Published Date Written by Tom EastmanBy Tom Eastman
CONWAY — Like the Navy, working one week on and one week off at the “Home of the World's Worst Weather” on the summit of 6,288-foot Mount Washington is “not just a job, it's an adventure” — and it's been one which Ken Rancourt has loved for the past 33 years.
Rancourt, 62, of Conway is retiring at the end of this month.
The long-time director of the Mount Washington Observatory's mountaintop operations is being succeeded by meteorologist Cyrena-Marie Briedé, 29, of Brighton, Colo., who began her training with the calm-spoken, steady-nerved Rancourt Aug. 6.
“I wish I could just put a computer chip in Ken's brain and just take all that he has learned,” said the tall and energetic Briedé (pronounced Brie, like the cheese, -Day) in a joint interview last week at the observatory's offices above the Mount Washington Weather Discovery Center in North Conway.
Nicknamed the “MacGyver” of the summit after the television adventure series action hero, Rancourt has been the go-to-it guy for the observatory for more than three decades, notes observatory executive director Scot Henley.
“Welder, snow cat operator, manager, researcher, scientist, duct tape wielder — you name it, Ken has done it here at the observatory. However,” says Henley, “with an undergraduate meteorology degree from Iowa State, a master's degree from McGill and decades of experience in research, technology, management and operations, Ken's impact on Mount Washington Observatory goes far beyond being our in-house 'MacGyver.’ Ken has essentially shaped what our mountaintop operation is today. The technological backbone of our weather station, our communications infrastructure, the weather instrumentation, research partnerships, our network of remote instrument sites, our mountain transportation — all of these things have been driven largely by Ken Rancourt.”
Briedé says that to her, Rancourt is more like the ever-resourceful “Professor” character on TV's 1960s “Giligan's Island” show about shipwrecked castaways on an island — the educated, always calm intellectual who could make a radio antenna out of a paper clip, or hold a home-made, palm-leafed wind generator together with duct tape and rope.
“The Professor always was able to fix anything, right? That's Ken,” said Briedé, too young to have even been alive when the shows were first aired, but like others of her generation, she has viewed them in re-run syndication.
It's a stretch of sorts from Gilligan's Island to the “Top of New England, ” but one sees the parallel: Things get tough up there. In the month and a half since Briedé came “on board,” she has been soaking up as much as she can.
“Ken has been part of this mountain for a very long time and he is a huge part of its history. I'll never be able to know everything,” said Briedé, an avid outdoorswoman and equestrienne, “but I'm trying to glean as much information as I can. I've referred to this past month as 'sponge month,' ” she laughed.
The Green Pipe and other road markers
Key among those countless nuggets of knowledge is knowing where the only green pipe is located on the eight-mile long Mount Washington Auto Road.
“The significance is that it's located just below the top of the winter cutoff,” chimed in Rancourt during the interview, explaining why knowing where the green pipe is located can mean the difference between life and death on “The Rockpile,” as Mount Washington is affectionately known to some — to others, it's feared as “Killer Mountain.”
“So,” Rancourt continued, “if you are coming down off the summit [in winter for the summit observatory crew shift change every Wednesday] and your intention is to use the winter cutoff to get down and all of a sudden you encounter the green pipe, you know you've gone too far and you have to turn around and go up somewhat and find the cutoff. The problem,” he added dryly and calmly, in his usual way of understating everything concerning Mount Washington's inherent dangers, “is that every rock looks the same but somewhat different, and you look for those differences. You need to know exactly where you are, especially in a whiteout when it's windy, snowy and blowy.”
Alaska: Good training for the Rockpile
No stranger to wild weather or extreme conditions, Briedé has managed remote sites from the mountains of Colorado to the Alaskan subarctic.
Raised in Winchester, Va., and the daughter of a pilot, Briedé was most recently employed at an air quality monitoring and environmental management contractor in Englewood, Colo. She installed and maintained meteorological stations in hurricane-force winds and temperatures below minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit — a good primer for her new career on Mount Washington, according to Henley, who is sorry to see Rancourt's impending retirement, but who is also thrilled to have someone of Briedé's caliber stepping up to the Snowcat to try and continue Rancourt's work with the same commitment, dedication and no-nonsense passion for getting the job done.
