Rhode Trips

The Little Engine that Could

Conquering fear - and clumsiness - at the top of New England's tallest peak

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The view from the summit of Mount Washington
The view from the summit of Mount Washington

I’m just going to be honest here: I did not want to go up Mount Washington on a rickety old train. But given that my options were either driving, which any local will tell you to rent a car to do to avoid the significant wear and tear to your own vehicle, or hiking, which, just, no, a train it was. And so I found myself on a chilly, sunny fall day, standing at the platform, gazing up a cool 6,000 vertical feet.

The Mount Washington Cog Railway is an institution in the White Mountains. It’s been ferrying passengers up the East Coast’s highest peak since 1852. Thankfully, we’d be going up in a biodiesel engine installed in 2008, and not the original coal-burning train.

I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of heights. I have distinct memories of my 10-year-old self on the Observation Deck of the World Trade Center in New York, pressing my forehead against the windows to get a better perspective on the 110 stories below. I’m just, to put it mildly, an accident waiting to happen. I fall out of chairs when I’m sitting still. I once fell out the front door of a bar that I wasn’t even leaving. So tell me I’m going up a single track up the side of a huge mountain, and all I see is possibilities for my imminent doom.

But, as a great poet once said, “a promise made is a debt unpaid,” and I had been promising my mother that I would ride the Cog Railway with her for juuuuust about two decades. So I got on the train. In the front row. And you know what? I’m really glad I did. The view was gorgeous, and we had the best possible vantage point for photography. It’s just one more time that I conquered my (considerable) fear and came out happier on the other side.

I expected the hour up to be difficult, but considering that the conductor sat outside the train on the front platform, I probably could have guessed that the trip would be easy and painless. We waved at hikers heading up to the summit. We took photos. We gazed around at the panorama of the Presidential Range. Of all of my years of spending summers in New Hampshire, I had never appreciated the mountains from that perspective. Seeing something beloved in a different way makes all the difference, doesn’t it?

The summit of Mount Washington was windy - really windy. The strongest gust of wind ever recorded was 231mph on top of that very mountain, a fact I learned in the Mount Washington Observatory, which has a museum detailing the mountain’s weather, which rivals the Poles in terms of severity. (It also has some pretty cool webcams you can check out here.)

The summit also has Tip Top House, a rough hotel built in 1853 that also housed Among the Clouds, the mountain’s newspaper. What they reported, other than “it’s cold and windy and very beautiful up here,” is anyone’s guess. It’s now a museum of life in the summit’s extreme conditions.

Outside, we took some wind-whipped selfies, and watched hikers slowly picking their way up the trails. We climbed to the top a pile of rocks marking the official summit of Mount Washington, took more photos acting like we had climbed the entire way, then headed inside the visitor’s center. There’s a post office up there, set up on the honor system. If the mail is already gone for the day, just drop your post card and a dollar in the mailbox and the carrier will make sure it goes on its way. Before we headed back to the train, I scribbled one to my boyfriend: “Made it to the top without falling off! I’m just as surprised as you are. Now, to get down…”