14:27 Wed Mar 23, 2022
An Uncommon Commute to Study our Weather and Climate
One of the most common questions I’m asked as a Weather Observer is how my colleagues and I get to work. The logistics of getting up and down Mount Washington change depending on the season and conditions. We have several vehicles, including a van, truck, and Bombardier snowcat. The snowcat is definitely the standout vehicle that people are most curious about – understandably so!
The snowcat is similar to the groomers at ski resorts, with large tank-like treads and a plow on the front. But the Mount Washington Observatory snowcat is outfitted with a cab on the back that fits up to a dozen people and is used for getting observatory staff up to and down from the summit during the winter months.
Weather Observer and Meteorologist Jay Broccolo keeps an eye on blading from the snow cat cabin window during an early March trip to the summit for our weekly shift change.
A typical snowcat ride starts at the base, given that there’s enough snow to go straight from base to summit. If the road is only partially covered with snow/ice, our van or truck with chains is used to take our staff part way up the road to where the snowcat is staged for the rest of the journey. When starting with the snowcat at the base, we load up the cab and side saddles with gear and groceries for the week. Then we climb aboard and the snowcat operator starts our trek up to the summit. A typical snowcat ride from base to summit takes about an hour and a half, but that’s with ideal conditions such as minimal snow drifts and good visibility. And Mount Washington isn’t exactly known for ideal conditions.
Snow drifting along the lee side of Mount Washington along the auto road.
Due to large amounts of snow blowing over the summit and down the lee side of Mount Washington (think of all the snow that lands in Tuckerman Ravine), there are often large snow drifts on sections of the auto road that require blading, sometimes LOTS of blading. This blading (plowing) means continuous back and forth travel as drifts are cleared from the road, which isn’t great for those with a queasy stomach. Occasionally, a section of the road may require so much blading that the operator will stop to let the passengers out for fresh air and a break – if conditions are safe to do so – from the back and forth.
Observatory staff and guests from WBZ CBS Boston walk along the along the Mount Washington Auto Road as the snowcat clears the way
Large snow drifts, especially combined with other undesirable conditions such as low visibility, can make for a much longer trip up to the top (several hours!). There have also been occasions when visibility was so poor from fog and blowing snow that the snowcat had to turn around and return to the base to try again another day.
On long snowcat journeys, we spend our time catching up with colleagues on projects and what we did during our week off the mountain before silence settles in and everyone, or mostly everyone, falls asleep in the heated cab. Depending on the conditions, stops are occasionally made at an Mount Washington Regional Mesonet
site or two to perform maintenance such as digging out solar panels from the snow.
The snowcat traveling up the auto road on a bluebird day.
Upon arrival at the summit, the current crew of observers and interns meet the snowcat at the door to start shift change by unloading gear. The crew in the snowcat begins to gather gear, or shoot out of the back of the snowcat as soon as the door opens, racing to the restroom (which is a situation I find myself in often). The now downbound crew loads up their gear, trash and laundry before joining the crew that just arrived in the weather room for shift change. Once information and maybe a few jokes are exchanged between shifts, it’s time for the downbound crew to say goodbye to Nimbus for the week and climb aboard the snowcat for a similar ride down. At the base, observers once again unload the snowcat before heading home for the week and coming back for another adventure up the road!
The snowcat loaded up with gear outside of the NH State Parks' Sherman Adams Summit Building.
Jackie Bellefontaine, Weather Observer and Education Specialist