Mount Washington was far from the tallest mountain on the face of the Earth, however the summit observatory had recorded the strongest wind ever measured on the planet at 231 mph or 372 km/hr. Winter temperatures on Agiocochook, or “Home of the Great Spirit” regularly dropped as low as -50F.
Death from hypothermia can occur within an hour at that sub-zero temperature, but a human can freeze in less time. I know, because in February of 1971 my friends and I headed north from Boston to ski the various slopes around North Conway; Attitash, Intervale, and Black Mountain.
The four of us stayed in a cheap hotel and drove to the various ski slopes in my VW bug. Our skis were stashed between the seats and our clunky Frankenstein boots in the front trunk.
Every morning John, Tommy, Mark and I were the first people to hit the slopes, since the VW’s air-cooled engine started without a problem in the frigid mornings.
The final day of the trip we stuffed ourselves with a hearty breakfast of pancakes and sausage.
Exiting from the motel restaurant we got in the VW, then ascended Pinkham Notch to Wildcat, which lay opposite Mt. Washington. The snow along the road rose above the guard railing and I opened up the heating vents to full. Mark acted as co-pilot and scrapped the frozen condensation from windshield.
We arrived at the base of the mountain and bought tickets for the day just as the cloud-wreathed sun peaked over the steep horizon. An overnight snow had dusted the slopes and the pine trees were covered with white.
Getting out of the car we zippered up our parkas.
“Damn, this is cold,” Tommy said, fussing with his new Roffe parka and gloves. He played hockey for a prep school in Maine. A booster paid him under the table for goals.
“You think this is cold. Wait till you get to the top.”
The red-faced gondola operator pointed to the thermometer on the wall reading -20.
“On top it’s -30 and then there’s the wind. Have a good day, boys.”
The gondolas shivered in the wind.
Mark and I stared at the empty slopes.
“Guess we’re the first.” He tightened his scarf and tucked his arms over his chest.
“Or the only ones.”
Few skiers were fool enough to challenge this arctic weather.
I blew on my gloved hands and lifted my scarf over my face as a mask. The cold seeping into the oblong transporter to chill my bones to the marrow. My Gerri parka was two years old. It was the best I could afford.
“I wonder if this was as cold as when Robert Scott crossed Antarctica.”
“Not even close.” Mark braced for the approaching summit by lighting a cigarette. He exhaled the smoke, which dropped to his lap like a submarine submerging below the sea. “The South Pole gets down to -100 below zero.”
“But it’s a dry cold.” My words misted in the air.
At 4000 feet oxygen was scarce on the top of Wildcat.
“Dry or wet. This is cold.” Mark clapped his gloved hands together. We were approaching the summit. He tugged down his cap.
We were New Englanders and New England only had two seasons.
Summer and winter.
We knew which one was longer."
We exited from the gondolas and snapped our boots into the bindings.
Tommy and John were on the next gondola.
They joined our shiver.
The frigid wind ripped through our parkas and jeans like sandpaper scrapping the flesh. Mark shouted over the biting gale, “The shortest way down is the fastest. Follow me.”
Having skied Wildcat before Mark charged along Upper Wildcat to the black diamond Lynx Lair connecting to the other Lynx trails. None of us dared a fall and we reached the base lodge in less than fifteen minutes.
We ripped off our skis and clumped into the cafeteria.
Each of us ordered two hot chocolates. The scalding brew soothed our inner core.
“Damn, that was cold.” John was lanky thin. He had no excess body fat and his skin was a boreal white, as if his blood had sucked dry by a vampire.
“Anyone ready for another run?” Tommy practiced ice hockey outside every day. Cold was second nature to the right winger's daily routine.
Mark, John, and I regarded the blaze in the fireplace with an affection reserved for our girlfriends.
All three of us shook our heads.
“Chickenshits. We didn’t come up here to toast marshmallows.” Tommy shamed us and we drained our hot chocolates, then exited into the Siberian bitterness for another assault on the slopes.
A grim overcast settled over Wildcat and the morning was worsened by the damp mist whistling through the pines. Each of our runs was more punishing than the previous. None of this was fun.
At lunch even Tommy admitted that he lost his enthusiasm for the day’s outing.
We ate our chili in silence.
Finally John said, "Let's we give it on one try.”
“What for?” Mark shook his head. “I feel like I’m being tortured by Old Man Winter.”
