MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. -- The Brocken Spectre showed up in exquisite intensity on the highest mountain in the Northeast.
The sun had risen over a solid sea of gray-white fog and clouds. The icy, snowy summit had emerged like an island. A blue tint filled crevasses in the rime. The temperature was 17 degrees and wind gusts hit 26 mph. It was a mild day here.
To the west, the mountain dome blocked the low parallel rays of the sun and cast its shadow on the fog. Around the shadow's edge was a lightened halo-effect called a glory. The phenomenon was first noticed in shadows of human figures on The Brocken, a peak of goblins and legends in the Harz Mountains of eastern Germany.
The weather's endless varieties have brought Duncan McKee, 40, who lived in Union Bridge until December, to a job as assistant research director of Mount Washington Observatory, a nonprofit weather agency of scientists and weather fans.
"I'm living my dream," says McKee, a meteorologist. "My real love is nonconvective severe." Translation: extreme winter weather.
They have it here. When the makers of the popular IMAX movie "Everest" needed some bad-weather footage for their film on the world's highest mountain, they came here in January 1997 and shot rime in foggy cold weather. Some footage was inserted into the movie and the filmmakers credited the observatory at the film's end.
McKee has found plenty of weather. The winds sculpt the light airy substance of rime into fantastic shapes around weather instruments and signposts. Snow and ice crunch beneath boots. He chips ice off anemometers and has felt wind gusts of 118 mph -- but he's also seen calm days, heavy snowfalls, ice storms and, always, the fog that covers the mountain more often than sunlight.
Fog is so common that one observatory observer, Lynne Host, penciled into the official weather logbook, "Blah. Blah. Blah." The meaning was clear; the humor was appreciated.
Yet weather can change quickly on this frosted summit at 6,288 feet. It isn't always "the world's worst" as the staff says, partly in memory of April 12, 1934, when the wind hit 231 mph, the strongest recorded.
"I don't know how they can claim this is the worst weather in the world. Caribou, Maine, was 55 below zero recently," jokes Tom Zicarelli of Bethel, Maine.
He was the leader of an observatory "EduTrip" seminar on mountain weather for nine weather fans. For $365, they wore Arctic layering, walked outside, were buffeted by winds, got windburned cheeks, checked weather instruments, listened to meteorology lectures and slept in observatory bunk rooms. For most of them, it beat the Caribbean. They enjoyed two days and one night on the summit, where average January wind is 46 mph, average temperature is 3.9 degrees and wind chill is near minus 40.
The mountaineer John Muir called the Sierra Nevada the Range of Light, but for two days so were these White Mountains. Instead of the thrilling winds and cold they had expected, the visitors had sun-splashed views, impossible during storms. The crystal-clear air made the glistening snowpack on the Presidential peaks seem as near as arms' length. The weather was always on the move:
11: 30 a.m. Jan. 21. Wind gusts slap faces at 40 mph on a sharply etched, 17-degree day as a Snow-Cat carries the weather students to the summit. The peak is called the Rock Pile but rime hides it well.
7: 15 a.m. Jan. 22. A predicted storm holds off, but fog obscures all mountains except the top of Mount Washington as the sun rises. Visibility is close to 90 to 100 miles on the summit, although the scenery is blue skies and white clouds.
12: 30 p.m. Jan. 22. Five hours later, zero-visibility fog covers the top. The nine weather students hike downhill a couple of miles on the icy road, their spiked boots gripping the ice, until they are picked up one by one by the snow tractor.
7 a.m. Jan. 23. Cold rain drenches the valley as sleet, freezing rain and snow fall higher up the mountains.
Mountains are fine natural observatories for seeing simple, beautiful things. Observers here have seen the rare green flash the instant before the sun drops out of sight. They have watched the northern lights, the Hale-Bopp comet, shooting stars. They have seen St. Elmo's fire, the greenish-bluish light produced as discharges on metal objects during thunderstorms.
Just before sunrise, one weather fan and sailor, Thomas McManus of Marblehead, Mass., points to a pink contrail in the far eastern sky: "That's the daily flight from Heathrow," the overnight plane from London to Boston.
Airplanes and many other practical matters, rather than the mosaics of beautiful weather, are the reasons for the observatory's existence. Three weather streams from south, west and north converge to produce storms of significance.
The observatory is a private, nonprofit agency founded in 1932 to study and report weather 24 hours a day to the National Weather Service, conduct scientific research and inform the public. From 1870 to 1892, the Signal Service of the U.S. Army recorded weather here at the first mountaintop station of its kind.
The agency is undergoing change. Executive Director Jack Dunn, credited by the staff with expanding the various roles of the observatory, resigned in April over differences with the board of trustees, and no replacement has been found. The quarterly Windswept bulletin last summer asked members: "Are we getting too large? Are we too small? Are we forgetting our roots? Are we straying from our mission?"
"A lot of things are going on in research," says McKee, who works for Ken Rancourt, research director. They measure cosmic-ray activity in the upper atmosphere, develop instruments for severe weather research, conduct ground wind and other research. Some work is classified.
Much meteorology is aimed at aircraft safety. The observatory's Center for Wind, Ice and Fog Research is working with universities and government agencies on aviation projects such as icing, and other research is conducted for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Daniel Meade of Colonie, N.Y., a master's student in meteorology, lectures visitors on weather measurements made by humans and by instruments: wind speed and direction; visibility; precipitation; temperature; cloud height, type and sky cover and air pressure.
The National Weather Service measures these by instrument now, but Meade believes that people can do some things more accurately -- for example, identifying the type of precipitation when it changes from sleet to freezing rain or from snow to sleet.
"The human eye can do this better," Meade says. Not to mention the fun of being high up in ice and snow and fog.
Daily weather reports are included in the Mount Washington Web site at www.mountwashington.org.
Pub Date: 2/01/99