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  • By Tom Eastman with Jane Golden Reilly

The Big Chill of 1934

If you glance through the pages of the Guiness Book of World Records, you're apt to find all sorts of information which may or may not be of any use to you in this life. Betwixt the inane mentions of the fattest man on earth and the longest number of hours spent in a treehouse is one more worthy of note -- the world record wind (231 miles per hour) -- set atop Mt. Washington on April 12, 1934. *

While Babe Ruth's mark for home runs has been broken, and Wayne Gretsky has all but mad a shambles of Phil Esposito's season point scoring total in hockey, the 231 m.p.h. wind blast recorded by the crew of the Mount Washington Weather Observatory still stands 50 years later. While some records are meant to be broken, the mark registered on that wind-blown April afternoon a half-century ago has been approached, but never has it been equaled on the summit, nor have greater speeds been recorded anywhere else on earth.

In honor of the world record wind's 50th anniversary, the non-profit observatory is planning to celebrate by hosting ceremonies and displays at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Camp this April 12. Plans for the day-include a luncheon at 11:30 a.m. attended by Governor John Sununu, a display of the Number 2 Heated Anemometer used to record the wind 50 years ago, and numerous photographs of the observatory's early years on the summit. The event is open to the public, with admission to the luncheon costing $5.00.

Expected to attend the April 12 meeting are three of the five men who were on the summit the day of the record blast in 1934. Observers Wendell F. Stephenson of Littleton and Alexander A. McKenzie of Eaton will be joined by Arthur L. Griffin of Winchester, Massachusetts, one of the two overnight guests who spent the day of the blast with the observatory crew. Also expected to attend are the widow, daughter and son of the late Salvatore Pagliuca, the former Chief Observer who was killed in a Jeep accident while serving in the armed forces in 1944.

Those attending the World Record Wind celebrations will have the opportunity to talk with the three surviving witnesses and share in a little history at the same time. Official observance of the milestone will commence with the opening of the 50th Anniversary Postal Station at Pinkham at 11:00 a.m., with the observatory offering a special cachet envelope for special cancellation from the site. Also available at the event will be a special 36-page booklet written by McKenzie, simply entitled World Record Wind: Measuring Gusts of 231 M.P.H. Drawing on radio logs, journals, meteorological records and personal reminiscences of McKenzie and his comrades, the narrative is intended for interested laymen. For those more scientifically inclined, the volume also includes a bibliography which provides thorough documentation of all the data used to verify the record.

Like everything else on the summit, the stage office used by the observatory for its first four years was built to withstand the "worst weather in the world." Prior to the occupation of the summit in October 1932 for the establishment of the observatory, the stage office was completely insulated with Cabot eel-grass quilting, new floors were laid, storm windows fitted, wiring installed, and every step taken to insure the efficient transaction of the observer's business despite the prevailing weather conditions. The small wood structure -- equipped with cots, bedding, and kitchen utensils loaned by the Appalachian Mountain Club's Lakes of the Clouds hut -- featured a front room measuring 14 by 18 feet which served as the observatory proper. As Frank Allen Burt notes in his book, The Story of Mount Washington, the room was fitted with radio equipment, a library, atmospheric pressure instruments, and writing benches. Also housed in the room were files, spare instruments, solar radiation recorders, a coal heating stove, and wind velocity recorders. Sleeping quarters were housed upstairs.

Manning the observatory in its second year during the winter of 1933-34 were McKenzie, Stephenson, Engineer Pagliuca, and meteorologist Robert Stone of the Blue Hills Observatory. Both McKenzie and Pagliuca had been original members of the observatory staff the winter before, handpicked by Appalachian Mountain Club Huts Manager Joe Dodge to work with Robert S. Monahan in the study of mountain weather and broadcasting. Monahan -- who, along with Dodge, had first conceived of the idea of a permanent observatory on Mt. Washington in 1926 -- left the observatory crew in the spring of the first year when he was called back to active duty with the U.S. Forest Service to help supervise the work of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the White Mountains.

On April 11, 1934, the observatory served as home for McKenzie, Pagliuca, Stephenson, and two of Sal's hiking friends, George Leslie and Arthur Griffin. The latter two had planned to stay at the old Camden Cottage and summit building, but were invited to join the Obs crew at the stage office instead. As for crew member Stone, a skiing accident followed by a heating pad burn had led to his having to be brought off the mountain a few days earlier.

Adapting to the strong winds common at the summit of the northeast's highest peak has always been a trick which all Mt. Washington observers must master if they intend to stay on the face of the earth for long. It was especially true of the observers manning the summit in April 1934.

