“Spring” on Mount Washington: a photographer’s journey

Backpacking / Winter Sports

You can only take what Mount Washington gives you and the old rock pile was not in a generous mood this day.

Spring often brings some of the greatest contrasts between valley and summit of any point during the year. This past weekend provided a perfect example of almost unimaginable incongruity, for while valley temperatures climbed into the forties under clear skies, the summit of Mount Washington was enshrouded in a blizzard, with temperatures below zero and winds at times over 90 mph.

I was set to lead an overnight EduTrip on photography at the Mount Washington Observatory Saturday, which would provide participants a unique opportunity to experience these contrasts and all the power that the mountain can unleash up close and for an extended period. Preparations for the trip began almost a year ago, when I selected the last trip of the season to hedge against brutal cold temperatures, and allow the group to spend more time engaging in the landscape. But the mountain had other plans.

Eighteen inches of snow had fallen during the week prior, all under relatively light winds by the mountain’s standards. Now all that snow was on the move, creating a ground blizzard on the upper slopes. We put on an optimistic front to the group as we boarded the snowcat and began to ascend the road. The first four miles were easy travel. Snow fell lightly while the sun peaked in and out of racing clouds above.

When we reached treeline, and the conditions instantly changed as the operator put the blade down to flatten out the drifts covering the road. The next mile took an hour as conditions worsened, and as we turned onto a point in the road known as Cragway, we knew the odds of making it to the summit would be slim. Coupled with 50mph winds now pointed at the windshield moving absurd amounts of snow down the mountain…and the decision to put safety first and turn around came easy. But we didn’t leave without allowing the participants to truly experience the rational for the decision. They all were impressed by the power of the mountain as they stepped out of the cat into a vacant landscape.

I dared not take my good camera out of the bag, and the first picture my cell phone snapped was just a blank white canvas, undoubtedly aimed away from the intended subject by a large gust. This was the second and only other shot, from atop a fourteen foot drift looking down towards the snowcat a mere ten feet away.

Conditions and stories like these are what draw people to Mount Washington, and why the Observatory is such an important institution recording and studying the weather at the top. I will wait until they predict a slightly nicer day though before I plan to visit again…

Jim Salge

Jim Salge is a nature photographer and avid outdoorsman based in southern New Hampshire, who is dedicated to capturing the beauty and power of the White Mountains in dramatic light and atmosphere. A former meteorologist at the Mount Washington Observatory, he volunteers as editor of the Observatory's web based photojournal. Currently he teaches high school science in Bedford, NH.  His photographic portfolio can be viewed at http://www.jimsalge.com

1 Comment

  1. March 30, 2011, 7:01 am

    It looks like Jim’s weekend was a rough one but it does speak to the human spirit that takes us from the comfort of our homes to push ourselves in such endeavors. Thanks for sharing Jim…

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