Monday October 12, 2009
Rode Cog Railway to the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire on Columbus Day. It’s a lovely fall day in the Valley below — sunny and temperate. But as the train works its way up the side of the mountain at what feels like a 45-degree angle, the trees get smaller then disappear into fog. Then the fog freezes on the tiny bent trees outlining them in rime ice. The temperature drops to around freezing. The wind blows.
This mountain is home to the world’s worst weather and claims the highest recorded wind speed on the face of the earth: 231 miles per hour. I’m coming up to visit the Mt. Washington Weather Observatory where meteorologists have measured the wind speed, temperature, and visibility every hour of every day and night since 1932.
I grew up in the valley below this mountain; I know its profile like I know my own signature. I’ve hiked up it, driven up it, and taken this train before. It’s a strange mountain: the biggest one around, but not very big compared to the peaks of the Rockies. Its weather is surprisingly extreme though and, on average, at least one person dies here every year. One reason why people die here regularly is because it’s an accessible mountain and in the summer, thousands of people can make their way to the top of it every day.
I’ve wanted to make a movie about Mount Washington for a few years now. My most recent media projects have been animated documentaries about the human desire to measure, map, and chart. Since my son was born a few years ago, I’ve felt differently about the things I make. I’ve wanted to return to recording images (instead of drawing them) and work with other people, and this project seems like a good way to stay true to my interests but try a different aesthetic approach.
At the top, I get a tour of the Observatory from staff meterologist Brian Clark. It’s a strange building — a sort of huge split-level semicircle with a three-and-a-half story tower story at one end. The tower is home to the Observatory with living quarters down below, offices at mid-level, and an observer’s turret at the top. The summit is socked in — you can’t see ten feet in front of you – and then suddenly you’re out of the clouds and you have a stunning 360-degree view of sky and peaks that stretch form New York to the Atlantic Ocean in Maine. Broadcast towers also take up residency here. They are covered in rime ice (in effect, frozen fog) that molds a perfect white cover onto everything up here including your skin. Can a movie be made here?