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  • Karen Cummings

Living Among the Clouds

Mountains will endure. As long as they are safe from the toys and whims of man, they will endure. But what of men enduring mountains? Herein lies the strange tale of the Mt. Washington Observatory that has endured over a mile in the sky since 1932.

Mt. Washington was always considered to be a prime spot for meteorological observations. Its reputation for severe weather was well known around the world. However, the first attempt at making observations year-round was not until the winter of 1870 when a team led by State Geologist C.H. Hitchcock and J.H. Huntington (for whom Huntington's Ravine is named) spent a less than luxurious winter in the Stage Office. During their stay they registered a low temperature of -59 degrees F and clocked a wind speed of 92 MPH, the highest known at the time. There were definitely higher winds, but no one would dare venture out to record them. To survive a winter on Mt. Washington in those days, buildings had to be literally chained to the rock, yet the bouncings and shakings were as bad as Dorothy's house on its way to Oz. Anything that could move, did move and many observers spent sleepless nights wondering which gust would send them off into Tuckerman Ravine.

The United States Signal Service maintained the observations in later years, but it wasn't until 1932 that today's Observatory came into being. The main thrust behind the organization was launched by the illustrious and legendary Joe Dodge and Dr. Charles Brooks of Harvard, one of the co-founders of the American Meteorological Society. Joe Dodge's reputation is known far and wide, and anecdotes about the Master of Porky Gulch could fill an encyclopedia. He and Mt. Washington were meant for each other.

And so with the International Polar Year advancing, Dodge and his crew, equipped with a $400 grant from the New Hampshire Academy of the Arts and Sciences made ready to live in the old Stage Office. The building was miraculously spared from destruction in the fire of June 1908 and wasn't removed from the summit until a couple of years ago. On October 15, 1932, Mt. Washington was reoccupied and the Mt. Washington Observatory came into being with Charles Brooks as its first president.

And from 1932 to 1978 what has happened? What progress? What breakthroughs? One of the first things many people think of when discussing Mt. Washington is The Big Wind back on April 12, 1934. It was then that observer Sal Pagliuca watched the meter register a wind speed of 231 MPH, then and now the highest ever clocked by man.*

In the 1930s the observatory made landmark research into shortwave propagation as related to weather - an important step in the history of today's world-wide communications network. In the mid to late '40s crew members initiated ice research that led to the discovery of deficiencies in jet aircraft that would preclude their flying over cold regions. This is particularly significant since at the time the United States was feeling the chill of the Cold War, and there is a lot of Russia that is far from tropical. In more recent times, the Observatory has been concerned with our immediate future through the monitoring of cosmic rays and research into atmospheric physics and electricity, and there is also much being studied about alternative energy systems.

So who does all this stuff? The present staff consists of four full-time crew members headed up by personable Guy Gosselin of Gorham, N.H. They work in weekly shifts from Wednesday to Wednesday (or later depending on weather). Each man - they are all males - has a particular field in which he specializes, yet each can do the other's job. Although the living conditions may be more comfortable than back in '32, the winters haven't gotten any easier. Gosselin describes living through the 120-plus MPH storms as "an awesome experience." He claims that after a while you can accurately judge the wind speed by how hard the building was shaking.

The present Observatory building was built in 1937 and has admirably withstood the years. In 1973 the Observatory expanded its field and opened the Mt. Washington Summit Museum in a building nearby owned by WMTW-TV. The Museum is a "must see" for visitors to the summit as it contains a fascinating collection of facts, lore and trivia about living with the worst weather in the world. Through the Museum and outside lectures, the Observatory staff has been able to show to many the rare and fragile Alpine environment on Mt. Washington and the extreme dangers from overuse.

So through the seasons, the Mt. Washington Observatory endures. The Observatory is a nonprofit organization with about 2,000 members, all interested in the New England outdoor experience and Mt. Washington specifically. After the new Sherman Adams building on the summit is finished in 1980 or 1981, the Observatory and Museum will have a new home, possibly less harrowing to live in during big blows. Observatory president Alan Smith, a gentle and effervescent man sums it up: "We have an impressive record for a small research organization that has been in existence for over 45 years. We look forward to expanding our scientific and education programs. particularly with our new location in the Sherman Adams building for the next 45 years. Modesty forbids further forecast."

The Mt. Washington Observatory will endure. New members are always welcome and they receive the quarterly Mt. Washington Observatory News Bulletin, a journal of the latest developments on the Summit.

*The Mount Washington record was toppled in 1996 when an unmanned instrument station in Barrow Island, Australia, recorded a new record of 253 miles per hour during Typhoon Olivia. Though the Observatory record fell, it’s a very human story, and it still stands as the highest surface wind speed ever observed by man.

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