acutely aware of the bellowing wind. His instruments claimed it was only blowing at 105, but the sounds outside were like nothing he’d heard before. Ice must have built up on the anemometer overnight, disrupting accurate recording. He had to knock it free.

Fumbling in the dark and cold, Stephenson climbed into his snowsuit, tucking the inner skirt of his parka into his snow pants. Wearing thick, gauntlet-like gloves, he tugged at the handle of the cabin door, but the rushing of wind created a vacuum so strong he had to fight to open it; when he finally stepped outside, bracing himself as usual for the northwesterlies, he found himself face-down in the snow. A southeasterly blast had upended him from behind. Stephenson recovered and with great effort, climbed to the roof of the cabin with a wooden club which he used to knock the anemometer free of ice. The moment he loosened his grip on his stick, the wind swept it away.

A hurricane-style storm was well underway. Later that morning, Pagliuca wrote in his diary that they’d logged several 172 mile-per-hour gusts. While he was riveted to the wind speed recorder, the rest of the crew kept busy. There was work to be done, a welcome distraction from that confounded wind and the chilling thought that the cabin might, at some point, be blown to smithereens. The stove in the kitchen was rigged to generate electricity to keep the anemometer free of ice. It gulped kerosene, so the volunteers chipped the 55-gallon drum free of ice to refill it.

As the day wore on, everyone was “beginning to be a bit edgy,” wrote McKenzie. Cabin fever was setting in, compounded by the relentless wind. Before noon, he was astonished to see the highly reinforced window behind the stove bulging inward during gusts. They were now timing speeds of 220 and occasionally 229 miles per hour. No one knew how long the cabin could stand against that kind of force.

“Then, at 1:21 pm on April 12, 1934, the extreme value of 231 mph out of the southeast was recorded,” wrote Pagliuca in the official logbook. “Twice I yelled the time so that [my companion] could put it down on paper,” he wrote. He then seized his slide rule to extrapolate his calibration curve once again and confirm what he had witnessed. It was true. Pagliuca could not contain his awe. “We had measured by means of an anemometer the highest natural wind velocity ever recorded officially anywhere in the world.”

Author Rachel Slade on the instrument tower in April 2023.

To read more of Rachel Slade’s account and her personal experience on the summit, look for the September/October 2024 Yankee.

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