It’s a curious fact to know about yourself — how much wind you can withstand before you get knocked off your feet.
But it’s information that can save your life if your office is the weather station at the top of Mount Washington, where hurricane-force winds blow more than 100 days a year, and where the wind has been clocked at a world-record 231 mph.
Meteorologist Ryan Knapp’s limit has been calculated at 112 mph, based in part on his body size. And he knows what can happen when he exceeds it: In October, he was walking alone around midnight outside the Mount Washington Observatory when the wind flattened him and the precipitation measurement container he was carrying went flying.
He was able to grab the container and finish the job. Back inside 15 minutes later, Knapp watched the instruments surge as the wind kicked up to 158 mph, or 23 mph faster than Hurricane Katrina when it came ashore.
“If I had been out there during that, I probably would not have been making it back to the building,” said Knapp, one of four weather observers who live and work at the observatory on the Northeast’s highest mountain.
At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is only one-third the size of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak. But Mount Washington sticks up like a big toe at a point where storms from the north, south and west collide. As a result, it has some of the most ferocious weather on Earth, with snow and ice even in the summer.
Observers began recording the weather there 137 years ago, when the U.S. Signal Service, the military precursor to the National Weather Service, set up shop at the peak, long before winter woolens gave way to Gore-Tex. The building where the men worked still stands, with thick chains buckling it to the mountain rock.
Nicholas Howe wrote about one storm in January 1877 in the book “Not Without Peril.” Winds of 150 mph knocked out windows and lifted a carpet a foot off the floor. Fearful of being swept away, the men “wrapped themselves in blankets and quilts secured with ropes and then they tied on iron crowbars lengthwise as further strengthening against the long fall that seemed inevitable.”
The Signal Service’s tenure on the peak ended in 1892. Forty years later, volunteers revived the observatory, setting up quarters in an old stage coach building. In April 1934, observers working there clocked the wind at 231 mph, the world’s highest recorded wind speed along the ground.
The nonprofit observatory is the heir to that project. They young staff members are paid little and work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, performing hourly outdoor observations and maintaining equipment.
They also issue hiking forecasts describing conditions in the Presidential mountain range, where the rapidly changing weather has claimed 139 lives since 1849, many from the cold even in summer. Two observers died during the Signal Service operation; but no one working for the current operation has been killed or seriously hurt.
The staff members live in relative luxury, in part of a 1980s state-owned building made of reinforced concrete and steel, with 2-foot-thick walls and triple-layer windows four inches thick. Their lair beneath the observatory work room is cozy, with the communal air of a college dormitory suite. Living room shelves hold meteorology textbooks and movies; the pantry is well-stocked and a cat named Nin keeps them company.
“The job description isn’t just being a good meteorologist or being good at computers. You have to have passion for experiencing the weather and a real ability to experience the weather,” said observer Jim Salge, 25.
The observers get free food, long vacations, every other week off, and when conditions are right, the longest ski run in the Northeast at their feet. They also are minor media stars. Their daily radio forecasts, broadcast in New Hampshire and Maine, are known for their quirky, monotone delivery.
“I love the excitement of a snowstorm; the anticipation of world soon transformed to cushioned white,” observer Neil Lareau wrote in a Jan. 16 blog entry. “I love the dampened sound in a forest when it snows, the slow hiss of steady snow piling up, the smell in the air the hour before the snow starts, the leaden grey of the nimbostratus. All of it, I love it, I live for it.”
Weather junkies who want to get beaten up by the wind can pay a $45 membership fee, plus $459 for lectures, hikes and a bunk for one night at the observatory. Members can also visit free in return for a week’s worth of cooking, cleaning or maintenance work. But there is a waiting list.
Volunteer John Lind of Huntington, N.Y., spent a week in January, building office cabinets. “It’s like being on a ship at sea,” he said. “When you crack 100, the building vibrates and the hair kind of stands on the back of your head.”
That was when Lind headed outside to the observation deck.
“You get blown around out there,” he said. “You don’t get to feel that at home.”