Winter Driving with the Pros: Mt. Washington

Staff Blog

Staff Blog | Feb 19, 2013

Name: Mike Pelchat
Title: Park Manager, Mount Washington State Park
Location: Summit of Mount Washington, 6,288’, White Mountains, New Hampshire, “Home of the World’s Worst Weather”
Vehicle: 2003 BR275 Bombardier Snow Tractor with hydraulic 12 way snow plow, 144 ice-caulked Master Climber steel tracks and 12-passenger rear cabin. 275hp Cummins 6-cylinder diesel engine.

My Best Winter Driving Tip: Make sure you have great visibility at all times!

Here’s How to Do It: First, keep the glass clean. Then, use a good quality, anti-fogging spray or liquid. Third, replace your windshield wipers twice a year. Finally, keep extra terry cloth rags handy to wipe the condensation off the inside of the windshield. Cleaning the inside is the co-pilots job--not the driver’s!

Mike, his snow tractor and another beautiful day on Mt. Washington (Photo/Doug Mayer)
Mike, his snow tractor and another beautiful day on Mt. Washington (Photo/Doug Mayer)

The Interview: Car Talk Talks with Extreme Winter Driver Mike Pelchat

Car Talk: Tell us about your winter driving experience.

Mike: For the past 10 winters I have been operating snow tractors on the eight-mile long Mount Washington auto road. Four miles of the road is high enough in elevation that it endures extremely harsh weather, year-’round. In this area, only small plants and scrubby trees, called krummholz, can grow. Above this tree line, Mount Washington has some of the most challenging weather of any mountain in the world. That’s why they call it, “The Home of the World’s Worst Weather.”

To navigate above tree line, every fall we install grade stakes to help mark the edge of the road. We do that every 20 feet above tree line, so that nobody drives off the road.

Car Talk: Your best driving tip is about visibility. Why is that so important?

Mike: In our case, visibility can be hard to maintain-- winds are often hurricane force and there’s plenty of blowing snow. Plus, we don’t get the benefit of guard rails. Up here, the consequences of poor visibility can be unforgiving—you can literally drive right over a cliff! If you’re off the road by just a few inches, you can drop up to 2,000 feet.

It's simple. All you have to do is keep all 17,000 lbs of the vehicle on that skinny, curvy line. (Photo/Mike Pelchat)
It's simple. All you have to do is keep all 17,000 lbs of the vehicle on that skinny, curvy line. (Photo/Mike Pelchat)

Car Talk: Yikes! Why would you risk driving? What’s going on up on the summit in winter that’s so important?

Mike: The summit of Mount Washington is like an arctic research station. We have maintenance staff, weather observers, researchers, cellular towers and radio transmitters that range from FM stations to public safety agencies, plus all the water, septic and power infrastructure that goes along with supporting a staff on the summit. Our winter operations include transporting supplies, summit crews and contractors to the summit of Mount Washington. On top of that, we need to make sure all life support systems are always functioning properly.

Car Talk: What’s the driving like up there on the mountain? We heard it's cold up there!

Mike:  Temperatures often drop lower than minus 40F below zero. That's hard on hydraulics and the mechanical components of the machines. The biggest driving challenge is not the cold by itself, though, but the lack of visibility. Above tree line, abundant snowfall combined with high winds can kick up what are known as “white-out” conditions.

Sometimes worse comes to worse and we have to take extreme measures. When we’re caught in white-out conditions, the co-pilot must get out of the machine and walk along the outside edge of the road to give the operator a landmark to follow.  There’s so much snow, there can be drifts as tall as a two-story house on the auto road. That’s when we give up on plow trucks and bring out the big snow tractors!

We also have freezing fog that develops into “rime ice” on our snow tractor’s windshield. Add that rime ice to the extremely low ambient air temperatures, plus winds in the 70s or 80s (mph), and you have wind chills that are literally off the charts. They're as extreme as anywhere on earth. 

A Bombardier with a view! (Photo/Doug Mayer)
A Bombardier with a view! (Photo/Doug Mayer)

Car Talk: What do you do if a white out occurs and you really can’t see a thing?

Mike: If all of a sudden you can’t see the road ahead, STOP! We have given up and turned back at all points along the eight-mile road to keep the crew in the vehicle safe -- even if we’re just below the summit. That’s an important message for any mountain driver or hiker anywhere, for that matter. No matter where you are, if conditions are terrible, don’t risk it.

Up here, the weather on the mountain changes quickly and forecasts are not always correct. Storms can blow in much faster than predicted!

Car Talk: Thanks for talking to us, Mike!

You can learn more about Mike’s commute to the top of Mt. Washington, right here!

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