With Shoulder Season Comes Critical Transition in Operations

2021-11-08 18:34:34.000 – Sam Robinson, Weather Observer/Engineer


Shoulder season is underway for us at the Mount Washington Observatory and it can certainly be a hectic time of year, posing unique challenges in regards to transportation to the summit of Mount Washington. Although most folks are enjoying fall weather at low elevations, winter is starting to bare its teeth at high elevations.

As reported in my Oct. 25 Higher Summits Forecast, “a general 2 to 5 inches of snow is expected across the higher summits with higher amounts possible with upslope enhancement, and lesser amounts at lower elevations. Temperatures look to stay cold enough for snow to fall for a majority of the day but the air looks to warm enough to support a wintry mix or even a switchover to plain rain late. A brief period of freezing rain is even possible.”

The dynamic nature of the weather on Mount Washington, with its quick and unexpected changes of conditions, make the task of planning and executing transportation difficult. With the Mt. Washington Auto Road now being closed for the season, our snowcat has been transported by flatbed up to Winter Cut-Off (about halfway up the road) where it will be staged until the road is snow covered top to bottom. The staging of the snowcat prevents the lower, bare sections of road from being damaged by the metal cleats and carbide studs on the tracks. Before snow limits our mode of transportation to the snow cat, we also utilize our 4wd van and pickup truck equipped with tire chains. All of us observers (and interns) are trained on installing the tire chains to make for a quick installation in inclement weather if need be. Sometimes, weather conditions will require the use of all the different modes of transportation in one trip: van without chains to almost tree line, then van with chains up to the snowcat, followed by the snowcat the remainder of the way. Thanks to a super generous donation, we also received a new pickup truck the beginning of this year, which is equipped with a V-plow. The relatively new design of the V-plow is much safer for us doing snow removal, as it forces the snow to both sides of the truck and cuts through the snow, as opposed to a traditional straight blade plow. A straight blade requires the plow to be angled to push the snow out of the way, which can dangerously force the truck sideways on the narrow summit road.

Our New Pickup Truck Leading the Way up the Auto Road During Shift Change

Each new week can require a different setup depending on the scenario. And even after all the winter preparations have been completed, a warm spell can come and put us back to square one, with pre-winter conditions and a fully bare road. Luckily, our Director of Summit Operations Rebecca Scholand and our Technology and Operations Manager Pete Gagne are no strangers to dealing with shoulder season conditions and can prepare our staff for safe trips up to the summit. All of us snow lovers on staff are hoping for snowy weather to come quick and last long, which will allow us to utilize the snowcat from base to summit, leading to less hectic shift change days with less switching around of equipment and vehicles. In a few short months though, we will be right back to shoulder season again, this time in the spring. Thanks to all of our MWO supporters, the team can ensure our scientists maintain a lifeline to the summit while keeping watch at our weather station every hour, every day, no matter the harsh conditions.

The Mount Washington Observatory Snowcat (right) and the Mount Washington Auto Road Snowcat (left) Staged at the 2-Mile Parking Lot in April 2021


Sam Robinson, Weather Observer/Engineer

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