Odd Jobs

Weathering all Mt. Washington has to offer

During the winter, Ryan Knapp has to layer up to stay warm at work at the Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire. During the winter, Ryan Knapp has to layer up to stay warm at work at the Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire. (Mark Wilson/Globe Staff)
By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / November 2, 2008
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Imagine a job that's located atop of a big pile of rocks. You're 6,288 feet high, imprisoned in thick fog for six months of the year, have occasional hypothermic hikers knocking at the door, and stumble into hurricane-gust winds when you step outside. Welcome to Ryan Knapp's workweek as a meteorologist at the Mount Washington Observatory. It's a $30,000-a-year job that he gladly took instead of a $50,000 gig working as a weather observer at an airport.

"Sadly, most weather jobs don't involve going outside, but sitting behind a computer all day," Knapp. "I wanted to go outside and experience the weather firsthand. When I heard about the record-breaking 231-mile-per-hour wind that shrieked across on the summit here in 1934, I said, 'sign me up.' "

Mount Washington, nicknamed "Home of the World's Worst Weather," is both home and work for Knapp, since he stays on the peak for weeklong shifts and works the dreaded graveyard shift, too. While others in the valley are settling down for bed, Knapp is awake high on the summit, helping to record weather information, maintain the instruments, and conduct research and testing. His days are spent hunkered down in the basement of the observatory, in a dorm-style bunk, with a blackout curtain masking the light. Since all food and perishables need to be brought up the mountain, his shift change includes transporting boxes of pasta, dry goods, hamburger, and other staples. And in the winter he rides up in the unheated cabin of a Bombardier snow tractor.

"It's a massive machine, and the only way to get up here in the wintertime," said Knapp. And to get back down the mountain? "Sometimes I'll buy an $8 orange sled from Wal-Mart and slide all the way down the eight-mile auto road. It's kind of scary, since there's a few turns and pitches - you have to make sure to keep your feet out and your ice ax ready. The sled is trashed by the time you get to the bottom."

It's all part of a day-in-the-life of a Mount Washington weather observer, that and having snowball fights in June; letting the mascot, Marty the Maine coon cat, go out in subzero weather; and seeing an occasional bear ramble by.

What's the strongest winds that you've ever experienced up there? I've been out there when the wind was 158 miles an hour. That was pretty scary. I had to go collect the precipitation can, which involves a 300-foot walk across the summit. That doesn't sound far, but when the wind is blowing 100 miles an hour, it's hard just to stay on your feet. The wind picked me up, blew me over, and I lost the can and then found it. That same night, I also had to go to the top of the weather instrument tower and swing a crowbar to deice it. The building was shaking, and it's made out of concrete. I felt like my arm was moving in slow motion. It was frightening but fun at the same time.

What do you wear in the wintertime? Layers and layers, from thermal underwear, wool pants, and ski pants to a couple pairs of wool socks and boots that are rated to minus 40. On the top, it's a long-sleeve polypropylene shirt, down jacket, and outer shell, and three-layers of gloves, as well as balaclava, face mask, and goggles. I have to look in the mirror to make sure there is no exposed skin, because you can get frostbite in just a couple of minutes.

Do you often help stranded hikers? The most common scenario is that people start hiking later than they should, and they arrive at the summit late in the evening and expect help. But I've also been involved in a few actual rescues, and one recovery; that means the person passed away and you need to recover the body. I helped rescue one woman who toppled off a ledge at Great Gulf, the national Forest Service needed help carrying down the equipment.

What's the view like up there? On a good day, you can see a 130-mile radius, which includes five states, New York, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. You can see Canada and the Atlantic Ocean, but you can't see Boston, because of the curvature of the earth. At night, though, I can see the glow of Boston and the suburbs.

Have you ever been stuck up there because of bad weather? I've been up here for as long as three weeks. One time, when I was up here for two weeks, the summit was completely in fog the entire time, except for two hours. Looking at a window of gray for that long is kind of depressing.

Are there any rites of passage for the staff members who work at the observatory? We have an unofficial fraternity called the Century Club. To be a member, you have to walk around the observation building deck, which is one-11th of a mile, when the wind is sustaining over 100 miles an hour. The goal is to walk around the deck without using your hands or crawling, you have to stand on two feet. My first attempt was not a fun one - the winds were stronger than I thought they would be. I took two steps, hit the deck, slid across it, and couldn't get back to the door. I thought I was going to die. It felt like I was out there an hour, but it must have been only five minutes.

And, so are you a member of this fraternity today? Yes, finally, after 15 tries, I am proud to say that I finally made it.

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