The Mount Washington Auto Road
If you live anywhere in the northeastern United States, then you’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that proudly proclaims,This car climbed Mt. Washington. As a boy who spent a week every summer in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the ubiquitous bumper sticker seemed to be a badge of honor. Mount Washington is the tallest peak in the northeast after all, so any car that climbed to the top must be something special. In my (almost) 47 years, I had never been to the top of Mount Washington. For those 47 years, the cars with the red, white and blue bumper sticker silently mocked me while smugly passing me on the interstate. My shame was profound.
The summit of Mount Washington is home to what is affectionally called the worst weather in the world. They have recorded winds as high as 231 miles per hour at the summit, and temperatures as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit. If Hell has a stronghold on Earth, I bet it’s at the summit of Mount Washington, though only in the winter, and only if you believe in Hell, and only if that Hell is a cold place.
This year, during our annual trip to visit the Granite State, we decided that we would spend the first half of the first nice day driving to the top of Mount Washington (Cold Hell is on holiday when the weather is nice). We would then spend the rest of the day at the water park. It was a perfect plan, which is why it all went wrong.
We left for the mountain early in the morning. For those who don’t know me well, the term early means before noon. We actually left really early (9:00 AM) and drove an hour and a half, eager to begin our fabulous day. There was only one thing we hadn’t counted on: since the summit is so rarely clear, and since this was the first clear day in a week, everyone else on the east coast also decided to go. Since I didn’t get up early enough, every last one of them was in front of us in line. Stupid early risers…
We waited patiently for our turn for an hour, after driving for two. The ride was supposed to be only an hour and a half, but it took us two hours, mostly due to the minion of Hell that was vacationing within our portable GPS. She likes it when I drive, so she takes us on circuitous routes for fun. Next time I’ll buy a map. That’ll show her.
After our long wait, we finally came up to the gate house, where we found a sign sporting a delightfully worded warning that said, “…you may not enjoy the driving experience.” This sign should be slightly reworded to something more inline with the actual experience. I think something along the lines of, “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD – DON’T DO IT! TURN BACK NOW! SAVE YOURSELVES!” Perhaps something a little more literary would work, such as “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” We even had to drive over a bridge that allowed us to pass over what had to be the river Styx but alas, I’m getting ahead of myself.
We paid our toll to the nice man named Charon, who didn’t look anything like the hooded skeleton I’d expected. He handed us a packet containing more warnings, some instructions on how to drive, an audio CD, and the famous bumper sticker. That’s right – we got the bumper sticker before we actually climbed Mount Washington! We contemplated taking the prize and running, but instead decided that life lies in the journey, and not in the bumper sticker… or something.
We started our drive. The instructions said that we should drive the entire eight miles in first gear. I scoffed at such foolishness. I mean, how steep could it really be? We popped in the CD and feeling rebellious, drove our rented Chevy Suburban up the long road in second gear.
Within about five minutes, I quickly determined that the insistence on first gear was well founded. Not only was this road steep, but it was pretty narrow. It wasn’t a big deal though, because we were still surrounded by trees, and the side of the road seemed like any other paved road. Cars coming down had no problem sharing the road with the big suburban as we each stayed on our side of the yellow line. That is, until the yellow line went away. That should have been my first warning. In retrospect, the mixed looks of relief and abject horror on the faces of the oncoming drivers should have been a clue as well.
As we continued to climb, the guy talking on the CD got so annoying that I turned him off. In short order we had cleared the tree line, and the road seemed to get more narrow. Still we climbed. The big truck had no problem climbing, and though I never looked, I bet it was drinking gas at a rate of about three miles per gallon. Maybe two.
After what didn’t seem to be that bad of a drive, I pulled over to let the truck rest and to take some pictures. The scenery was lovely, the kids had a good time looking around, and in a few minutes we were back in the truck and on our way. So far, this was no big deal. So far.
The Mount Washington Auto Road is a marvel of not-so-modern engineering. It was originally made when horses where the sole means of transportation, which might explain the fact that the road is barely wide enough for one car to drive comfortably. Sure, they’ll tell you that the road is wide enough at all points for two cars to pass, but that’s strictly marketing copy designed to sell red white and blue bumper stickers. The road is about wide enough for two starving ponies to walk side by side. Believe it or not though, that’s not the scary part.
