In To the Top, Reachin for America's 50 State Summits, Joe Glickman writes, "Like all self-respecting highpointers, [the photographer] and I had planned to hike to the summit", and then he goes into the reasons why he didn't. I had planned on hiking up myself, and here is my reason for not: everyone I was going with cancelled on me, and I didn't want to hike alone.
Here were the plans: me and a few friends were going to hike to the summit via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Meanwhile, my wife and son were going to drive around to the other side of the mountain and take the Mt. Washington Cog Railway up. We were to meet at the top, and then take one of several options down. But when each & every individual who had planned to come on the hike had cancelled, I had a choice - either hike alone, or don't go at all. Hiking alone would have been dumb, so I almost cancelled the trip when I remembered that Joey would hate to miss the cog railway. So I decided to go after all, allowing joey to do the cog railway, and my I would ride up with them.
Allowing for breakfast, it was just over a three-hour one way drive from our friend's place in Ludlow, VT to The Base of the Cog railway. We had been driving from about 8 to 11, and our reservation was for a 12pm train. In the Last few miles of drive, however, I noticed a large amount of smoke coming off the side of the mountain. It took me a few minutes to realize that this wasn't a brush fire that could potentially ruin our plans for a state highpoint and blow a 3-hour drive, but the smoke coming out of the coal-powered boiler. It was a preview of things to come.
The Mt. Washington Cog Railway is an interesting thing. Opened in 1868, it is the oldest cog railway in the world. Because conventional railway tracks don't provide enough friction to allow a train to ascend steep hills, a special toothed rack rail is added so that tains fitted with special cog wheels will climb it. The average pitch of the track at Mt. Washington is 25%, maximizing at about 37%. The steam locomotive must be modified to work in this environment - the boiler, which requires water to cover to boiler tubes and firebox sheets at all times, must be kept fairly level at all times. Failure to do so could melt the boiler wall. As a result, the boiler is tilted forward relative to the wheels so that they are more or less level on the steep railway. The disadvantage of this is that the entire line, including maintenance shops, must be laid on a gradient. As a result, almost every cog railway in the world is now electrified, with Mt. Washington being the most notable exception.
Because of its rich history and uniqueness, the Mt. Washington Cog Railway is something that many people want to do at some point in their lives. I was that way. Now that I've done it, I can't imagine why anyone would want to do it twice in their lives. The ride is loud, bumpy, and painfully slow. If the windows are open, particals of coal, some as large as pebbles, fall into your hair and clothes. If you're not careful where you put your hands, you can end up with coal-blackened fingers. And, at $57 a ticket for adults, you're going to want to bring some KY for when they bend you over at the ticket booth. You spend a mere 20 minutes at the top to negotiate the large crowds before you have to go down. Really, the only value the railway had is that my kid loves trains. Too bad that he was the only young child on the thing. My wife commented (with a straight face) that it was like riding a jackhammer for an hour. For my part, I felt like I was being teased - some of the most beautiful hiking trails I've ever seen, especially near the great gulf, were less than 100 feet away, and I was sitting in a loud bumpy train.
The railway is very steep. There is a feature called Jacob's Ladder, which has a 37.41% pitch. A pitch this steep would be a black or double-black diamond trail at a ski area. WHen you're skiing it, you realize just how steep it is. But in the train, it doesn't feel as steep as it really is, and because of the disorientation, it took about 10 attempts to get a picture that was level with the ground, even with a view of the horizon. The front of the coach was 15 feet above the back of the coach, but you wouldn't know it by sitting inside.
The summit was a frenzy. It was crowded and we only had 20 minutes. It was beautiful up there in the clouds, and I spent most of it waiting in line to get a picture at the summit sign. It didn't help that joey wouldn't cooperate on a solo shot. I had planned on hiking up the other side of the mountain from the cog railroad on the Tuckerman Ravine trail, so I walked over in that direction to get a picture or two. The Clouds obstucted my view on this side, though, so it was hard to even identify where the ravine was. By now, the train was signaling that we had to get back down, so I had to scurry off. I wasn't too happy. I took a picture of the Vans that give rides down to hikers for $12, and got back on the train.
The 3-mile ride down takes less time (40 minutes) than the ride up (well over an hour), and we spent a few minutes at the museum at the bottom. They have a couple of cool exhibits, including a replica boiler that the kids can play on. Of particular interest is the original locomotive out in the yard. Called Peppersass, because its vertical boiler resembles a pepper-sauce bottle, it was used to build the railway. After being lost for many years as it moved about the country and placed on display at exibitions, the ownders of the railway at the time decided to resotre it and make a commemorative trip for the railway's 60th anniversary. From wikipedia:
"During the ascent, the locomotive's front axle broke and the locomotive began descending the mountain at high speed. All but one of its crew jumped to safety (though some suffered broken bones) but one man did not escape and died. Although the locomotive broke into pieces, the boiler did not rupture, and the pieces were later reassembled to reconstruct the locomotive for static display."
We got in the car and drove back to Ludlow, had dinner, and were asleep by 10pm.