Published in NHToDO Magazine, March 2003


Mount Washington Observatory Volunteering: To Sum It Up, It's Amazing!

The mountaintop landscape looks more like the moon than anything else. Snow drifts around the barren, rocky summit and flies furiously in 85 mph winds. The rocks are covered with several inches of feathery rime ice. The temperature is just above zero and visibility is about the same. Daylight's fading fast.

Scientists and mountain climbers alike affectionately call this the "Home of the World's Worst Weather." In the fog a light appears, silhouetting a person struggling against the gusts. It's you, and this is your vacation.

That's right, vacation. You're a winter volunteer at the Mount Washington Observatory (MWO), a world-renowned environmental research station that's occupied this meteorologically forsaken place since 1932.

For the past ten years, the MWO has opened its doors to its members, who may spend a week performing basic household duties for the scientific staff, in exchange for the chance to experience life on a mountaintop. The observatory offers its staff and volunteers a safe vantage point of the beautiful and unusual sights that make up its climate of extremes.

In 1934 the MWO recorded the world record wind speed of 231 mph that is still its biggest claim to fame. Perhaps its second biggest claim to fame comes from circus man P.T. Barnum, who called the sights he saw from the summit "the second greatest show on earth."

According to the meteorology textbooks, three major storm tracks intersect over New England, creating some of the most unpredictable weather in the world. Mount Washington is the highest point of land in New England, and is exposed to a climate that is both beautiful and violent.

Mount Washington has claimed the lives of 129 people-most from exposure, avalanches and all things that the world's largest mountains kill people with-but at 6,288 feet this mountain is little. World-class climbers often refer to it as the "smallest of the 'big mountains.'"

Drawn by science, I first became an MWO winter volunteer in February 1994. (I have since returned.) The shifts are a week long, and last from Wednesday to Wednesday. Staff members work every other week, and have time off every other weekend.

The shift leaves the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road at 9 a.m. and rides eight miles to the summit in a "Snowcat." It's like a trail groomer on a ski slope, only it fits about 15 people and their luggage.

The MWO requires anyone on the journey to be dressed for the mountain environment (you receive an equipment checklist in advance) and to be physically capable of climbing the mountain itself. It's not often that the Snowcat breaks down, but it has happened.

The trip takes about two hours and can be an adventure in itself. If the road becomes too hazardous, occupants may be asked to get out and walk. If the conditions worsen, they may be forced to turn around and try again the next day.

During my first week there, my opinion of the "scientific mountaintop" changed, to include other phrases such as "peaceful place," "amazing sights" and "mountain escape." Sunrise bathes the surrounding snowcapped peaks in a wash of orange-pink, called alpenglow.

On a clear morning one can see the sun glinting off the ocean just beyond the coast of Maine. Clear nights reveal the entire celestial dome (sometimes complete with the northern lights) along with the city lights of Portland, Maine and orange glows on the horizon from Boston, Mass. and Montreal, Canada.

In a matter of minutes, the weather can change its mood. Clouds roll in below, creating an "undercast." For a while it looks as though the mountain is an island in a surreal sort of cloud-sea. More clouds move in, and soon the summit is fogged in and it's snowing.

Winds pick up. The snow and fog create a whiteout, making it impossible to see more than 10 feet in any direction. The wind chill value drops off the bottom of the chart. Winds reach a point that make it difficult to walk (for the average-sized person, this is about 65 -70 mph).

The airborne water droplets of clouds that blow over the summit freeze to whatever they touch. It builds out into the wind in aerodynamic feathers called rime ice. The observatory staff tells me the rime feathers can grow to seven feet in length if it storms for a few days.

It seems that just when you start wondering what the sun looks like, it makes a grand fiery appearance above a sea of clouds, or perhaps sandwiched in between two layers of clouds, with each puff of cloud casting a shadow on the next. In front of such sights, even hard-corps science-minded people can become borderline-religious; writers open their journals, and photographers are born.

One evening stands out in my memory. I call it the "Pink Floyd Sunset." For those who don't know, Pink Floyd is a rock band known for its "trance" style of music combined with spectacular visual effects in concert.

On a rare clear, calm March afternoon I had been shoveling snow on the observation deck. At the end of the day, one of Pink Floyd's songs played in my head as I watched the sun disappear behind the hills of New York State. Below, the lights of various towns came on one by one, while above, the twilight stars electrified likewise. An hour passed in what seemed to me, a minute.

Soon, it was time to go inside to cook dinner. Preparing dinner is the volunteer's most important contribution to summit life. It's the only time when both the day and night shift eat together, so it's usually the only meal the volunteer has to prepare. Since the staff's primary function is to research, scientific staff members can continue their work until dinner's ready, and when it's all over, they go back to their projects while the volunteer cleans up.

The staff tells me it's OK to not be a gourmet chef. "Stick with what you're most comfortable cooking," they say. Popular meals include hamburgers and fries, boiled or sautéed vegetables, a pizza night, and even a "breakfast for supper" night. A dessert I created on the summit became featured in one of the MWO's books entitled, "Life At the Top." It's called Mile High Calorie Pie, and its name is no joke.

Often there are overnight guests, including researchers, filmmakers, reporters, groups from nearby climbing schools and EduTrips (two-day educational seminars run by the MWO for paying guests.) Recent filmmakers have included David Breshears, who came to film storm scenes for his IMAX film about Mount Everest. Newspaper and television reporters from local and national venues visit. The MWO has hosted political figures such as John Sununu, Sr. and Senator Judd Gregg.

Overnight visitors require a volunteer to play "host" so the scientific staff may go about its research. Sometimes groups consist of 10 people and need a volunteer to cook breakfast, lunch, and a large dinner (under normal conditions you'd only cook dinner). The staff is very good about warning you in advance.

Despite its remote location, the MWO has all the things you'd expect to find in your own kitchen, and then some, including a six-burner gas stove. There's a food pantry that's stocked to feed a family of four for a month. Generally, the crew consists of three or four members.

The observatory's two-foot-thick concrete walls and multi-paned plexiglass windows provide a safe shelter from the dangerous weather. Lying in my bed at night, I heard the steady rush of a hurricane-force wind outside, lulling me to sleep as I slept warmly under a thick blanket in a well-heated bunkroom.

In addition to telephone service, the MWO has Internet access. You can connect with your own laptop, as long as it has an Ethernet card, or the staff will share one of its computers with you.

At the MWO there is plenty of free time in a volunteer's life, typically during the morning and early afternoon. You may spend time hiking, relaxing with a mountain view, reading one of the many books in the MWO's library, petting the cat, Nin, or even watching TV (their antenna picks up as many stations as cable TV provides).

Until 10 years ago, you had to be an invited guest of the MWO to spend a week living at the summit. Then the MWO opened its doors to members, as a means of reducing the non-scientific workload on summit staff while allowing others to share in the summit experiences.

To volunteer in the winter, you must first become a member of the MWO, which costs $40. Then you must volunteer for a week during the summer. This is the "test" to see if you'd enjoy summit life enough to come back in the winter.

Over its first decade the MWO's volunteer program has become one of its most popular. It's recommended to book a week in summer at least three months in advance. For those who've just completed a week of summer volunteering and are interested in coming back in winter, it's a good idea to book that before Labor Day.

"We see all types of people coming to do this," says Scot Henley, Public Relations Coordinator for the MWO. Recent volunteers have included residents from down south looking for something different, and "businessmen who give up a week of their time to spend a week living on top of New England."

Scot says that despite the obvious appeal that the Mount Washington experience has to its many volunteers, the Observatory really needs and depends on them.

"The work being done on the summit is really dependent on our volunteers," he says. "Research carries on because someone else is doing the cooking and cleaning. We really appreciate the many people who give of their own lives to help us live our lives on the mountain."

The work isn't all cooking and cleaning, says Scot. There is always a need for people skilled in carpentry, painting, electrical work, computers, and other trades.

"Lots of people like to take on special tasks other than being in the kitchen the whole time," he says.

Scot adds that volunteer programs help the MWO attract new members, whose dues and donations are the largest source of income the MWO has.

On Mount Washington, the wind blows, and rime ice accumulates in the "Home of the World's Worst Weather." Sunrises, sunsets, and the occasional northern lights will continue to create the "second greatest show on earth." And the Mount Washington Observatory forges on, sharing its sights and experiences with its weekly volunteers as we all benefit from the vast insights that science and nature provide for us.