"You always had a sensitivity to the wind," recalled Wendell Stephenson, "like a sensitivity to speed. You don't have to look at the speedometer to know how fast you're driving." Added Alex McKenzie, "The first lesson you learn on the mountain is, 'Don't run with the wind.' Otherwise, you'll never stop." Noting that the prevailing wind was from the northwest, McKenzie said the observers would "get used to leaning a certain way while going about, de-icing the instruments."

Stephenson and McKenzie recall they were forced to modify their unusual summit walking techniques on the morning of April 11, 1934. The skies were initially clear, but information from U.S. Navy weather stations indicated a storm was on the way. A layer of stratus clouds soon arched over the summit, and the weather worsened. Most significantly, the wind was blowing in from the southeast, and not from the more common northwest direction.

As the wind -- which already had increased to 100 mph gusts -- continued to build during the night of the 11th, Paliuca suggested that the observatory crew of four and two guests "24-hour it on the mountain." The temperature was a mild 20 degrees.

While McKenzie held the night shift, the others bedded down in their sleeping bags on the second floor of the observatory. When trouble arose in the early hours of the morning, McKenzie called upon Stephenson. "Mac woke me around 4:00 a.m., and said there was something wrong with the anemometer," said Wendell, 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, who was then a University of Chicago graduate 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 $5.00 a week — a 400 percent 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 wind. Knocked down by the wind, Stephenson finally completed his mission, and raced back inside to read the corrected wind 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," Stephenson recalled laughing.

The rest of the crew arose at 7:00 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," said Stephenson. "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, building to its full fury at 1:45 p.m.: 180, 190, over 200 and finally peaking at 231 mph.

"We noticed one of our expensive weathervanes that was secured by a railroad trestle was down," Stephenson 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. "We decided that one could wait," he said.

As the clouds socked in over the summit, the outside of the stage office became completely sheathed under a thick translucent coat of ice, adding weight which eased the task of the three chains used to keep the wooden structure anchored to the rocky summit. "I don't know if the chains would have been enough, but the ice feathers made all the difference," Stephenson recalled.

At the end of the day-long ordeal, over 3,000 miles of wind had passed over the summit, averaging 179 mph over one one-hour span, and 129 mph over twenty-four.

According to a report written by Dr. Charles Brooks of the Blue Hill Weather Observatory, pressure inside the Mt. Washington building varied between gusts by the 0.2 inches on the barometer. That was the equivalent of a change in pressure of a ton on the surface of the building in the course of a few seconds.

At first, there was some doubt in the scientific community about the accuracy of the figures. Fortunately, verification was provided by Dr. Brooks. The observatory crew had been in touch from Mt. Washington with Dr. Brooks in Milton, Mass. throughout the day via radio, and his figures supported those recorded by the Obs crew.

Further scientific verification was provided later that spring when the observatory's anemometer was tested in Washington, D.C., by the U.S. Weather Bureau, the Bureau of Standards, and by its manufacturer. Although no wind tunnels existed which could duplicate the 231 mph winds, scientists used extrapolated curves to show that the figure was correct, probably within 10 mph.

"We never said it was the highest wind, only the highest ever recorded," Stephenson related when asked about the record wind. In the half-century since that momentous blow, the wind on Mt. Washington has reached speeds between 180-190 mph, but never has the earlier record been equalled.

With its new home in the Sherman Adams Building, the chances for the observatory to set a new record are much stronger now. Whereas the old stage office where the 231 mph wind was recorded had an unobstructed southeast exposure, the new facility faces directly to the north-northwest, from which the prevailing winds blow. Comparative studies conducted at the new site show that windspeeds average between 15 and 20 percent greater as a result. Current Obs director Guy Gosselin has stated in the past he'd like to see a new record set, as has McKenzie, although for different reasons.

Explained McKenzie, "Setting the record for windspeed may not have been the most important thing that's ever happened at the observatory, but it was the most spectacular. I'd like to see a new mark up there — in a way, it would help substantiate our earlier record."

Editor's Note: For nearly 62 years, Mount Washington, New Hampshire, held the world record for the fastest wind gust ever recorded on the surface of the Earth. That record was toppled in 1996 at Barrow Island, Australia, during Typhoon Olivia. According to the report, the new record stands at 253 mph.... Mount Washington’s famous wind gust of 231 mph, recorded on April 12, 1934, at the Mount Washington Observatory, stands as the record for the fastest surface wind measured in the Northern and Western Hemispheres. Learn more.


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