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June 05. 2012 8:24PM

Mt. Washington won't surrender


De-icing the A-frame, foreground Steve Harshman Summit Intern, background Emanual Janisch Summit Intern 


Shoveling Snow, Steve Harshman Summit Intern 

MOUNT WASHINGTON — While heavy rain and high water hit much of New England over the weekend, the region's highest peak, New Hampshire's Mount Washington, returned to winter with measurable snow, high winds and freezing rain, all accompanied by thick fog.

A sizeable group of hikers expecting much milder weather two weeks before the official start of summer showed up unprepared Saturday. They got into trouble in their light clothing that, according to park officials, did not include gloves or winter hats as they encountered weather more typical of February.

The hikers — 21 of them in two groups, one from New Jersey, the other from Canada — had to be driven in vehicles back down from the peak. Some were showing initial stages of hypothermia, according to park officials, although none apparently suffered serious medical problems.

“The very young, 12- or 13-years-old, and the older ones, in their 60s and 70s were in the worst condition,” Mount Washington State Park manager Mike Pelchat said Tuesday.

“Some were shaking so violently, it took about an hour to get them ready to be driven down the mountain.”

“They had no dry clothes,” said Pelchat, who said they were able to buy warmer clothing at a souvenir shop on the summit, before being taken down the autoroute. Park personnel also warmed them up with hot liquids such as cocoa, and used chemical heating packs on them.

Harsh weather conditions persisted through Tuesday, according to weather observer Rebecca Scholand, who was nearing the end of her regular eight-day shift at the weather observatory. Atop the mountain, she said, there was little difference between Monday's minimum and maximum temperatures.

“Our snowfall was measured at 1.6 inches. Yesterday, the maximum temperature here was 32 degrees, and the minimum 28,” Scholand said.

The conditions created the equivalent of temperatures in the teens, said Scholand, a native of Mattituck, on New York's Long Island, who said she has held various jobs on the mountain over the past two years.

Veterans of the summit viewed the past several days' weather events with mild surprise, she said.

“You can get snow up here any month of the year. It was in the 50s on Friday, then on Saturday and Sunday, we were snow shoveling and de-icing. It just shows the unpredictability of the weather on top of the mountain,” she said.

It was also a bit surprising to Scholand and her colleagues that the winds of the past few days — including gusts up to 62 mph — have been out of the east. Northwest winds are more typical at this time of year, she said.

That unusual wind direction may have saved the lives of some hikers Saturday, Pelchat said.

“They came up the east, or Tuckerman Ravine side, of the mountain, and the southeast wind was at their backs, and helped them. If that had been a northwest wind, it would have been hitting them in the face, and they might not have made it up to the top,” and the shelter of the visitors center, he said.

“We could have had a mass casualty out on the trail. It's still a wild mountain. There have been 147 fatalities, including two this year,” said Pelchat, who has worked on Mount Washington for 30 years.

The Mount Washington Observatory weather forecast Tuesday said that although temperatures were expected to become more moderate as the day wore on, “Offshore low pressure in combination with a deep upper-level trough will keep the floodgates open from off the Atlantic, producing more fog and wintry precipitation atop the higher summits.”

Showery precipitation was expected to become more isolated through the overnight hours Tuesday as the mercury slipped just below freezing once again.

But temperatures will likely get a more significant boost today, topping out near the 40-degree mark, and any snow or sleet at higher elevations is expected to be light.

The conclusion, however, of the observatory's Tuesday forecast was likely much more pertinent for hikers planning to visit the mountain this week: “Nevertheless, expect to be met with full-on wintertime conditions above tree line. This means snowy and icy rocks, temperatures in the 30s, freezing fog, breezy northeast winds, and snow drifts. If venturing above tree line, all accessories required for a winter ascent will be necessary. In addition, hypothermia and frostbite are a serious concern, as wind chills will be hard-pressed to make much headway into the 20s.

bhookway@newstote.com


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