It’s All About The Clouds

2017-03-29 21:39:38.000 – Bill Ofsiany and Bruce Althen, Summit Volunteers


When most people think of a “perfect” day on Mount Washington, they probably think of a bluebird day, with clear blue skies and a visibility of 130 miles. Those days are rare and may not necessarily be the most visually appealing days to be here, at least in my opinion. It is the clouds, above and sometimes below, that give the mountain its character. For instance, the saucer shaped lenticular clouds tell even the non-meteorologists that turbulent winds are blowing.

Sunrise with a few clouds below the summit

A sunrise or sunset on a cloudless day, is just a red ball rising or setting. Add clouds to the mix and colors reflect or pass through the various cloud layers, from the horizon to overhead, making viewers stand in awe, and bringing us back to the summits repeatedly. On occasion, blowing snow plays a role, sometimes acting like it is in harmony with the clouds. The snows motion makes what you see appear more dynamic, more energetic. The sight of the blowing snow reinforces the feeling you get from the wind as it pushes that snow, and you, around. Combine this with the sun reflecting off the clouds and the whole view turns into a….“Wow!” experience. We had a few of those “wow” experiences this past week.

Sunrise with undercast conditions

Our shift change this past week was postponed by one day due to wind gusts to 120 mph and resulting wind-chill values as low as 70 below zero. The day we finally headed up to the summit was a five hour trip up in the snow tractor up the Mt Washington Auto Road. At one point, we stopped at the section of the road referred to as Five Mile as we were greeted by a large snowdrift. As we waited outside the snow tractor to see if we would continue up or have to return to the base, high above us, over Nelson Crag, a swirl of snow and clouds formed in a clear, deep blue sky. As I watched, this swirl, which appeared to be about one hundred feet across, began to move down the slope, pushed along by the Northwest wind that was blowing at around 50 to 75 mph at the time. The snow swirl maintained its integrity and spun like a fan all the way down to where we were standing. When it passed by us, it felt like we were hit by an air cannon.

Sunrise with undercast conditions while looking down the Auto Road

Later in our shift week, we had undercast conditions – what the Observers call a stratus layer that forms below the summit. On a day with undercast, the world below the high peaks is smothered by clouds, while the summit(s) stick up into the clear cloud-less air. On some of those days, looking southwest along the Southern Presidentials, you can see Wave Clouds forming over the high summits. It is like watching a river that stretches from the west flowing over the summits and down into Oakes Gulf and Dry River only to rise as it slam into the Montalban Ridge. The crash forces turbulent clouds up into the clear air above, like a giant water wave hitting a boulder in a river. A perfect and dynamic vista for viewing. While bluebird days have their place, to me a perfect day is all about the clouds!

Pastel colors with undercast conditions


Bill Ofsiany and Bruce Althen, Summit Volunteers

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