A Mighty Wind

A gust of meteorologic history blew onto Mount Washington 70 years ago today, and the 231-mph impact has never left.

April 12, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. - It took a precise blend of geography and weather, an exquisite cocktail of natural elements, to produce a gust of 231 mph. Call it the perfect wind.

This world-record blast of air, set 70 years ago today, has withstood challenges from legions of hurricanes and typhoons. It is the bedrock of a reputation that allows 6,288-foot Mount Washington to boast, "Home of the World's Worst Weather."

"It had to happen somewhere, but that it happened where it did surprises people," says Bryan Yeaton, the folksy host of the nationally syndicated radio show The Weather Notebook. "For a little bump of a mountain in the eastern United States, not the Arctic or Alaska, it's surprising."

Even the wind tunnel at the University of Maryland, College Park, used by designers of aircraft and vehicles, tops out at 230 mph, or Mach 0.3.

"We've never had the need to go faster," says Dr. Jewel Barlow, director of the Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel.

Mount Washington, nicknamed the Rockpile, is the tallest peak in the Northeast. It sits in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, a fishhook-shaped formation that includes six 5,000-footers.

The mountain was first climbed by a white explorer in 1642. Today it's most commonly ascended by train or family vehicle, many of the latter then sporting a "This car climbed Mount Washington" bumper sticker. In a perverse twist on vacation marketing, the state-run gift shop at the summit sells T-shirts that brag about the lousy weather.

While it is a tourist attraction, Mount Washington is also a vicious killer, claiming 133 victims since 1849. Train and car wrecks, three plane crashes and even one murder have contributed to the total, but weather-related phenomena - avalanches, hypothermia, falling ice - are the primary villains.

And from the beginning, weather has defined Mount Washington. The mighty wind mark of 231 mph, which was measured April 12, 1934, provides the exclamation point.

April 12 is one of those dates that seems to attract historic moments. It's the date on which the Titanic sank, the Civil War started, man first flew into space - even the date, sports historians say, when a baseball catcher first donned a mask.

In 1934, Salvatore Pagliuca was part of a weather-observatory crew that was celebrating surviving a second winter on the Rockpile. It had been a rough stretch, even for the weather-hardened team. Six weeks earlier, members had experienced an air temperature of minus 47, with wind gusts of 100 mph. On the Monday of the record-setting week, a colleague had to be placed in a toboggan and eased down the mountain after he injured his hip on the slopes.

A rough time

Life at the top back then wasn't easy. Unlike today, when a Snowcat tractor provides transportation, the staff members had to hike eight miles to the summit to start their shift, battling ice and wind and whiteout conditions that could reduce visibility to inches. They carried their food on their backs and were given off only five days a month.

They lived in a tiny building that was chained to the mountain to keep it from blowing away, and warmed themselves by a tiny coal-fired stove. Although they were just 150 miles from the big-city comforts of Boston, they might as well have been in Antarctica.

In between shoveling coal, melting snow for water and preparing meals, they took meteorological readings, performed radio-transmission experiments and maintained their wind-rattled instruments.

Even today, the crew balances science and the mundane.

"There's definitely enough to keep us busy up here," says crew member Jon Cotton. "When we run out of science stuff, there's always shoveling and instrument de-icing to do."

The best method for knocking free ice jams? "Definitely crowbars," says Cotton, grinning.

Tuesday, April 10, 1934, was "cloudless and calm," a perfect Mount Washington day, wrote Pagliuca in the weather-station log book. The next day started equally well, with the kind of brilliant sunrise that makes the ocean, more than 60 miles away, sparkle like a field of diamonds.

"Hardly did we realize as we were enjoying a fine view of the Atlantic Ocean that we were to experience during the next 48 hours one of the worst storms ever recorded in the history of any observatory," Pagliuca would later write.

The glaciers that sculpted Mount Washington and the surrounding turf during the Ice Age eons before created an almost perfect natural wind tunnel at the confluence of three major storm tracks.

"The steep slopes and the tunneling effect of the valleys accelerates the speed of the winds," says The Weather Notebook's Yeaton. "Air passing over the summit gets squeezed."

Quick change

As is often the case with fickle New England weather, that picture-perfect April day in 1934 proved to be as fleeting as a cat's mood. Clouds and fog rolled in. Low pressure settled in to the west, while high pressure flexed its muscle to the north and east.

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