By Ken Rancourt | January 25, 2024
Known throughout New England as “Marty on the Mountain,” Marty Engstrom passed away on Jan. 4 at his home in Fryeburg, ME, according to his family. He was 86 years old. Engstrom worked for 38 years on Mount Washington as an engineer at the WMTW transmission station; he wrote about his experiences in his 2003 book titled “Marty on the Mountain: 38 Years on Mount Washington.”
Marty was already on the Mountain for over ten years when I met him in the fall of 1979. Guy Gosselin’s (Obs Director) assistant, Rob Kirsch (now a Trustee), took me over to the TV station to introduce me to their staff, our nearest (and only) neighbors. At that time The Old Obs and the TV station where Marty and Willie (fellow Mt. Washington Channel 8 engineer) lived and worked was only separated by a 20 foot long ‘breezeway’. Over those years I was fortunate enough to witness Marty presenting his evening weather report in person! He approached that task with dedication and at times asked Observers for their opinion of existing conditions. For a long time we were the only 4 people on the mountain in winter.
The Obs and TV staff shared Sunday night ‘TV-dinners’ in those days (we shared over 20 years of Sunday dinners together), and Marty was the designated cook on their shift. Every meal there began by Marty saying grace, and following dinner Marty would call his wife at the precise agreed upon time. Many people would call Marty’s home trying to impersonate him, but this technique never foiled their efforts.
Marty giving a tour in April 2001.
Beyond cooking, Marty had a wicked sense of humor—even in stressful situations. On Shift Change Wednesdays in winter sometimes Phil Labbe, the TV tractor operator, would allow us Obs folks to ride ‘on’ (not in!) their tractor. On one particular occasion the weather was extreme, and much snow had fallen with an east wind—totally blocking the 5-mile section of the Auto Road. Phil and Marty discussed it and I was allowed to ride inside this time. Phil decided to ascend via the Winter Cut-Off, a steep and tortuous trail that avoided the 5-mile grade but traversed both the Sugar Bowl and the Snow Bowl. Marty, riding in the Co-Pilot seat, frequently gave Phil reports of what he saw out the right window while Phil focused on the limited view out the left window. Willie and a radio technician and I sat very quietly in the back seat hoping they knew what they were doing. We bounced around, hitting a few rocks, and tipping precariously numerous times. We stopped many times due to zero visibility and Phil finally decided to admit defeat and return to base (that in itself was a difficult portion of the trip too— we had to turn around!). Recall that we were the only tractor on the mountain at that time so we were totally alone. When we finally reached the intersection with the Auto Road, Phil looked left and Marty, looking right, reported “Cleeaahh Right” in his inimitable accent. We all laughed at the release of the accumulated tension.
Marty in 1999. Photo by Wex
Marty was also a technological resource. He was truly a self-taught engineer. During many of those TV-dinners our discussions sometimes turned to very esoteric topics. At some point during the talk Marty would raise his eyebrows, place his fingers on his chin, and exclaim ‘wait just a minute’. He would return to the table with just the right book to resolve the issue at hand. Marty was also very helpful when it came to wiring issues on the summit as grounding was always a questionable affair. Working with Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory technicians we had great difficulty getting good data from some of their very sensitive sensors. One problem we saw frequently was that when Channel 8 went from a normal television show to commercial, or went from a white scene to a dark one, we would get a significant ‘blip’ in the data stream. Not surprisingly, Marty came up with the solution we needed. Because you couldn’t properly ‘ground’ the data cables, he suggested we use tin foil! The TV staff would frequently use wrappings of tin foil around some of their cables to stop the interference from getting into the cables in the first place. It worked on CRREL’s data lines too.
Marty was a pleasure to work with and will be remembered fondly by his mountain friends.
Marty’s book, “Marty on the Mountain: 38 Years on Mt. Washington.”
Ken Rancourt, a Mount Washington Observatory Trustee, worked at the Observatory for more than 30 years. Starting as a Weather Observer/Tractor Operator, he eventually managed many research and testing programs on the summit and finished his tenure as Director of Summit Operations. He was fortunate to represent the Observatory at a number of World Meteorological Organization meetings in Geneva, Switzerland; Trappes, France; and Casablanca, Morocco.
Portland Press Herald