Friday, January 29, 2010

Revised book depicts natural ‘killer’

While researching the recently certified world land wind speed record, I came across this excellent article, published in the University of Montana's Kaimin student paper, about the second edition of what is a really good book that I first read not too long after it's initial release.

Loving history novels, biographies, weather, and stories of adventure -even ones that end in disaster- "Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire" puts it all together for me.

Although this is not a book specifically about mountaineering, like most good adventure novels, "Not Without Peril" is filled with simple mistakes that mean the stark difference between life and death in the mountains. Of course, even though the Presidential Range and it's surrounding peaks are not "high mountains", the weather and conditions are fierce, they offer technical ascent options, and as this book illustrates; are big enough to get you killed.

by Justin Franz | January 27, 2010 | Montana Kaimin

You would think the experience of being a teenager and carrying a dead man down a mountain, pushing on his lifeless skin to see that “it does not rebound, it does not press back,” would deter anyone from returning to such a place.

But Nicholas Howe has returned to Mount Washington time and time again, accepting the fact that death is simply part of life in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He tells this tale in his book, “Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire.”

Originally published in 2000, the book has been reprinted by Appalachian Mountain Club Books for its 10-year anniversary. Its return is no surprise, because the Boston Globe called the original one of the 100 essential books about New England, due to Howe’s second-to-none research of events going back to the first ascent of the mountain in 1638.

But you don’t have to be a native New Englander or history buff to be engulfed by Howe’s story of mistakes and “misadventures” on the tallest peak in the East.

Topping out at 6,288 feet, Mount Washington may seem like an anthill, even compared to the peaks around Missoula. But what makes it deadly is the weather.

Due to its location — at the convergence of multiple weather patterns from the Gulf, South Atlantic and Northwest — this mountain is known for its constantly changing weather. The fact that the mountain serves as a roadblock to weather patterns going through the region probably doesn’t help. All of this combines to set many records, including one of the highest surface winds ever recorded at 231 miles per hour.

With such environmental extremes, it is no wonder why National Geographic magazine called it “the killer next door.”

The mountain lives up to its fatal reputation: There were 140 known deaths occurring on the mountain between 1849 and 2008.

Most of the notable deaths are covered in Howe’s almost 300-page book that serves as both historic record and adventure novel. These include tragic events, such as when a father and his two daughters were marooned on an exposed ledge for an entire night, resulting in the death of one of the children (by dawn, they belatedly realized they were in sight of shelter).

But the most trying and startling story is that of the death of MacDonald Barr in August 1986. Hiking with his son and a German exchange student, the three were marooned atop Mount Madison, one of the lesser-known summits in the White Mountains. Running for help, the exchange student came upon an Appalachian Mountain Club shelter and crew, who sprang into action to do everything they could to save the two boys. But they had to make the decision of life or death for Barr, questioning if it was worth risking the lives of the rescue crew to save another.

With a hut full of hikers, the four-person crew had nowhere else to go to discuss the matter except a women’s bathroom. Cooped up in a small bathroom stall, they made the decision that would determine if a man would die.

“Even in the best circumstances imaginable, even on a walking path in the valley with fair skies and sweet breezes, the four members of the Madison crew would have difficulty managing a half-mile litter carry by themselves,” Howe wrote. “In the cold and dark and rain and rocks and wind, they would have no chance at all …. All of these thoughts were in the women’s bathroom, and even though not all of them were said out loud, the hut crew knew that they’d decided.”

But even with these sobering stories of death and pain, Howe doesn’t lessen the attraction of the White Mountains. Their beauty remains strong in the mind of the reader, but they must be respected and not underestimated. It’s that message of respect for the elements and mountains that stays with the reader long after the final page.

“Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire” is $18.95 and can be ordered directly from the Appalachian Mountain Club at

Original Article: Revised book depicts natural ‘killer’

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mount Washington’s World Record Wind Speed Toppled (sort of)...

As a weather fan, with an interest in meteorology and climatology, but also a resident and frequent climber of Northeastern United States mountains, this is a bittersweet sort of accomplishment, and one that we all knew would occur one day. However, some things need to be spoken for.

