Monday, July 27, 2009

Mt. Washington sunrise – beware of Fog!

With an opportunity to experience and photograph sunrise atop Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast, a 1am departure time from Amherst was a no brainer. Watching the weather all week, my buddy Mike and I, along with his 7-year-old son Peter, figured a forecast of clear skies in the Mt. Washington Valley meant prime photographing opportunities.

We departed Amherst on time, made it to the Auto Road early, which worked out well since it opened a few minutes before the scheduled 4am start time. Stars remained visible the entire ride up to the North Country and most of the way up the mountain – well past the tree line. Things were looking good for a 5:19am sunrise.

The highest peak in New England?We knew it would be cooler at the top (41 degrees with wind chill reported) and were prepared. The one thing we hadn't counted on: FOG! Pea soup fog with a driving wind, which made for a tricky ride for the first 1000 feet of decent. Turns out, the summit is covered in fog some 60% of the time so prime sunrises are not an everyday occurrence. One of the museum attendants (yes, the museum is open at 4am on those three days a year they open the Auto Road early) told us the night watchman will wake the observatory residents early if conditions merit a spectacular sunrise.

However, the staff directed us to head back down the road to a slightly lower elevation where the fog would be lessened and the chance of seeing the sun come up greater. We moved down to just below 5000 feet, to a spot on the eastern side of the mountain and above the treeline. Fog still blew down the mountain at us and a front moving in created some clouds, but every once in a while things cleared up just long enough to get shots like this:

Sunrise on Mt. Washington

You can see fog and clouds in the valley below. Leading up the trip, part of me was hoping we'd ascend the mountain and come out on top of the clouds, providing a cool plane-like vista. It wasn't to be, but the clouds didn't completely disappoint:

Valley clouds and fog

While it's not the summit, the trip was not a complete loss. I got a few good photos and memories that will last a lifetime.

The Auto Road is open again on August 30 for sunrise. There's a 1 in 3 chance that the weather will cooperate at the top of the mountain. Might have to role the dice, forgo some sleep and make the trek again.

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