® Harald Pietschmann


"The path on the snow was slanted, it didn't leave any room for errors."

You may have heard of the 6288 ft high Mount Washington in New Hampshire. You may even have been to the top of the North-East's highest mountain. After all, the road leading up there is America's oldest man made tourist attraction. Built in 1861 it has seen hundreds of thousands of motor vehicles since. And it sees once a year a bunch of race cars storming uphill to cover the 7.4 miles as fast as possible. Named "Climb to the Clouds" the 1904 inaugural race was America's first motor sports event. Ever.

To add extra safety and traction for the drive down, especially on those icy patches, we put on snow chains.

One thing the road hadn't seen so far were automobiles attempting to reach the top of Mount Washington in the winter. It took six brave adventurers, three Rover 4x4, some extra gear, a lot of careful planning, and plenty of guts to add another "first" to the mountain's list of records. On February 1, 1994 the group, they all work for Rovers North, a service center and parts warehouse catering to Rover owners, completed the first successful drive up Mount Washington.

Nobody should just leap unprepared into the unknown. If you want to stay alive, you better go prepared, study the risks and do everything to eliminate them. Mike and Lanny, the brains of this adventure were well prepared. They had studied the mountain, the road, the weather pattern for several month. They were constantly in close contact with the weather station atop Mount Washington, and they knew exactly the limits of their Rovers.

There is beauty in this place that also gives you lots of respect for Mother Nature.

Some of this mountain's records are responsible that nobody before even dreamt about using a car to climb Mount Washington in the winter time: The highest recorded wind speed on this planet was clocked here in 1934 - 231 mph! Average wind speed is 35 mph, average temperature is 27 F. Phew! The combination of the two (-16 F) makes one feel miserable just by reading about it. To make things worse, the mountain top hides in the clouds 60% of the time, and it might snow at any time of the year. Even in summer. In winter the mountain is completely buried under snow and ice. That's why the mountain is appropriately nick-named "Home of the worst weather in the world". The white stuff will not be removed all winter long and the road is closed to the public from October to May.

Fortunately we had a key to open the gate. It was 6 AM when we started airing down at the 1578 ft base of the mountain on February 1. It was a beautiful picture: Promising blue sky above us, the sun was about to rise and the moon was still out. Only the top of the mountain received already the first warm glow of the sun. I don't remember checking the temperature, but it was quite chilly.

We had to cover our faces completely since exposed skin would immediately get frostbitten at minus 65 F.

Past the gate I had expected an unspoiled road but I noticed tracks in the snow like from a Caterpillar: A snow cat makes a run up and down once a week to bring relief for the crew working at the peak's weather station. Even though the snow cat follows the road, actually it rides high atop the surface of the road on several feet of snow it could almost drive straight up. It's wide tracks provide traction and flotation on the softest of snow and allow the cat to negotiate steep grades and even side slopes.

Our vehicles, two Range Rovers and one Land Rover 110, shod with stock size Michelins and BFGs, did not have that kind of flotation and traction advantage. Actually, I was surprised to see those skinny rubbers on the vehicles. Ask anyone, who drives frequently on snow or sand, he will tell you that a wide tire will make all the difference in the world. The difference between stuck and driving that is.

Patches of sheer ice and a slope of 12% don't mix too well. But the BFGoodrich tires didn't slip a bit.

"Why didn't you get wider, taller tires?" I had asked Lanny, driver of the red Range Rover "Well," he replied "the answer is quite simple. We believe the Rovers are incredible capable vehicles - right from the factory. They don't need modifications. Our vehicles will make it to the top with just the few supporting accessories we chose, like strong WARN winches, the ingenious PULL-PAL snow anchor, and the best PEWAG tire chains from Austria."

Of course the team realized that a regular tire with a small footprint is a disadvantage in snow. That's why they aired them down to increase the footprint and keep the wheels from sinking into the snow like a hot knife into butter. This technique worked quite well for the two Range Rovers - they drove the first couple of miles without getting stuck. Mark however, owner of Rovers North, and driving the green Land Rover 110, had to use his winch several times to free the vehicle. He felt uncomfortable reducing the pressure in his tires significantly and had only aired down by a few pounds. Randy, his co-driver, had to pay the price:

Again and again dragging the winch cable to the Pull Pal anchor

Recovery, however, was a quick deal. Cable out. Hook on. Power cable in. Unhook. Wrap the cable round the bumper. Drive on. It was just a matter of minutes until the Rover was moving under it's own power again. This trip proved, it definitely helps to have a powerful winch. We could not have continued without one.
By the time we had passed the tree line the sun was shining. Did it get warmer though? Not a bit. On the contrary. Since there were no more trees to protect us from the wind we now had to endure the deadly combination of cold & windchill. In our case it was a regular - 10 F, but 36 mph wind pushed the freezing power down to - 65 F. Far too cold to survive without proper body protection. But even with the right gear it wasn't very comfortable out there. Especially for us three photographers, covering every move of the expedition's team. Their advantage was, that they had to pull cables and to carry anchors around which keeps the body's temperature up. Although we photographers were not only standing in the cold snapping pictures but rode most of the way sitting in one of the cars, we did not have the comfort of a heated cab. To keep the cameras from fogging up in the warm car and from freezing inoperable the next time we would take them outside, we had to keep the heater on low. We even rolled down the windows a bit. So much for a comfortable ride in a Range Rover.