1) It was always believed there were stronger winds on earth, hurricanes, tornadoes and cyclones. As a matter of fact, via radar or other non mechanical observation, winds in excess of 300mph have been recorded. However, I believe it was always stated that Mount Washington's record was for straight line winds (ie non cyclonic winds like hurricanes and tornados) over land. There is a major difference. For instance, every few decades (or more) the Adirondacks get hit with "microburst" which are straight line winds that appear out of nowhere, and only have an impact on a very small area. The most recent can be found in the Five Ponds Wilderness on the Oswegatchie River in 1996. Thousands of acres of several hundred year old virgin white pine were blown over, leaving the forest looking like a pile of Paul Bunyon's toothpicks. These microburst are in fact not tornadoes, the winds come from one direction as a burst of air. This is similar to the winds found on Mount Washington. (edit: I should be more clear. A microburst in some ways is more like a tornado than winds created by pressure gradients, however, the central point is that cyclonic winds are not the same as straight line winds).

2) The record was always stated to be for manned surface weather stations with verifiable anemometer. There is absolutely no doubt that 231mph has been reached on other places on this planet, but none are manned continuously or with a verified anemometer. As a matter of fact, the reason the data on Mount Washington is so accurate is because it is manned. One of the problems with unmanned observatories in extreme environments is that equipment frequently fails.

3) As with 1 and 2, Mount Washington has the distinct status of owning the worlds worst weather not solely because it has 110 days of a year of hurricane force winds. Nor is it the average 300 inches of snow that falls (with a record year of 566 inches), the average 100 inches of rain, or the extreme cold (average daily temp in January is a no so balmy 5F, with wind chills hovering around -50F), or freezing fog, and potential for rain and sub zero temps in the same 24 hour period. I could go on, but you get the point.

Regardless of the record, which was officially certified 16 years after it occurred, the Northeastern US continues to hold the record for the highest wind speed ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere, and that is not exactly a minor thing.

In The Mountains of NH, Men are made.

The Mount Washington Observatories official statement:

On Friday, January 22, 2010, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released a report stating that a new world record wind speed was recorded on April 10, 1996 in Barrow Island, Australia during Typhoon Olivia. According to the report, the new record stands at 253 mph, far surpassing the Observatory’s record of 231 mph recorded on April 12, 1934.

Like many Mount Washington Observatory fans, we were surprised to learn this news. While we certainly respect the work of the WMO Evaluation Panel and acknowledge the panel’s findings, it is natural to treat such news with a certain level of skepticism. We have received the supporting documentation and are eager to learn more about the group’s findings.

Mount Washington’s 231 mph wind gust remains the fastest surface wind ever observed in the Western and Northern Hemispheres and the fastest wind ever observed at a manned surface station. Mount Washington’s bitter cold, freezing fog, heavy snow and legendary wind have contributed to its reputation as being one of the planet’s most extreme places, the “Home of the World’s Worst Weather”.

In The Mountains of NH, Men are made.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Anything But Typical, Utterly Unpredictable, the Adirondacks

For 2 out of the first 3 weekends of 2010, I have been fortunate to be blessed with plenty of winter, and time to enjoy it in the Adirondacks. Save for last weekend, when it was a holiday, the Adirondack Ice Festival, and downright unseasonably warm, I have enjoyed 6 days of 20 in the Adirondacks. Had it been a bit colder, I'd have made it 9 of 20. That is a darn good batting average if you ask me!

As many days as I've spent in the Daks, I really haven't shot that many frames. Snow, cloud cover, extreme cold, and my poor fitness have conspired to keep creativity to a minimum. Of course, the beauty of nature photography is if the weather doesn't pan out as expected, you can just revert to being a hiker.

That being said, my primary focus wasn't really photography anyway, not having a personal trainer with a VO2 max of 240 anymore (Lance Armstrong's freakish VO2 max is about 80 as a reference point), I am badly out of shape, and never really motivated to get back into shape till winter arrives. So the last few weekends, photography has been secondary to being a hiker, which will then lead to being a climber the second half of winter, when the ice turns February plasticky, rather than January bullet proof. All of which will lead to better photography since I will be able to carry more equipment and cover more ground.

In years past, my mountain guide would set the pace, glare at me when it was getting late early, and overall remind me of how disappointing it was to have such a slow bi-ped as a caretaker. I've never been good at setting a pace, but this year I have little choice.