I didn’t have the presence of mind to take detailed pictures for reasons that will soon become aparent, but the main detail that they seem to gloss over is that the road has no guard rail. Sure it says that on the giant sign at the entrance to this thrill ride, but what is not made clear is the fact that weaving off the unprotected edge of the road will result in your vehicle plummeting down a 5,000 foot cliff while the occupants inside are slowly ground to warm, lumpy, red paste. That should be on the sign.
Here’s a closeup of the road from the previous picture. The perception that the road just ends and there is nothing but empty space on the other side is not an illusion – there is literally nothing there. If you don’t pay attention and a wheel slips off the edge, you all die. That should also be on the sign.
After our stop, we started trucking back up the mountain. After a few scant minutes, if you can believe this, the road got worse. So help me, it got worse! Not only did the road get narrower, but for some reason known only to the gods of death by automobile, it became a slippery dirt road. Imagine driving a huge Chevy Suburban up a mountain at a 60 degree angle with no guard rails, on a dirt road. The good news was that people coming down have to yield to those going up, and when the road changed to dirt, the ascending drivers got the inside track, so at least we had that going for us.
After what seemed like an eternity climbing, we saw the most sobering thing imaginable. Well, I guess the worst thing to see would be skid marks that ran off the side and into the abyss, but this was still pretty freaky. You see, we were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic at about 5,000 feet. The cliff was back on the passenger side where Lauren could look straight down into the depths of the abyss from her window. Actually the view was spectacular, but it was precipitous enough to freak us all out. The reason for the traffic jam? A car had gone off the road.
Luckily for the driver, the car had gone off of the inside of the road and into a deep gully. What didn’t register with any of us until we got home and looked at the picture was the fact that this car had gone off the road on the wrong side! I can’t imagine what led to such a mess, but I bet the driver pounded a few cold ones that night. Hell, I pounded a few cold ones after seeing it, and I don’t even drink!
After passing the traffic jam, we were free to scale the summit. The last half mile or so is a very normal (read: paved and without cliffs) road at 6,000 feet elevation. The big V8 engine roared as we picked up the pace. The danger was behind us, and before we knew it, we were ready to park. Of course the parking lots aren’t at the top of the mountain. We had to climb stairs. The lack of oxygen at 6,000 feet can be devastating, but only if you’ve survived on a steady diet of whoopee pies and Dr. Pepper for the last year. Let’s just say that I didn’t like the stairs and we’ll leave it at that.
The view on the summit was breathtaking. The summit is only clear 40% of the year, and for the majority of those days, the temperature and wind prevents normal people from
breathing having any fun at all. We managed to arrive on a day with 110 miles of visibility in every direction. We were so high that the telescopes they had for viewing didn’t seem strong enough. We were so much higher than even the parking lot that we needed the telescopes to see details on our car. It was magnificent. It was also very crowded.
There were lines for the bathrooms, people in the way for pictures, people gasping for breath on the stairs, hikers at every turn, and a line to where people clamored to get their pictures taken behind the little sign at the very top of the mountain. Of course people today are all selfish idiots, so everyone had to wait while groups of people took 38 different pictures of their group, each with a different variety of people, poses and cameras. This was all complicated by the fact that the summit is just a pile of boulders where everyone tries desperately not to fall and break a leg.
After waiting in line for what seemed like six hours, it was our turn for the summit. We quickly struck a deal with the family behind us where we would take pictures of their family with their cameras and vice versa. I’d say it worked out pretty well, and we managed to get one of the few family pictures with me in it. I’m surprised that I didn’t have to edit out whoopie pie frosting from my face.
Content with our pictures, we visited the gift shop, walked down the lengthy stairs, and made for the truck. As we were walking, a young couple asked if we would take their pictures. Happy to oblige, Meghan used their camera for a couple of shots of the couple with their small baby. With her photography job complete, we set off for a leisurely drive down the mountain. As we started the gentle curves of the summit road, a black Ford Crown Victoria roared right up behind the truck, then swung out and passed us! Then, as we watched in amazement, on what surely is the most dangerous road on Earth, he passed the car in front of us too! Then, suddenly, we found ourselves in another traffic jam at 6,000 feet.
