Most of us who work on the summit of Mt Washington do so because we enjoy “extreme” weather. We also enjoy the company of like-minded visitors who provide us with renewed awe as they experience the rarefied mountain air, long views and nearby alpine surroundings. They can be as excited as the “kid in the candy store” which helps remind us that we are in a truly unique alpine environment.
After so many years of living and working on the summit, with its Category 1 hurricane force winds (74mph-about 100 days per year), last Monday’s 106mph gust received little more than a shrug and one eye brow lifted when looking at the Mount Washington Observatory’s (MWO) anemometer in their weather room. But this week we got both eyebrows lifted to NOAA’s web page, as we watched Hurricane Sandy rotating her way towards southern New England. “What is this storm going to do to us here in NH and on the summit of Mount Washington?” Good question and we’ll only know for certain once the storm becomes history. Meteorologists are dubbing Hurricane Sandy as the “Frankenstorm.” A non-typical hurricane with blocking High pressure system to the East and a feeding Low pressure system to the northwest which will change the dynamics of the storm once it takes position in a 500-mile wide slot between the two fronts. My feeling is that it’s not going to be a record breaker in weather extremes but the duration of the storm will be measured in days rather than hours as with the normal passing of a hurricane.
As a veteran of 174mph winds generated from Hurricane David back in 1979, I know from experience what really high winds can do to man-made objects. From inside the south facing windows of the 2nd Summit House I saw a 40′ tractor-trailer box loaded with heavy scaffolding slowly tip over onto a rack of 4′ high propane bottles due to Southeast winds. There were also stacks of metal-banded, full-sized, ¾” plywood with 800lbs of concert paver blocks on top for ballast and the wind knocked the blocks off, broke the metal bands and heavy sheets of plywood went sailing through the air like playing cards. As we went through the “eye” the winds died and a hiker showed up whom we grabbed and brought indoors. Then as the eye passed the winds came from the opposite direction and lifted the scaffold-laden tractor-trailer box off the propane tanks and back onto it wheels!
For this reason and the never-ending parade of storms at Mount Washington State Park we begin preparing for severe fall/winter weather during our short summer season. Being on the highest point of the Northeast you would think flooding would not be a problem but the high-pressure, fire hose effect of wind-driven rain permits water to find its way into the building through the tiniest of cracks/holes. Each year we try to seal out the weather as our summit buildings age but new tiny openings appear each year. So, we stand ready with mops, drip buckets and several types of water pumps that can suck a thin skim of water off concrete floors. Fortunately, we have good emergency generators which can power the summit for as long as our fuel supply holds. We have a 30,000 gallon K1 on hand so we could go till spring on a self-generator if needed.
Concerns we do have are the 33 large windows in the Sherman Adams Building and 20 smaller windows in the Yankee Communication Building. The buildings themselves have withstood 180mph wind gusts in the past but the current windows have only been field tested to around 150mph. In the event a window blowout during the height of the storm, we have a plan: Two inch tongue and groove floor boards 5″ wide have been assembled with pre-drilled holes. It is next to humanely impossible to slap up a 4×6′ sheet of plywood against a wind/rain storm that powerful. Instead one needs to work below the opening and add one 5″ board at a time to eventually dam up the window. It’s not that pretty but it’s a plan and it needs our state caretakers to rise to the occasion. On the summit we have Master Electrician Jim Sherrard backed up by Jim Cyrs, a strapping 24 year old with college degree in snow science and a local mountain climber/EMT. Between these two employees along with help provided by the staff of the MWO and the summit crews, we are ready to protect valuable state property on the summit of Mt Washington through this and every one of the future “Frankenstorms” to follow.