How’s the Mount Washington Auto Road in Winter?

We asked snowcat operator Slim Bryant what it takes to get up and down the Mount Washington Auto Road in winter. HIs answers may surprise you.

By Ian Aldrich

Jan 13 2014


Meet Mount Washington’s Snowcat
Weight: 18,000 pounds
Cost: $350,000 new
Plow size: 16 feet wide
Horsepower: 275
Fuel usage: 22 gallons of diesel (typical round trip)

Photo Credit : Ian Aldrich
There may be nobody who knows the Mount Washington Auto Road better than Slim Bryant—especially in winter. As Summit Transportation Coordinator for the Mount Washington Observatory, it’s his job to escort personnel and supplies up the 7.6-mile roadway. During his four years in the position, he’s made more than 200 winter trips. We caught a ride with the Conway, New Hampshire, native for a February journey to the Observatory.
Meet Mount Washington's Snowcat Weight: 18,000 pounds Cost: $350,000 new Plow size: 16 feet wide Horsepower: 275 Fuel usage: 22 gallons of diesel (typical round trip)
Snowcat operator Slim Bryant poses on the Mount Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire.
Photo Credit : Ian Aldrich
“It can be the coolest job in the world. It’s a male type of thing, operating this big toy, playing in the snow, and in the spring you’re in the slush and running water. The ideal day was one a couple of years ago. We had a snowstorm—got like six or seven inches—so I skied at Bretton Woods in the morning, saw Mount Washington from the other side, then came over here and went up the road. It was all fresh powder, not a track in it, so I spent the next couple of hours clearing the road. I was all by myself, pristine conditions. When you’re up here, you’re on your own little planet: the way the mountain makes different shapes with the drifts; the sparkles from the white snow. You can’t describe it. You know how there are skiers who just can’t wait for those powder days, when they get in line at like 5:00 a.m. and get to the top of the lift and hope to be the first one down in the deep powder? That’s what it’s like. You’re breaking trail.”

“People say to me, ‘Why don’t you use a GPS?’ Well, I don’t want to be a half-mile off, that’s why. The road is a two-car lane. On one side are jagged rocks, on the other a big drop, and that would be bye-bye.”

“When the weather stinks, it takes a toll mentally. You get into these situations where it’s so white that you can’t really see, and your brain is saying, ‘I can’t help you anymore.’ Your eyes aren’t giving it enough information. You get down and your brain is just mush. You’re ready for a cocktail. Not long after I’d started driving, we got into a storm. We reached this area called the Cow Pasture—it’s at 5,800 feet and is a very flat place on a hill that has no protection whatsoever. The wind just blows the road clean. I’m looking at the lines, and they don’t make sense to me. We stop, and the guy who’s riding up with me gets out, and when he gets back in the cabin, he says, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but we’re heading back down the mountain.’ We’d made a U-turn and I never even knew it. To this day, I have no idea how that happened.”

“We’re not actually plowing the road, but moving the snow with the least resistance—which means we’re basically creating a new road every time. I’m not going to necessarily plow a 15-foot drift if I can be out around the edge farther and have only a two-foot drift. [Last] year we had some huge, strange snow in some places that changed the direction of the road. There are places on the road that are very curvy, and it made the road very straight. And because we’re not plowing the road, there might be times by the end of winter when you’re driving 16 or 20 feet above the actual road surface. We had a couple of storms [last] year when I was 10 feet higher overnight than I was the day before.”

“To do this job you’ve got to be well acquainted with the equipment. This is not a mountain to learn on. If you’ve got great experience in running equipment, it will come naturally to you. But it’s like trying to teach someone first aid in the emergency room.”

“It’s amazing. You stop somewhere and the wind is blowing 70 mph. We all get out and everybody is hanging on to each other, laughing and going, ‘Wow!’ And then you get right back in again where it’s warm. Not many places you can do that. I’ve earned a lot of very good friends who’ve been glad they got a chance to experience it. I had a lady not that long ago in the front seat. I’d left a big row of snow on the edge of the road going up. So on the way down I’m pushing it on down over the bank. She’s on that side, and these huge mounds of snow are just going down the hill. She was going absolutely nuts. I thought she thought she was going to wet her pants, she was laughing so hard.”