Stuck again! Pulling the cable out in high altitude and sub-freezing temperature is quite a chore

Plus, the going got tougher. The snow above tree line was piled about 10 ft high. In some drifts even higher. Each vehicle got stuck in the very lose powder of the first major drift. In addition to the hindering powder, the presence of the drift changed the road's grade dramatically. We tried a slow approach. Used some momentum. Resorted to a lot of momentum - We sank all in the same spot. Now, where do you hook your winch cable on to? Remember, we left the trees behind, which were reliable anchors. Well we brought our own anchors. The ingenious Pull-Pal, already a proven rescue device in the treeless desert, made it possible to simply plant a winch anchor anywhere we wanted one.

Chains provided excellent traction.

Our most valuable tool above the tree line. The ingenious Pull-Pal ground anchor. Don't leave home without it!

We just attached the cable to it, held it upright so the blade at the lower end could dig into the snow as soon as the winch started pulling. Then we would step aside to be out of harm's way. Depending on the consistency of the snow the Pull-Pal went either partially down or disappeared completely into the snow. But once there, it didn't change it's position a bit. No matter how hard we pulled. Come to think about it I personally liked the Pull-Pal better than a tree or any other anchor along the wayside. Simply because the ones along the road were never straight in front of the winch. And pulling a cable at an angle onto the drum can easily damage the wire. With the Pull-Pal the pulling point can always be established straight ahead as long as you find something to dig into. What surprised me the most was, that it was very easy to pull up the device from it's frosty grave. No Schwarzenegger muscles needed.

Incredibly beautiful rock formations blossomed from
the earth throughout the trip.

Right past the "Horn", one of the 70 turns in the road, we encountered a bare stretch of pavement. The snow was completely blown away. Unfortunately it was replaced by 4 inch thick ice. I expected the cars to either lose traction and slip back or even worse to slide towards the edge of the road. There was no rail that could have stopped us. Neither Rover spun a single tire. Impressive! The BFGs and Michelins performed like they were glued to the ice. We didn't have to put the chains on for now. Instead we paused for a moment and enjoyed the breathtaking view all the way to the Longfellow Mountains in Maine. It seemed you'd see forever.

Days with sunshine, a clear view, and absolutely no clouds are very rare on Mount Washington. Just a week ago when our expedition was originally scheduled the weather conditions were really bad. The team had listened to the weather station's advice and canceled the trip. I still recall my shudder when Mike Hopwood had called me: "It'll be minus 120. We have to set a new date." Two hikers attempted to reach the top that same weekend despite the horrible storm and extreme temps. Only one of them survived. They should have taken a mountain like this with it's bad reputation more seriously. After hearing that story I caught myself checking the sky for clouds. However, the sky continued to present itself in a radiant blue.
Good for us. Everything had worked like clockwork so far and we had already covered 4 miles - only 3 1/2 more to go. Again it was mostly Mark who got stuck with his Land Rover when we continued our way up on the "Five Mile Grade". After we had noticed that his "MC 4" Michelin (235/85R16) tires did not flex as well as the BFG MTs (225/75R16) and the "244 M+S" Michelins (205R16) mounted on the Range Rovers even though they were all let down to the same 15 psi, Mark lowered the pressure to about 8 pounds. Now the 110 drove on the snow like a Caterpillar. We had to use the winches only very few times after this. A large field of ice at the "Cragway Turn" was more difficult to negotiate on foot than driving. I hurried to get back in the car.
Soon after we encountered the steepest grade of about 20% and a snow bank sitting right at the highest point of it, I had to get out again to document the Rovers getting stuck. They didn't but I got some incredible photos (25-27). This time momentum had carried all vehicles up and over. No winching was required. Shortly before we reached the "Hairpin" the snow had reshaped the road to the extent that it had now the same side slope as the mountain. About 45%. (23+24). Despite minus 65 Fahrenheit this drive made us all sweat. What if the vehicles would start sliding downhill? Well they didn't. The tires continued to perform like traction kings.

They had their limits too, of course. Only another mile farther up we had to put on chains. The steepness of the road, now close to the top completely covered with ice, increased beyond any rubber tire's traction. So we rattled like tanks the few hundred yards to the top. It felt good to be part of another "first". The magnificent view from New Hampshire to Vermont over Quebec to Main was our reward. We saw as far as the Atlantic Ocean. It was breathtaking. The freezing cold was too.

Once we got towards the top, the view was literally to the Atlantic Ocean.

Atop Mount Washington just everything was covered with ice. The prevailing strong winds compressed the snow crystals to sheer ice. It is hard to imagine the impact of hurricane force winds of more than 200 mph, but heavy duty chains weighing tons strung over the wooden structure of the historic Summit Stage Office leave no doubt that those winds could blow away a house like this in one piece. This is one of the reasons why the quarters and labs of the weather station are mainly underground. Two men work up there in one week shifts. We paid them a short visit and had lunch in their quarters before we took one last picture of the victorious group and headed back down the mountain. We reached the base of Mount Washington in only 1 1/2 hours. Even though it was Tuesday it felt like coming back from a nice Sunday drive.

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