At the same time, keeping things simple is nice, one lens, minimal filters, and the unpredictability of the Adirondack weather...

Friday, January 1, 2010

So Long 2009...Starting the New Year Right, In the Adirondacks!

Summit of Casade

Well, 2009 is history and I am on my way to starting 2010 in similar fashion to 2008, which while not an amazing year, was a pretty darn good one in comparison.

While I didn't start off the New Year exactly like 2008, complete with a 1.5 hour drive in the snow, followed by a 4 mile sunrise hike with no sleep, I'm hoping to make up for it with quantity over quality. Yes, I am an American...more is more, and less is less, quantity over quality always reigns supreme. So, instead of last years one and done till the next weekend, I'm shooting for a consecutive days of Y2X record. And since records are established purely with the idea they will be broken, I'm off to start the year with 3.5 days in the Adirondacks, snowshoeing, hiking, and getting intimate with my Pentax 645N and some good old fashioned film.

I'm gonna go all Ansel Adam's on the Adirondacks with a bag full of Fuji Neopan Acros 100, a roll or two of Neopan 400, and perhaps a roll of Ilford Delta 3200 for star trails or moonlight shots under the very full moon. I'm even going to bring the magic 645N interchangeable film back, so I can shoot all 3 films as the need arises. To be honest, I don't know a damn thing about shooting landscapes in black and white, and that is appealing. Sure I mess around with it, I even occasionally create a nice looking color channel conversion from a film or digital color image, but I rarely bothered with shooting straight black and white. My philosophy has always been shoot color and do a high quality conversion. But truth be told, I'm tired of digital workflow, sick of Lightroom, and having a blast doing my own black and white developing for pennies on the roll.

By night I'll be chilling (or rather warming) by a wood stove, and drying out my gear as I read a book, while nursing a Lake Placid Brewery Ubu Ale. Then maybe on Sunday night shoot some star trails if the weather looks good enough to leave my trusty medium format workhorse outside. With a little luck, I'll finish reading Verplanck Colvin's biography, Footsteps Through the Adirondacks; which leads me to resolutions!

As far as New Years resolutions, they are completely pointless. As pointless as saying I'm sorry when someone dies, or God bless you when someone sneezes. Of course you are sorry, and around the 1800s AD it was learned our souls don't fly out of our bodies when we sneeze. Jan 1st is a day like any other. You don't need a change of calendar to start something different, only the desire to make it happen, whether it is Jan 1st, Jan 20th, February 7, March 18th, April 1st, July 31st or November get the point.

So instead of laying out a list of mangy laundry like the rest of the detritus of the blogosphere, I'm just gonna finish off Colvin's biography which I started months ago. I tore through the first few hundred pages when I got the book, and then put it down reluctantly at about the 75% point, only to have it sit on my nightstand for the last 2.5 months. Right now I use mostly as a way to level out my pile of books so that my phone (aka. alarm clock) doesn't fall between the stacks. The cover jacket has gotten quite ragged from me hitting the snooze button, or throwing the phone off the nightstand while searching in vain for a virtual snooze button on a virtual alarm clock.

So how bad is this book that I have relinquished it to a pulpy level? Actually, Nina Webb did an

excellent job on the book, which sadly is the only really comprehensive look at Verplanck Colvin's life. Without her work, it's entirely possible that Colvin would just be another High Peak on a tick list like so many other famous Adirondack names.

For those not in the know, Colvin was the father of the Adirondacks. To put this into proper light, the Adirondacks were America's first wilderness, and an experiment that has never been repeated in the world, and probably never will. If you take that last statement to heart, Verplanck Colvin was the father of the American wilderness as well. The Wilderness Act of 1964, almost 80 years after the establishment of "Forever Wild" in the New York constitution, was based on what Colvin fought for in the Adirondack Forest Preserve for over 20 years of his life.

Adirondack 350It goes without saying, if not for Verplanck Colvin, I would have far less to blog about, far less to
photograph, and far less to entertain my imagination during the work week. The Adirondacks are the ultimate four season "weekend wilderness", and they just happen to be in my backyard.

Resolute to resolve my resolution, and confident in the outcome, I'll be packing away Adirondack Explorations: Nature Writings Of Verplanck Colvin.

Have a Happy New Year (and 2009, suck it!!)!!