Mount Washington is far from the tallest mountain on the face of the Earth, however in 1934 the summit observatory recorded the strongest wind 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, because one early morning in February of 1971 my friends and I headed north from Boston to ski the various slopes of the White Mountains; Attitash, Intervale, and Black Mountain.
As we neared North Conway, Mark fiddled with the radio dial and found Bill Withers AIN'T NO SUNSHINE.
"He's right. It's not even dawn," I said behind the wheel of my VW Beetle. It had good heat.
"Not yet," Mark responded before lighting up a joint. "But soon."
We reached Cannon in Franconia Notch around 8. The sun shone behind the mountain. We bought tickets and quickly booked a room and consumed a stack of pancakes for fuel.
The aerial tram carried skiers to the 4000-foot summit. Several complained about the cold. The four of us were comfortable with 10F and the fluffy snow presented well-groomed conditions. We hit the steep speed trails of Rocket, Zoomer, and Polly’s Folly, broke for a chili lunch, and then finished with long runs on Taft Slalom, Ravine, Cannon, and Cannonball.
We called the day early and drove back to North Conway before sunset, because driving through the mountains was treacherous at night.
"Good day." Tommy nodded, as we loaded the skis and clunky boots in the front trunk.
John blew in his hands.
"Damn, I think it's gotten colder.
"We'll be snug in the Bug soon enough."
VWs had air-cooled engine and I started the car on the first attempt.
WBZ played Janis Joplin's ME AND BOBBIE MCGEE, as we drove up the notch to catch 302 to Crawford Notch. The four of us sang every word. Snow fell in clumps. The VW skidded on the drifts, as plows fought to keep the road open. Some days it was a losing effort.
"I'd hate to drive off the road." John sat in the front holding his hands over the heaters.
"I'm not crashing."
"You never know."
"I see it this way. We slide down the slope to the Saco River and land upside down. We can't get out and the car is buried by an avalanche. We end up eating each other to survive."
Stop already, buzzkill." I wasn't driving fast. "I'll get us to Conway alive."
We unloaded our equipment into the cheap motel and ate hearty meal at a local restaurant.
Stepping into the night I was surprised by a severe temperature drop and said, "-5 and that's with no wind."
"It's just the night," Tommy assured us.
"But sunny tomorrow." Tommy was an eternal optimist, but checked his watch. "Time to sleep."
The winger wanted to watch his show.
Back at the motel we broke out the bong and turned on the TV.
THE MOD SQUAD.
We crashed during HEE-HAW.
The next morning John, Tommy, Mark and I woke early and they ate oatmeal drowning in maple syrup.
I had toast and coffee."
"What's with the diet?" asked Tommy with a spool of gruel in his hand.
"I hate oatmeal. Always have since reading OLIVER TWIST."
"Can't I 'ave some mo'e?" John held out his empty bowl.
"Yea, you can have my share of drool."
"All the more for me." John refilled his bowl.
"I understand, but it's never good to ski on an empty stomach. You want to smoke some weed? Nothing like it for eating something you don't want to eat."
I shook my head.
Hitting the parking lot the cold bit at my face and I hurried to the Beetle.
Tommy and Mark scrapped the ice off the windows.
"It's even colder today." John shivered like a malaria victim.
He was right.
It was colder.
A lot colder.
The 1300cc engine started on the first twist of the key. I beeped the horn. Matt and Tommy jumped in the car. Johnny regarded the other skiers struggling to start their Detroit V8s and said, "Suckers."
"Good girl." I tapped the steering wheel and drove up 302 to Attitash. Mt. Washington's summit was draped by a cloud. At 6000 feet the observatory was almost in space. Snow swept across the road. Other cars struggled up the Notch. With the four of us serving as ballast the VW was the fastest car in Northern New Hampshire.
We arrived at the base of the mountain just as the sun peaked over the steep horizon. An overnight snow had dusted the trails and coated the pine trees with white. Getting out of the car we swiftly zippered up our parkas.
The untouched snow on the glades was ours. Our skis deflowered Tightrope and Saco.
"It's well below freezing. The thermometer at the lodge read -20."
"At the summit it was -30." John was suffering in his Filene's Basement ski gear.
"I felt okay." I had traded an ounce of grass for Hart Outer Clothing.
"Me too." Tommy fussed with his new Roffe parka and gloves. He played hockey for a prep school in Maine. A booster paid him under the table for winning goals.
"Fuck you both."
The cold sucked the life from our bodies and we finished the day early.
We drank Whiskey toddys with dinner at the restaurant across from the motel
Everyone in the restaurant discussed the cold.
They were locals.
One older man argued for 1968 winning the record for cold.
"It hit -32."
"I remember that winter." The waitress pulled shut her sweater. "My husband and I stayed in bed most of the winter. We had twins in the fall."
Upon leaving the restaurant we hurried to our room.
"You know we don't have to ski tomorrow." John's skin was as white as the corpse of a drowned Titanic passenger rescued the the icy Atlantic.
"It'll be fine." Tommy played prep school hockey in Northern Maine.
Aroostock County was another kind of cold.
The next morning we woke to a brittle white light rising over the valley. I went to the window and felt the glass. It was colder than ice.
Several skiers stood before their cars.
The engines were frozen solid.
I turned on the TV.
The Three Stooges were yucking it up. I kicked the beds. Mark and Tommy swung their feet to the floor. John was stuck under the covers.
"It's my off day." His hand reached up to the window. A brief touch and he dropped his hand. "Oh, yeah, I'm sleeping in."
"Is it that cold out there?" Tommy was tough, but even hockey toughness had its limit.
"It's Siberia out there." I thought of the gulag prisoners and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOSVICH. The USSR would have loved the White Mountains.
"John, you're coming with us whether you like it or not."
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are," Tommy wasn't taking no. "Get dressed. We have a mountain waiting."
The four of us stuffed our bellies with a hearty breakfast of pancakes and sausage.
Exiting from the motel restaurant we got in the VW, then ascended Pinkham Notch to Wildcat 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.
"To the Planet Pluto," groused John.
"I think Pluto is warmer."
"Today for sure."
We reached Wildcat at dawn. Mount Washington rose across the valley. Agiocochook was breeding weather with the sky.
Getting out of the car we zippered up our parkas and hurried to the ski lift after buying our tickets.
“Damn, this is cold,” said Tommy.
“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.”
On the trip to the summit the gondolas shivered in the wind. Mark and I stared at the empty slopes.
"Doesn't look like anyone's fool enough to come up here."
“Guess we’re the first.” He tightened his scarf and tucked his arms over his chest.
“Or the only ones.” I blew on my gloved hands and lifted my scarf over my face as a mask. The cold seeped into the oblong transporter and chilled my bones to the marrow. My Hart parka was not made for this temperature. “I wonder if this was as cold as when Robert Scott crossed Antarctica.”
“Not even close.” Mark lit a cigarette and 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.
Oxygen was scarce atop Wildcat.
“Dry or wet. This is cold.” Mark clapped his gloved hands together. We were approaching the summit station and he tugged down his cap.
“I’m ready for it.
“Me too.” 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.
The thermometer read -40.
The frigid wind ripped through our parkas like sandpaper scrapping the flesh. Mark shouted over the biting gale, “The shortest way down is the fastest. Follow me. Ready?”
Having skied Wildcat before Mark charged down 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.
The three of us 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's 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, 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 boreal 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 Mark said, "Let's we give it one more try.”
“What for?” Tommy shook his head. “I feel like I’m being tortured by Old Man Winter.”
“What for?” Mark held his hands to the fire. “Because after this weekend I go back to work at the shipyard and John 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.” I stepped closer next to the fireplace. Mark was right and I said, “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.” Mark 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.”
“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 popsicles.”
"We'll be fine."
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.
"Remember Florida last year. Sun burnt sin. Swimming in the sea off Fort Lauderdale with girls in bikinis.
“No bikinis here.”
Snow bunnies were for Colorado ski resorts not North Conway and 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 stopped beside us.
"A race to the bottom."
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." Tommy 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.I fought to catch up, but my fingers, toes, and ears were losing feeling and my tears formed ice spiders inside my goggles.
Mark overtook the two 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 two 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.
“Irish Coffees on you.” Mark stood at the bar.
“I thought it was first to the car.” Drinks 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. Drinks 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 off our hats and gloves.
"Goddamn VWs." I loved this car and pointed my car south.
"Goddamn VWs is right." My friends loved this car.
"Nice and warm."
"Sort of warm," Mark 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 skiing -50 on top of Wildcat.
After all we were New Englanders and we liked to dream of beach girls in bikinis.
Fort Lauderdale and the sun.
Not the cold of Agiocochook.
No one dreams of that.
At least not in their sleep.