You might see the little yellow sign telling you, “The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there, from exposure even in the summer.” Or, you might see nothing but a spray of thick fog. Wind gusts over 100 mph are not uncommon here. On a nice day, however, New Hampshire’s 6,288-foot Mount Washington can seem deceptively calm. You can hike or even ride to the Mount Washington Observatory (MW OBS) at the summit, and if you’re very lucky, meet the resident cat.
The observatory has a long tradition of feline residents, initially used for vermin control. Nimbus, a gray rescue adopted from the Conway Humane Society, currently lives with the staff who stay on the mountain. Rebecca Scholand, who was the MW OBS operations manager when Nimbus first arrived, highlights the role cats play: “The summit cat is such a special part of our living environment on the summit, making it feel much more like a home on our weeklong shifts.”
I was curious about Nimbus, so I decided to take a trek up Mount Washington to see if I could meet him. While I’ve hiked up Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine before, this time I chose to ride to the summit on the Cog Railway, a train that uses gears to allow it to grip the track and climb up a mountain. Many thought its creator, Sylvester Marsh, was crazy to propose such an idea, but the railway was built between 1866 and 1869 and quickly became an icon of the area. It even chauffeured President Ulysses Grant partially up the mountain in 1869.
Blanket of clouds
The green landscape slides by around me and cool mountain air wafts gently through the small windows as we begin to climb. The murmur of parents and children talking blends with the sounds of the gears below. As the track gets steeper, we’re encouraged to stand up and feel the incline at Jacob’s Ladder, pitched at a whopping 37.41 percent grade.
As the Cog enters the alpine zone where trees stop growing, I’m thankful for the clear skies. On a nice day, the view from Mount Washington can reach 130 miles, although more frequently, it’s nestled in a blanket of clouds.
Still, upon debarking, there are indications of Mount Washington’s frequently inhospitable weather. The Summit Stage Office is literally chained to the ground and porta-potties sit inside shipping containers so they don’t blow over. Mount Washington lies in the path of three major storm tracks and receives wind that has traveled unimpeded for extended distances, picking up speed. The topography of Mount Washington and the mountains around it further magnify wind speeds, the way putting your thumb over the nozzle of a garden hose increases the pressure of the water.
Mount Washington style
I ask several staff members about Nimbus and keep an eye out for him, but I learn that he rarely ventures outside of the observatory. Although the cats are allowed outside and there are several famous pictures of previous Mount Washington cats exploring the outdoors, Nimbus prefers the warmth and comfort of inside, where he stalks the mice, chipmunks, and other small critters that sneak in.
According to one observatory volunteer in the summit’s Extreme Mount Washington museum, Nimbus likes hanging out in the kitchen, where he watches researchers cook their evening meals. You may also find him nestled on the couch on the blanket they have laid out for him, or keeping the researchers company as they work.
While it may be difficult to see Nimbus out and about, we can catch glimpses of his sky-high lifestyle from the researchers who live with him, posting about weather bad enough to make it (figuratively) rain cats and dogs. As recently as 2019, the observatory recorded a wind gust of 171 mph, and in 1934 it recorded the 6-decade world record-holding wind speed of 231 mph.
“There was no doubt this morning that a super-hurricane, Mount Washington style, was in full development,” observer Salvatore Pagliuca, one of the men who measured Mount Washington’s record wind speed, wrote in his log. While hundreds of thousands of people safely visit the top of this mountain today, Pagliuca’s words continue to resound: Mount Washington does things Mount Washington style.
Feel the blast
The observatory has evolved over the years, but it continues to provide weather data, rain or shine, fog or snow, right on through -90 degree wind chills and inches of rime ice. Keeping up with the weather can be a battle. Custom instruments are used to withstand and accurately measure the unpredictable conditions, and new instruments have been implemented as technology is improved.
The observatory tower is part of the Sherman Adams building, a prominent structure of reinforced concrete, complete with an observation deck. Inside, there is a museum, a 24/7 weather station, and a small cafe. The Mount Washington Observatory provides a plethora of educational seminars and members can receive tours of the weather station.
Whether you’re traveling by yourself, with friends, or with your family, as you prepare for your adventure, here are some facts for the road.
- The auto road is open daily, and offers sunrise drives twice per summer.
- Known as the Climb to the Clouds, there’s an annual auto race up the Mount Washington auto road where cars go in excess of 100 mph.
- MW OBS provides product testing services for companies looking to test their products in terrible conditions.
- In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Mount Washington was used to test jet engine anti-icing technology by the army and Air Force.
- Mount Washington’s record wind from 1934 was broken in 1996 off Barrow Island in Australia, but the official world record wasn’t changed until about 14 years later because most people didn’t pay attention to the data.
- Nimbus wears a tag asking for people not to remove him. According to MW OBS staff Ryan Knapp, Mount Washington has had their cats brought down before by people who thought the animal had been abandoned on the summit.
As I stand at the top of Mount Washington, I’m awed by the beauty of the natural landscape and the ingenuity and tenacity that led to the summit being widely accessible almost 200 years ago. Today, you can hike up Tuckerman Ravine as gentle streams of snowmelt trickle down the rock face. You can stand atop the observation deck and feel the blast of wind in your face. A whole world awaits nestled in the White Mountains in New Hampshire—and if you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of Nimbus.