Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Bitter (Cold) Truth about Life Atop Mt. Washington

Although it hasn't been on my active fantasy list recently, for years I used to think about what it would be like - and how wonderful it would be - to be stranded up on Mt. Washington for the winter. (Mt. Washington is the highest point in New England, and experiences some of the worst weather in the world - certainly some of the highest winds recorded.)

In my little hideaway fantasy world, I had it all planned out just how many jars of Teddie Crunchy Peanut Butter, and how many boxes of cavatappi, and how much red sauce, I'd need to get me through the winter. I had my cozy little room all planned out in my head: the books, the music (I think this fantasy was most active in the LP era). I had my mental suitcase packed - and had even figured out that I'd have my appendix removed just in case.

I always sort of knew that there was a job attached to hanging around the Mt. Washington Observatory. But I always thought it would be more of less along the lines of peering out the window at a thermometer and a wind sock every few hours and recording the data. The rest of the time, I guessed that I'd be reading, thinking, writing, napping, and eating cavatappi with red sauce.

Guess again!

Last Sunday, The Boston Globe featured working at the Mt. W. Observatory as an odd job (a topic they write about with some frequency).

So now I know you can't just sit around and observe. You actually have to do hard work.

The article focused on Ryan Knapp, a young meteorologist, who went after the job, that "imprison[s] him in a thick fog for six months of the year", even though, at $30K, it pays about $20K less than he could make observing weather at an airport.

"Sadly, most weather jobs don't involve going outside, but sitting behind a computer all day," Knapp. "I wanted to go outside and experience the weather firsthand. When I heard about the record-breaking 231-mile-per-hour wind that shrieked across on the summit here in 1934, I said, 'sign me up.' "

Hmmmm. Most of my career has involved sitting behind a computer all day. Which may mean I'm better suited to airport observer work. And I hadn't known about the 'thick fog.' Sure, I knew the weather up there was frightful, but I thought that at least you could see stuff like other mountains and Canada. And I certainly hadn't considered actually having go outside in 231 m.p.h. wind. Of course, offsetting the fog and the wind is the salary. In my fantasy, I went up there for free, checking the thermometer in exchange for my cozy little room and my cozy little peace and quiet.

I did learn a bit more about the Observatory job that kind of put more crimp in my fantasy.

It's week-on/week-off shifts - not quite the 6 long hibernating months of reading and writing bliss I'd envisioned. And the digs are described as "a dorm-style bunk." I was thinking something more homey - a nice chintz arm chair, plenty of good lighting, a fireplace, maybe a Christmas tree in the corner, gloriously downy comforter on the bed.

Yes, you have to schlepp all your groceries up yourself.  But I had figured it was a one shot deal - horde for the entire six months, forgoing such niceties as fresh veggies, fruit, eggs, and milk. Kind of like being on a space station. Knapp has to schlepp up and down bi-weekly, "in the unheated cabin of a Bombardier snow tractor."

That's what he uses to get up the mountain.

And to get back down the mountain? "Sometimes I'll buy an $8 orange sled from Wal-Mart and slide all the way down the eight-mile auto road. It's kind of scary, since there's a few turns and pitches - you have to make sure to keep your feet out and your ice ax ready. The sled is trashed by the time you get to the bottom."

My guess is I'd be the one trashed by the time I got to the bottom, not just the sled.

And while he's on top he has to do things like collect the precipitation can, that's 300 feet away from the bunker - 300 feet you have to negotiate over bare-naked mountain summit, with winds of 150+ an hour.

300 feet? Can't they just move the precip can a bit closer? And have it be nice clear plastic so you can see what's in it through your window?

But here's what really nixed the job for me:

That same night [when he'd been tossed by high winds and lost the damned precip can], I also had to go to the top of the weather instrument tower and swing a crowbar to deice it. The building was shaking, and it's made out of concrete. I felt like my arm was moving in slow motion. It was frightening but fun at the same time.

Knapp also has to help out stranded hikers (most of whom aren't there in the dead of winter, although it can be dead winter like in the dead of summer). And with rescues. And with at least one recovery.

Then there's the initiation rite for new observers.

You have to walk around the observation deck  - only one/11th of a mile - but you have to do it when the wind is "gusting" at over 100 m.p.h. And, oh, you can't use your hands - just your own two feet. And no crawling.

The first time Knapp tried it,

I took two steps, hit the deck, slid across it, and couldn't get back to the door. I thought I was going to die. It felt like I was out there an hour, but it must have been only five minutes.

Fifteen attempts later, he made it.

No cavatappi and red sauce. No cozy book nook room. No nice cups of tea by the fire with your feet up. No blissful peace and quiet.

Just near-death experiences getting blown to shreds by insane winds, fetching the precip can, deicing the weather tower.

And just one more cherished little escape fantasy blown away, gone with the wind.

Oh, boo hoo.


Anonymous said...

LOL! That's pretty great, I thought I was the only person that thought living up there would be a dream job!

The one item they didn't mention is that a lot of the observers that work up there swear that the summit is haunted! That doors will blow open that surely were locked and other weird stuff....yikes!

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