The car that had been stuck on the drive up was still there, but now there was apparently in the middle of being towed. This was an assumption though, because the line of cars stretched out of sight. The guy who was in such a hurry got out of his car, and started talking to the worker in the orange vest. We were stunned to see that the maniacal driver was none other than the man who had asked Meghan to take his family’s picture. I have no idea what was said between these two men, but I can tell you that it resulted in the orange vested man yelling something to the effect of, “Does it LOOK like I can make this line move any faster?”, after which the man in black walked downhill in what I assume to be an effort to help move things along.
The Chevy Suburban has a curb weight of almost 6,000 pounds. It felt like we were on a 45 degree incline, and riding the breaks as the traffic slowly started to move didn’t seem like a good idea, but there was no choice, since even in first gear, the six thousand pound monster would have just slammed into the car in front of us. Perhaps more important than the great mass of the truck, was the fact that it is 79.1 inches wide. My normal car, an Acura TL, is a svelte 72.2 inches wide. Those 6.9 inches might not sound like a lot, but imagine trying to pass another Suburban on a road designed for malnourished ponies.
For the most part, the descending traffic occupies the inside track, which is one of the reasons we were told to yield to traffic coming up. There is one section where the plunge of certain death lies to the right of the descending vehicles, and that area is in the bottom half of the section I like to call The Dirt Road of Death. I have precious few pictures of this section, mostly because I was too terrified to do anything but drive. You can see the dirt road in the traffic jam pictures, but believe it or not, that was the nice, wide part of the dirt road. Plus we were at a cold stop, so I took pictures to help keep me thinking about death by gravity in a rented truck.
The drive down the dirt road was not scary – it was terrifying. Call me a wimp, but let’s remember that I was driving a truck with all the nimbleness of the Titanic. After bumping two other truck mirrors, I folded my side-view mirror in; I didn’t really care who was in my blind spot anyway. Because I was used to driving a much smaller and lighter car, I didn’t have a good sense of where the passenger side tires were. To make matters worse, the hood of the beast was so long and wide that I couldn’t see the edge of the road. Since I had no immediate desire for vehicular suicide, I asked Lauren to look out of her window and tell me how far from the edge of the road I was.
There a few problems with that plan. First, and unknown to me until after the trip, Lauren is not good at judging distances. It turns out that when she said, “one foot”, it may have been only four inches or as much as 14 inches. In retrospect, I’m kind of glad I didn’t know that while driving. Second, Lauren had to sit up a bit, so she could stick her head out the window and look straight down. You know how they tell people not to look down when they’re up really high? Well that’s exactly what I told her to do. So I was driving a 6,000 pound truck loaded with five hundred pounds of people, gas and gear, I had literally an inch to the car on my left which, remember, had the right of way, and what might have been four or fourteen inches separating us from a long, tumbling, horiffic death. Images of the edge of the “road” crumbling under the weight of the big truck filled my mind. Inch by terrifying inch, we slowly rolled down the mountain. We had to stop many times to let other ascending vehicles have the right of way, each occurrence of which was scarier than the last. Somehow though, we made it.
I have no idea how, but I managed to pilot the giant Chevy up and down the Mount Washington Auto Road and lived to tell the tale. After the terror of the dirt pass (It’s shouldn’t be called a road), the ground returned to asphalt and gradually started to widen. When the yellow dividing line returned, I could almost start to feel my fingers again. I’m not sure, but I think Lauren may have held her breath the whole way down.
The entire trip took us about eight hours from the time we left the hotel until the time we got back. As a result, we never made it to the water park. The kids will likely need therapy, but dammit, I earned my bumper sticker. The only problem is that I did it in a rented Suburban. I can’t put that sticker on my car, since my car did not climb Mount Washington. So the bumper sticker sits in my office where it can mock me in the privacy of my own home. I’m at peace with that, though, because there is no way in Hell I’m going back on that road.