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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.