“You had a sensitivity to the wind,” said Wendell Stephenson as he recalled his days at the Weather Observatory on top of Mt. Washington, “like a sensitivity to speed. You don’t have to look at the speedometer to know how fast you’re driving.”
Stephenson's senses were especially sharp the night of April 11, 1934, when his supervisor, Sal Pagliuca, noting the already 100mph wind gusts, suggested that the Observatory crew of four and two visiting artists “24 hour it on the mountain.” The temperature was a mild 20 degrees.
“There was myself, Sal, Alexander MacKenzie, Robert Stone from the Blue Hills Observatory, and those two other fellows,” he said. All except Mac, who was on the night shift, had bedded down in their sleeping bags on the uninsulated second floor of the Observatory quarters that was also used as a stagecoach headquarters on the summit before. This was only the second year the present company, with its sophisticated precision equipment, had been in operation.
“Mac woke me around 4 a.m. and said there was something wrong with the anemometer (instrument for measuring wind),” he said, explaining how in extreme weather conditions, ice would form around its axis and slow down its spin. “We both knew it was blowing harder than it registered, so I had no choice but to go out on the roof and knock off the ice.” Stephenson, a University of Chicago graduate who was enjoying his fourth year in the White Mountains (second on the summit), was more than willing to risk his neck for the celebrated sum of $5 a week - a 400 per cent increase over his previous year’s salary.
He remembers bundling himself up in parka, storm pants, and head flashlight, and, once out the door, raising his arm to protect himself from the treacherous Mt. Washington Northwest wind. But that night it was different. The wind swept in from the Southeast, in the exactly 180 degree opposite direction, and knocked him to the ground. This was indeed a strange night. After he finally completed his mission, he raced back inside to read the corrected speed - 160 - 170 - 176 mph. “That beat the highest wind record up to that point. If I had known it was blowing that hard, I never would have gone up on that roof,” he laughed. The previous maximum, 164 mph, had been set on Mt. Washington in April of the year before.
The rest of the crew rose at 7 a.m. and that was when it really started to blow. “We were hooked into the Blue Hills Observatory outside Boston and they could follow our instruments as closely as we could. For every five miles per hour, the anemometer would tick, and at this point, it was ticking so much, it sounded like a telegraph.”
The high wind continued and by noon, had reached its full fury: 180 - 190 - over 200 and finally peaking at 231 mph.
“We noticed one of the expensive weather vanes that was secured by a railroad trestle was down,” he said. There was never a question; the crew had to rescue it. Another instrument was spun so fast it was torn off its props and flung halfway down the mountain. That one could wait.
Tension was high inside the small building, he remembered; the air was filled with excitement, knowing that each was sharing in a remarkable piece of history. “As long as the building was secured, we felt we would be alright,” he added, “and besides, the human being is a lousy kite. You get knocked down, you pick yourself up.”
The building leaned, he said, and he described how the wall bellowed in closer to the stove when he was cooking dinner later in the day. Their building, however, like everything else on the summit including the cog railroad, was protected by a thick two foot layer of rime ice which added extra tons to its weight. “I don’t know if the chains would have been enough, but the ice feathers made all the difference.”
At the end of the day long ordeal, over 3,000 miles of wind had passed by the summit, averaging 179 mph for one one-hour span, and 129 mph for twenty-four.
“At first, there were a lot of people who didn’t believe us,” he said, but when the anemometer was tested in Washington, D.C., it was discovered that the instrument was not only accurate but probably sluggish, that the winds may have been blowing a great deal harder than even what it had already indicated.
“We never said it was the highest wind, only the highest ever recorded,” he insisted. The record, has, however stood on the summit for 44 years and has only been challenged closely by Hurricane Janet off Chetmual, Mexico, in 1955, which had measured winds of 200 mph.
Both Stephenson and MacKenzie left the Observatory the next year to get married and otherwise continue their lives. Mac lives in Conway, and Stephenson, after many years in the inn business, retired from his math teaching position at the White Mts. School in Littleton four years ago and now lives in a home he built himself in Bethlehem, N.H. Pagliuca was killed in a jeep accident during World War II, and Stephenson doesn’t know what happened to the others.
He is sure, though, they remember April 12, the “day of the wind,” as he called it, when a southeast wind confirmed Mt. Washington’s reputation for having the worst weather in the world. The rest of New England was rainy that day, and the wind was described as light in Pinkham Notch and the rest of Mt. Washington Valley.
Postscript: According to an article in Wikipedia, Mt. Washington lost its record for the fastest recorded wind speed on April 10, 1996, when an automatic weather station on Barrow Island, Australia, registered a maximum wind gust of 408 km/h (220 kn; 253 mph; 113 m/s). Wendell Stephenson died in 1992.