Late June is my favorite time to visit New England. I know that many people like New England's winter snow for skiing and snowboarding, and others love the brilliant displays of color in the fall. I prefer the green.
The Presidential Range of the White Mountains carry the green of spring and summer nobly on their ancient backs. I've been lured to the tallest of this range -- Mount Washington -- many times in the past. Every time has offered an opportunity to drive up the Mt. Washington Auto Road, which, for me, combines history, science, racing, and beauty like few other places.
What drew me to Mount Washington for five days this week is the 2011 Climb to the Clouds Hillclimb. Brought back after a 10-year absence from competition, this year's hillclimb is part of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Mt. Washington Auto Road.
Originally known as The Mt. Washington Carriage Road, the 7.6-mile toll road is the oldest man-made attraction in North America. It has several other historic claims as well:
- First run in 1904, the Mt. Washington Hillclimb is the oldest race in America.
- The Mt. Washington Hillclimb preceded the first Indianapolis 500, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, and the first Pikes Peak Hillclimb (1916), which also runs this weekend.
Hillclimb competitors race from the bottom of the mountain (altitude of 1,565 feet above sea level) to near the top (6,120 of the 6,288 feet at the top). In doing so, they'll drive on 6.6 miles of tarmac and 1.0 mile of hard-packed gravel. Road width varies, from a little more than a lane wide to barely two lanes wide. Trees, boulders, and mountainside (wall or drop-off) line the road. In addition, the weather can change dramatically due to altitude and/or the mountain's location. It lies at the confluence of three major storm tracks, and the highest wind velocity ever recorded by man -- 231 miles per hour -- was measured at the top on April 12, 1934.
The weather observatory at the summit is staffed year-round. Subaru is Mount Washington Observatory's longest-standing partner. (Find more information about the observatory here.)
You can read more about Mount Washington and its dramatic weather in Fall 2005 Subaru Drive magazine here.
This week's schedule for the 2011 Climb to the Clouds and information on spectating can be found here. On Wednesday, June 22, I took advantage of the sunny weather and drove the Mt. Washington Auto Road in the Drive Performance WRX. Ascending the mountain, you don't realize how steep the grade is. (It averages 11.6 percent.) But when you stop and get out of your vehicle to explore at the pull-off areas, the angle at which you stand can be surprising.
The views from the mountain are gorgeous, as you'd expect with the advantage that high altitude affords. You're above the tree line at 4,400 feet, which you might not expect in the New England mountains. Another effect of high altitude is a drop in air temperature. Take your jacket with you!
Wednesday was a day for registration and preparation. Competitors started building a small community of RVs and tents at the base. They'll learn as much as they can about the Auto Road on Thursday (recce), Friday (morning practice), and Saturday (morning practice). Then, weather permitting, they'll make two passes to attack the Mt. Washington Hillclimb record time of 6 minutes, 41.99 seconds set by Frank Sprongl in 1998. (The Vermont SportsCar team with Travis Pastrana driving surpassed that record with a run of 6 minutes, 20.47 seconds in an unofficial run in September, 2010.)
There also was enough time on Wednesday for me to do some exploring in the nearby national forest.
We'll have more on the 2011 Climb to the Clouds in the next few days.
-- Ric Hawthorne