“What for?” John held his hands to the fire. “Because after this weekend I go back to work at the shipyard and Mark will be doing double-shifts at the gas station. Tommy will be playing hockey seven days a week and you’ll be going to college in the day and driving taxi at night to pay for it.”
“Thanks for painting such a pretty picture.” Mark stepped closer next to the fireplace.
“It is what it is.” I was studying Philosophy 101 that semester. “I’m game if everyone else is.”
“We do Irish coffees at the motel on me.” Tommy nodded his commitment to our endeavor. He got a little money under the table for each goal scored, which he split with the opposing goalie.
“Last one down pays for the first beer.” John ran out of the lodge and grabbed his skis from the rack.
“You guys, this will be the last run for the day.” The operator was posting the ‘CLOSED’ Sign. “The wind’s picked up on top. Management figures the temperature with the wind is down to -50.”
“I’ve never been in that kind of cold.” I had been brought up in Maine.
This was a different kind of cold.
“Most people haven’t, because they can’t live in it.” The operator sealed us in the gondola. “Hope you don’t end up as icicles.”
Mark and I sat as close as Eskimos waiting out the season of good sledding.
“You know that we might never be this cold again.”
“My favorite book as a kid was SOUTH by Ernest Shackleton.
The British explorer had been struck on the ice for a year. Temperatures in Antarctica had been lower than this, but this must be how it felt like being lost on the Ross Sea.”
“Let’s not talk about the cold.” Mark detoured from our misery to discuss last April's trip to Florida. The sun had burned our skin red and we had swum in the sea off Fort Lauderdale with girls in bikinis.
“No bikinis here.”
“Never.” Snow bunnies were for Colorado ski resorts not North Conway. My girlfriend in Boston hated the cold. Linda looked good without a top at Nauset beach. She was 26 and I was beginning to understand 26 wasn’t so old, since I would be 20 in May.
The top of Wildcat wouldn’t see 26F until April..
Mark and I jumped out of the gondola and skied to the right. I pulled down my googles to prevent my eyelids from freezing shut. Tommy and John stopped beside us.
"A race to the bottom." Tommy was ready to go.
As a hockey player he loved any kind of competition.
"We might as well make this run a long one."
Mark plotted out the trails and we nodded in shivered agreement before lining up to the start.
"Let's do it." John leaned forward to push off like Spider Sabich at a World Cup race.
"On the count of three." Mark counted off the numbers and we burst forward with shouted 'GO'.
Our style down green dot Upper Catapult was a pure downhill to offer the best aerodynamics as well as shield our bodies from the chill. Tommy grabbed the early lead by the start of the black diamond Upper Wildcat. John and I were fighting for a close second, but my extremities were losing sensation with each passing second. My fingers, toes, and ears actually hurt and my tears formed ice spiders inside my goggles.
Mark overtook the three of us right before schussing onto Middle Wildcat. The steepening of the icy slope challenged our skills and I almost fell on a turn.
My fist punched into the packed powder to right myself.
My three friends were almost out of sight, as I reached Middle Wildcat, but I ducked through the trees to make up the distance and emerged from the forest to barrel down Copycat to the bottom.
The three of them beat me by a few seconds. They flicked off their skis and dashed into the lodge. I followed them inside.
I didn't know who had won, but I had lost.
“Beers on you.” Mark was standing at the bar.
“I thought it was first to the car.” Beers were cheaper in North Conway.
I ran outside to grab my skis and shambled down to the parking lot, trailed by my friends running like drunken Frankensteins in their heavy boots.
I touched the back bumper and turned to the panting trio.
“Just kidding. Beers are on me. Now pray that the car starts.”
Every driver in the parking lot was struggling to start their car.
I sat in the VW and twisted the key in the ignition.
The engine coughed to life and we packed our skis into the car, then exchanged our ski boots for Frye boots. The heat took its time coming to life, but by the time we passed the Lost Pond Trail on route 16, we shucked our hats and gloves.
"Goddamn VW." I loved this car and pointed my car south.
"Goddamn VW is right." My friends loved this car.
"Nice and warm."
"Sort of warm," John shivered beside me, because warm was a long way away from North Conway, but with the right amount of heat we would call it Florida.
And not one of us questioned its location.
Especially not after -40 on top of Wildcat.
After all we were New Englanders.