January 3 was a mild day on Mount Washington: about 16°F at the top, with steady 80-mph winds creating a wind chill of -11°F. We came up from the base of the Auto Road on a 15,000-pound Snowcat that hugged the icy path along Chandler Ridge, grinding steadily toward the peak. As we cleared the treeline, the panorama of the Presidential Range unfolded – frozen peaks, blue-shadowed ravines, a landscape of matchless winter beauty. The air was crystalline. To the east, sun glinting off the Atlantic painted a thin line of gold on the horizon.
Inside the Snowcat, we sat with Al and Marion Lake, who would be doing all of the cooking and cleaning for the crew at the Observatory for the next week. This was the Lakes’ 11th January trip to the top. Two weather observers, two college students interning in meteorology, summit director Ken Rancourt, and a news crew from Reuters were also crammed into the unheated space with boxes of food, backpacks, ski poles, ice axes, and other supplies.
At the top, the Snowcat backed into a protected bay out of the wind, and everyone piled out to unload the supplies and trade information with their counterparts, who were getting ready to come off the mountain. (The only permanent resident of the peak is Nin, a 16-year-old cat who knows enough to stay indoors in the winter.) Al and Marion scanned the pantry and kitchen with a practiced eye. They had already decided to make lasagna for supper, and soon were debriefing Yvonne and Marco Endara of Marlboro, Massachusetts, the previous week’s cooks, about what they had fed the crew. The small kitchen holds a refrigerator, venerable Garland propane cookstove, small dishwasher, sink, and refrigerator; the pantry has two freezers, another refrigerator, and deep shelves crammed with canned goods, baking supplies, and other staples.
"We make three meals a day for eight or nine people," Marion explained. "The observers work 12-hour shifts, breaking at supper, so that’s the only meal when everyone is here at the same time. We also cook for people who come up on EduTrips [workshops sponsored by the Observatory], so sometimes there are an extra 12 people. We just make sure there is plenty of good food available all the time."
Al and Marion retired from careers as teachers about six years ago. He was a chemistry teacher in Salem, New Hampshire, for 37 years, and she taught second grade in Hampstead for 21 years. They resolved to stay busy and to make a contribution as volunteers. Sea kayaking and camping in Maine, summers traveling out West and in Canada in their motor home, and winters skiing with their two grandchildren have made time fly by. When they are at the Observatory, the two "retired" teachers correspond by e-mail with schoolchildren who have questions about the mountain, the weather, and other subjects. The Lakes also volunteer two mornings a week at Parkland Medical Center in Derry, an experience they both find deeply rewarding.
Experienced hikers who have notched all of the 4,000-foot peaks in New England, the Lakes learned about Mount Washington’s volunteer program and decided to try it. First, Al had to learn to cook. He spent a year learning to bake bread, make soup, and perfect his timing on multicourse meals ("Getting everything done at the same time is the hardest part," he confided.) They auditioned as cooks one summer and have been enthusiastically invited back every year since. "After all these years of marriage and teaching," Marion said, "I guess we know how to cooperate!"
During the Lakes’ week on the mountain this year, a news crew from CBS arrived and two EduTrip groups stayed overnight. Al and Marion made lasagna, macaroni and cheese, roast turkey, and other main courses; created salads as long as the fresh produce held out; cooked big pots of turkey barley, split pea, beef vegetable, and mushroom soups; baked bread nearly every day; hosted make-your-own pizza night; and turned out batches of cookies, brownies, and other desserts. Al’s Aleknagik bread from Alaska and Marion’s hermits are always big hits. "And every year we come away with a great new recipe," Marion said. "This year’s was a spinach and strawberry salad with balsamic vinaigrette."
Their weather this January whipped from a record high of 47°F to a snowstorm at -10°F. That’s nothing unusual (except for the warmth) for a location that bills itself as having "the world’s worst weather." About three years ago, Al recalled, it was -45°F and the wind was blowing at 143 miles an hour. Because outside weather observations are taken 18 times every 24 hours, regardless of conditions, Al helped the crew string ropes outside so no one would get lost or blow off the top. Another year the top was totally socked in for the whole week. It was like being in a submarine, Al and Marion said. They have skied down the eight-mile road twice (during more benign conditions) and have also descended the last two miles on plastic sleds, steering with their hands and bailing out when necessary. This year, they took the Snowcat, but three young weather observers tried sledding only to shatter their sleds on the icy road.
It’s not a volunteer gig for the faint of heart, but for Al and Marion Lake a week of cooking and cleaning, sharing one rarely-flushed toilet with at least six other people, sleeping in bunk beds, and eschewing showers (one per week per person is the rule in winter, when the leach field is frozen) also means the chance to experience the glorious beauty of the mountaintop for a whole week. "We love it," Marion said. "Volunteering here is a way to stay on the mountain for a whole week, and it’s luxurious compared to backpacking. We go outside every chance we get." They have already signed up for next year’s trip.