Could you handle the harshest winter on earth?
Could you handle the harshest winter on earth? Gary Gustafson, 58, leads Linda Dewey, 54, up an icy trail on the summit cone of Mount Washington in New Hampshire (AP photos)
Could you handle the harshest winter on earth?
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Gary Gustafson leans on his ice ax to catch his breath. His legs and lungs, straining from nearly five hours of climbing and 4,000 feet of elevation gain, plead for rest before he spies the top of an antenna on the summit. Soon, the crampons of his mountaineering boots are once again digging into the icy terrain as he and a partner make the final push to the granite rooftop of New England.

"It's kind of like Heartbreak Hill on the Boston Marathon," says Gustafson, 58, of Conway, N.H. "(Heartbreak's) really not much of a hill but it's where it hits you ... that makes it such a tough obstacle. That's kind of what the summit cone is like. You can see the top and you want to just be there psychologically but first you've got to grind it out."

The payoff is being able to stand on the summit of 6,288-foot Mount Washington, the highest point in the Northeast. The New Hampshire peak is famous for some of the harshest weather on earth, where winds reach hurricane speeds an average of once every three days during the winter.

"If you're a winter hiker in the White Mountains, it's one of the ultimate hikes," said Gustafson.

Gustafson and his hiking partner, Linda Dewey, waited about four weeks for the right day. Their patience paid off with a 28-degree day and midday winds of only 30 mph.

"You don't want to be up there when the wind chills are down around 50 below," said Gustafson.

There are several buildings on the summit, including the Mount Washington Observatory, where scientists recorded 231 mph winds in 1934, a record that stood for nearly 62 years. The facilities are closed to the public during the winter and some of the structures are chained down.

On this day, large shards of thick glass lay on the ground near the wooden building after one of its windows was blown out by a 140 mph gust earlier this winter. Rime ice, a form of white freezing fog, clings to the windward side of nearly every building, antenna and rock on the summit, giving the place an otherworldly feel.

Hikers seldom linger for long here. Most go directly to the sign that marks the summit to pose for a celebratory photo, then add an extra layer of clothing and search for a place to hunker down on the lee side of a building to fuel up for the descent.

Ryan Eyestone, 31, of Portland, Maine, who recently made his first solo climb, said he was fascinated by the arctic world he had entered in just a few hours of hiking.

"That environment is intense," said Eyestone. "It might as well be a different planet."

Critical thinking challenge: What made the day Gary chose for his hike the right day?

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Assigned 37 times

  • dianaz-Che
    3/18/2015 - 01:51 p.m.

    I think that I wouldn't be able to handle that weather for anything. That's way too cold. Although, since that's the ultimate hike it's mostly for someone who likes to hike.

  • vancer-Che
    3/18/2015 - 01:52 p.m.

    Okay, that's too cold. I live in North Carolina and I hate 50 degree weather. I hat is off to these people, I wish them luck and stay warm.

  • TonyS123
    3/19/2015 - 10:55 a.m.

    I personally would never hike a mountain simply because its too dangerous and the chance of death is high enough to stay away from doing activities like these.

  • albertog-Che
    3/19/2015 - 11:46 a.m.

    I find it very interesting that the winds can reach up to the speeds of a hurricane once every three days in winter. It was very smart for them to wait until the best day came for them to do the climb. There is a sign to mark the summit and a lot of people go there and take pictures to celebrate the hike.

  • TaylorHartman-Ste
    3/19/2015 - 01:03 p.m.

    I can't imagine weather like this. I can't even deal with the 12 degree weather that the little town of Newport sometimes is blessed with. I can say, I am proud to be living in this climate.

  • NashMcComsey-Ste
    3/19/2015 - 01:20 p.m.

    Humans are stubborn, in this way. We have no business being miles under the sea, or miles into the sky, but we have been in both circumstances. I think conquering the most harsh winter on earth is just another example of human perserverence, and it's always fascinating to view such triumphs.

  • namelt-Che
    3/19/2015 - 01:49 p.m.

    I couldn't because it would be hard to survive there and there wouldn't really be any food. I think that it would be a really good military training because they have to survive mostly anything that they have on the battlefield.

  • trustina-And
    3/19/2015 - 03:37 p.m.

    What I learned. I learned that it was a very cold winter on heart break hill and that a 58 year old man climbed a 4000 ft hill in just five hours that's what i learned.

  • jakemoney123
    3/19/2015 - 05:07 p.m.

    Even though Michigan weather can be harsh, it pales in comparison to Mount White. 231 mph winds is insane. Not only would I be afraid of freezing to death, but being blown off the mountain is also a huge concern. Therefore, I couldn't live there ever in my life.

  • L.E 1999 blue
    3/20/2015 - 08:46 a.m.

    I know that some people want to accomplish glows but why can they do something else than go up a mountain and get sick or freeze and not have anyone there to get u worm because that might be freezing to. Some people go up to a mountain and not mack it down or not even mack it becase its to cold. some places of were humans need to be and some places aren't were humans need to be. So for me i wouldn't go up a mountain and rick my life.

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