Mount Washington in northern New Hampshire is home to the most severe winter weather in America. For years, it held the world's record for the highest winds, which -- seriously -- went to 237 miles an hour before blowing the equipment off the mountain, a little more than eighty years ago. So, of course, during the worst winter in New England history, Car Talk sent me to ascend Mount Washington, providing me with nothing other than one well-used pair of Bronko Nagurski long underwear.
Fortunately, at the base of the mountain I ran into Howie Wemyss, who runs the Mount Washington Auto Road, one of the nation's first true tourist attractions.
Long before Americans packed their miserable kids in the Suburban to go to Disney, they packed their miserable kids into horse-drawn carriages and rode for approximately 92 hours to look at mountains. In the 1850s, a number of the White Mountains' Grand Hotels started accepting guests, who all got sick of looking at each other in their hotel rooms and needed some kind of entertainment.
The biggest thing in the White Mountains was Mount Washington, and everybody wanted to get on top of it to see what was up there.
Naturally, Americans were almost as lazy then as they are now, and had no interest in actually HIKING up the mountain, so in 1854, a guy by the name of George Macomber decided to build a road up to the mountain's summit so he could drag people up by horse. Macomber got about halfway before he went broke, and another company came in to finish the job. The road opened on August 8, 1861. As soon as we invented cars, we had them on the mountain. By 1912, a Thomas Flyer stage was climbing through the clouds.
Today, more than 45,000 cars climb Mount Washington, but in the winter months, you can count the number of vehicles on one hand. A couple of Snow Cats and groomers climb the mountain to supply the weather station at the top. The only other vehicles up there are the Mount Washington Auto Road's SnowCoaches.
The Auto Road runs three of these 15-passenger, one-ton Chevrolet vans. They're shipped directly from the factory to Quigley 4x4 in Manchester, Pennsylvania, where they're equipped with a rugged four-wheel-drive setup. Four-wheel drive is nice, and necessary, but you wouldn't get 10 feet up Mount Washington without a little something extra. Three of the Auto Road's Chevrolet vans are equipped with treads just like those on a snowmobile. They allow the vans to float across the snow, rather than digging a tire into it. The treads come from a company called American Track Truck in Chassell, Michigan.
We've got a lot more technical details along with a photo gallery at BestRide.com.
We got a great tour up the mountain with Dexter Rust, who has been driving this route since 1974 in everything from the SnowCoach to his first run up the mountain in an International Travelall. Along with the incredible vistas and the sense that at any moment, you could be blown off the mountain by a gust of wind originating somewhere over Sarah Palin's house, Dexter and the other SnowCoach drivers provide a great historical narration that gives you a sense of the incredible work it took to get people up the mountain.
There's a video of the tour on Car Talk's YouTube channel, and as a special bonus, there's a feature on one of Car Talk's staff.
If you're interested in learning more about the SnowCoach, or the drive up the mountain in months where your face won't freeze off, visit www.mtwashingtonautoroad.com.
To see Craig Fitzgerald freeze his tuchus off in the Mount Washington SnowCoach: