Big doings at the Northeast's biggest mountain, events-wise and weather-wiseBy JOHN KOZIOL
Union Leader Correspondent April 03. 2014 10:33PM
NORTH CONWAY — It already boasts the most-visited museum and one of the most-popular websites in New Hampshire, and soon the Mount Washington Observatory will revamp and improve to better share the experience of the "world's worst weather" atop the Rock Pile.
In May, MWOBS, as the observatory is commonly known, will relaunch its website at www.mountwashington.org, which will be followed by the opening on the summit of the Northeast's highest mountain of "Extreme Mount Washington," which will replace what has been known as the Mount Washington Museum.
The observatory website welcomes about 1.1 million visitors per year, said Scot Henley, executive director of MWOBS, while the museum attracts 100,000 guests, a staggering number, he said, given that it is open only five months of the year.
Henley on Wednesday said the new website and museum have been a long time coming. Cumulatively, he hoped that the upgrades will make MWOBS even more attractive to visitors.
"For 40 years, we've had a museum on top of Mount Washington and it evolved over time but hasn't really departed from the original style of specimens behind glass and a passive, walk-through experience," said Henley.
"The former museum tried to accomplish a lot of things in a really small space – human activity, plants, weather history, the Carriage Road – and while it was really wide, it wasn't deep. We recognized that nobody was telling the tale that Mount Washington is most famous for: its incredibly brutal weather."
As a result, Henley said, "We decided to go with that single story line, which is Mount Washington's extreme winter weather."
When it opens around Memorial Day — a formal ribbon-cutting is planned for June 13 — Extreme Mount Washington will give visitors a true sense of "what it's like to live and work on the mountain," said Henley. The exhibits will include a snow-cat simulator as well as time-lapse videos and photos of how rime ice forms and grows.
Given that Mount Washington State Park attracts 300,000 visitors per season, and can be accessed by trails in the surrounding White Mountain National Forest or by the privately-owned Mount Washington Auto Road or Cog Railway, Henley is confident that Extreme Mount Washington will succeed.
Although there's lots of new things afoot at MWOBS, a lot has stayed the same, including the fact that the summit of Mount Washington — despite what the World Meteorological Association says — is still the only place where human beings have felt the fullest force of nature's wind.
"We still have the fastest wind ever recorded by man, and we are proud of that fact," said Henley, who was referring to the events of April 12, 1934, when observers atop Mount Washington recorded a wind speed of 231 mph. Several years ago, however, the World Meteorological Association gave the highest recorded wind speed to Australia.
In 1996, Typhoon Olivia blew across the uninhabited Barrow Island where remote sensors recorded a wind speed of 253 mph.
MWOBS tried to get the WMA to differentiate between the events, but the association chose not to, said Henley. Regardless, Mount Washington is still the place where the highest-ever wind speed was recorded by man as well as being the place with the highest recorded winds in both the Northern and Western hemispheres.
The history of Mount Washington has always been about people and that history will continue, said Henley, thanks to the generosity of the MWOBS's many supporters.
The observatory has an annual operating budget of about $2.1 million, the majority of which comes from donations. As MWOBS gets ready to wrap up its fiscal year on April 30, it is preparing for two of its largest annual fundraisers, the first Friday night at Port City Music Hall in Portland, Maine. Titled "An Evening with Ginger Zee," the event – tickets for which are still available – offers what is being described as "an intimate look at the world of storm chasing through the eyes of America's favorite meteorologist."
Zee is "Good Morning America"'s chief meteorologist and senior meteorologist for ABC News as well as a big Mount Washington fan, said Henley.
"She came up to visit us last winter and actually climbed the mountain with her colleague from "Good Morning America" and she loved it and fell in love with our organization."
On July 18-19, MWOBS will hold its biggest fundraiser: the 14th annual Seek the Peak that since its founding has generated $1.3 million. A classic "hike-a-thon," Seek the Peak is expected to bring 50 hikers from across the country to Mount Washington where in addition to getting some exercise, they'll have the opportunity to take home some $30,000 worth of prizes.
So far, 2014, Henley summed up, "has been a momentous year for us and it will continue."