World's Worst Weather'

Iconic Communities, Odd Jobs, On the Road, People
on March 4, 2001

Wrenched by winds that can freeze skin in seconds, play tricks on expert eyes, and tear equipment from experienced hands, the scientists turn back less than a mile from their destinationthe Mount Washington summit in North Conway, N.H., (pop. 2,032). But treacherous weather doesnt phase the trucks passengersa weather observatory crewone bit.

After hours of inching toward the peak that boasts the strongest wind ever recorded231 mph on April 12, 1934they decide to make the slow crawl back to the bottom. There they load their gear into a tracked snow-cat, and start againclimbing to a place with average wind speeds of 100 mph and visibility of less than one-eighth of a mile 60 percent of the time.

This handful of people who brave the winter on Mount Washington never know when they leave for their eight-day stints on the summit what treacherous conditions theyll encounter, nor do they know if drifted snow will require them to climb from their vehicle and hike up. These are the dedicated hands that keep the only continuously staffed mountaintop weather observatory in the Western Hemisphere alive in the dead of winter in order to understand the worst weather in the world.

Once you hit that tree line, its a different world because theres total exposure, says intern Kevin Bates, newest member of the crew. But as meteorologists, students, and scientists, this dedicated teamnumbering from four to sixwould have it no other way.

Knowing the isolation and challenges of the mountain, snow-cat operator Chris Uggerholt of Intervale, N.H., delivers crews to the summit every eight days for the shift change. Some days he operates the tracked vehicle with ease, but on others its like being an airline pilot. You go out, you never know whats going to happen, he says from the drivers seat as he rumbles up the mountain at 5 mph. Some days are real scary. A trip up the mountain takes anywhere from one to five hours.

But through all kinds of weather, the commitment to research and studies for universities, industries, and government drives the team.

For a meteorologist, this is a dream come true, says staff meteorologist Sarah Curtis of Portland, Maine.

Although she admits living at the observatory is tough, when she first experienced the summit, she knew it was the place for her. She feels each member of the team has similar experiences.

Part of its the weather, part the people, and they are so great up here. You have to love it. These people are here not to make a bucktheres education, research, observation, and broadcasting. Its really the gamut.

Founded in 1932, the Mount Washington Observatory, a private, nonprofit corporation, allows unique study opportunities where three major storm tracks converge. Crews study conditions, measure cosmic ray activity, develop instrumentation for severe weather environments, and conduct severe weather research and testing. They also report to the National Weather Service.

Curtis says most of them are thrilled by the ever-changing weather, but it can be frightening. Once while checking instruments, Curtis couldnt see the hand in front of her face and wasnt convinced she wasnt teetering near the edge of a rocky cliff. But she trusted her instincts and waited for the gusts to calm so she could move again. Its amazing how instinct takes over, she says.

Mostly in their 20s, the crewsome affiliated with universitieshave backgrounds that include geology, photography, environmental science, biology, and geography. Brian Post, 25-year-old observer from Randolph, N.H., admits life is different and interesting on the mountain. You work long days, close to 100 hours every eight-day shift.

Living together in bunk-style digs, eating, sleeping, and working 12-hour shifts in two rooms is a test of tolerance. By all accounts, they are a family. With whatever combination of observers, students, and interns, a correct fit is crucial.

We have to be able to trouble shoot and handle stress well, says Curtis. The key is to keep a staff well-rounded.

One crew memberNin the observatory catdoesnt seem to mind the strain. The mountain is her home, and the worlds moodiest weather doesnt seem to bother her a bit.