Road-Trippin’ Through the Seasons

2018-08-15 06:55:18.000 – Taylor Regan, Weather Observer and Research Specialist


Over the river and through the woods, to my summit house I go! It’s the melody that hangs in the ether each week as the upgoing shift amasses at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road, preparing for their ascent to the place where they simultaneously work and live.

It’s quite a sight, if I’m honest, to happen upon a shift change. One by one summit staff navigate through the parking lot in the near pre-dawn hours of morning, small pieces of gravel (and sometimes mud) spit up by sleepy tires, pinging softly on the underside of overladen vehicles like bubbles in a newly opened soda can. Cars shudder to a halt and near-audibly sigh, as they are efficiently emptied of a week’s worth of gear, equipment, people, and groceries. Then, it is the Obs vehicle’s chance to groan as, in a Tetris-worthy feat, a half dozen large duffle bags are expertly wedged into the back and, like a sundae, topped with all manner of accoutrement from groceries, to museum store product, to tools and test equipment, to finally, the staff themselves.

On any given shift change, the whole process is reminiscent of long road trips I took as a child, when we would pre-pack the car the night before, and stumble sleepily into our seats in the dim-light just prior to sunrise, to embark on our journey. Shift change is not much different, as we load ourselves into vehicles in preparation for the 7.4-mile journey to our summit home.

Not even 8 miles! You might balk. Why, that’s no road trip!

As a relatively experienced road tripper myself, I would oft tend to agree. Why, Travis Pastrana covered that distance in a mere 5 minutes 44 seconds! That’s hardly enough time to take a sip of coffee!

Travis Pastrana RecordFigure 1. Travis Pastrana breaking the record for fastest ascent up the Auto Road during the Climb to the Clouds rally event, in 2017 in 5 min and 44 seconds.

Again, I agree.

The difference comes, however, when the mountain dons it’s winter coat and erases any notion of a road from the craggy mountainside. It is at that point that our wheeled-vehicles cease to gain purchase on the snow coated mountain pass, and we are forced to unleash…the snowcat.

The natural habitat of this tracked behemoth is the gentle ski slope of a mountain resort where it spends its nights grooming corduroy into the freshly fallen snow. With a top speed of 8 miles an hour the snowcat certainly wasn’t built for speed, and it shows as we inch our way up what passes for the auto road … when it’s buried by ten to twenty feet of snow.

Throw in the weather that Mt. Washington is famous for: hurricane-force winds, a summit almost continuously shrouded in freezing fog, and nearly 300 inches of snowfall annually, and suddenly 8 mph becomes more of a dream and less of a reality. A drive that normally comes in under a half hour in the summer grinds to a nearly imperceptible crawl in the winter months, with one way ventures clocking in at upwards of 8 hours.

And that, my friends, starts to enter road trip territory.

Whiteout SnowcatFigure 2. Leading the Snowcat through whiteout conditions.
Hairpin WherepinFigure 3. Going snow-where fast. Hairpin where-pin?

Where am I going with this? With the summer internship coming to a close, summit staff was gathered around the dinner table the other night after a very delicious and very filling meal, and musing on the coming season. As we were discussing the huge disparity in transit times between summer and winter months, we began to dwell on the niceties that would make the occasional 8-hour slog more pleasant (some would say bearable).

We all agreed that a convenience store along the way would provide a nice opportunity to stretch the legs and refuel (both vehicle and body), which led to the debate on road trip snacks. It’s one of those things that you don’t realize you’re particular about, but when someone asks, the answer is on the tip of your tongue faster than when someone asks your middle name. A lot goes in to a road trip snack: it might not always be your favorite, but its dependable. You’ve got to know you can find it at just about any gas station or convenience store, and so it’s something you can count on, even as you transcend borders.

Seriously, I bet you’re now thinking about your go-to road-trip sustenance. Are you not?

Nighttime transitFigure 4. We made it! … now for the return trip.

Want to take a guess at my shift’s go-to road trip snacks??? Here they are!

Ryan: Peanut Butter M&Ms and Chocolate Milk

Tom: Pepperoni Pizza Combos and Orange Gatorade

Taylor: Bugles and Coca-Cola

Sarah S: Pringles and Yoo-Hoo

Sarah T: Cheddar Chex-Mix and Water

Griffin: White Cheddar Cheez-its and Lemon Sparkling Water

Simon: Goldfish and Water

And just like that, it’s Wednesday again, except this time we’re heading down from the summit. For two of our interns, it is their last down-going shift change, as their summer on the summit comes to a close. To all of our interns this summer, and on behalf of my shift, I say, thanks so much for all of your hard work this summer, for your enthusiasm, and for all of the laughs.

Bon Voyage and Bon Appetit!


Taylor Regan, Weather Observer and Research Specialist

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