“Cyrena’s background in instrumentation will undoubtedly help us to further develop our data collection capabilities at the summit. Cyrena and director of research Eric Kelsey will be tasked with taking Mount Washington Observatory research to the next level, ultimately growing the program to the point where we are doing significant research on regional climate. We believe there is an opportunity for the observatory to become a much more visible and active participant in research related to the regional effects of climate change. Additionally,” noted Henley, “I would like to see continued growth of research partnerships such as those that we enjoy with the Appalachian Mountain Club, Plymouth State University, University of New Hampshire and many other institutions.”
Like Henley, Rancourt is more than confident that Briedé is the right person for the job.
“I think Cyrena's background and experiences fit the mountain very, very well,” said Rancourt. “She has seen many of the problems we face on Mount Washington in other locations, and that knowledge is hopefully transferable.”
Rancourt will stay on as a consultant for a year as summit operations director emeritus, and he will never be far away from the mountain he loves and to which he has devoted his working career.
He'll literally be able to keep an eye on the summit from his Dundee Hill solar home in Conway, and he'll be only a phone call away.
Challenges over the years
Still, it's going to be tough filling his shoes and replacing his lifetime of knowledge, getting supplies and personnel to the top of the road for shift change every Wednesday on a year-round basis for the observatory's summit station in the state-owned, 1980-built Sherman Adams Building.
“I was the last observer hired to begin my career in the old Observatory Summit Building, and I am finishing my career in the Sherman Adams Building,” said Rancourt.
Like the mail, the observatory shift change for the incoming and outgoing crew must get through — although there have been times when it has to be delayed a day or two, given the mountain's fickle and often dangerous whims.
It goes back to that “not just a job” aspect to working on the summit noted earlier in this story.
First, there's Mount Washington's notorious winds and weather to deal with while getting the job done.
And then there's the “MacGyver” part — the challenge of being able to come up with solutions to problems in a remote location that are almost never predictable — including the fire which struck on Feb. 9, 2003. It destroyed the old WMTW-Channel 8 summit transmitter building and old Yankee Power House next to it that supplied the power for WHOM-FM's transmitter.
The fire struck almost a year after Channel 8 had relocated their transmitter to Maine, but WHOM was still using its transmitter atop Mount Washington.
Adept in her own right at solving problems in remote locations during her time in Alaska and Colorado, Briedé listened intently as Rancourt told the story of the fire last week.
“We had just finished an Edu-Trip on the summit and we were on our way down, and we got the news that the Channel 8 building was on fire,” related Rancourt. “We continued on our trip down, and deposited our Edu-Trip people at the base. In the meantime, the Auto Road had gathered up every fire extinguisher they could get their hands on — we went up with 25 fire extinguishers! But by that time the [Channel 8] building was so far gone, we realized there was no way any number of extinguishers would solve the problem.”
All electricity for the first time in the 70 years since people had been occupying the summit was cut off when the fire broke out, and it had to be evacuated and the summit went dark.
“We brought everyone down, and made plans that night of what we had to do. There was never any danger to the Sherman Adams Building, because it's concrete and it is located too far away [on the other side of the summit],” said Rancourt.
The next day, MacGyver, er, Rancourt, took a generator he had from home and dragged it along with another generator loaned by the Mount Washington Auto Road to the summit.
Less than 24 hours after the fire, thanks to a cooperative effort between the Mount Washington State Park, the Mount Washington Auto Road, and the Obs, the power was restored.
“By 2 p.m., we had the electricity running,” said Rancourt.
In time, replacement generators were brought up via the Mount Washington Cog Railway.
“It was a story of amazing cooperation by all involved,” said Rancourt.
There are any number of other great stories about overcoming challenges in Rancourt's time on the mountain.
Among the most troubling was the time that Rancourt, in blustery, cold, whiteout conditions during a shift-change drive up the Auto Road on Dec. 16, 1981, had to leave behind his Mount Washington mentor, co-worker and friend, WMTW SnowCat driver Phil Labbe.
Labbe had ventured outside of his WMTW snow vehicle untethered to try and locate the road and became lost.
The usually unflappable Rancourt's eyes well up when asked to retell that tale about Labbe (1916-2010), his friend, co-worker and mentor, who worked on the road for 32 years and lived in Gorham.
“The best we can figure,” said Rancourt, “is he drove the vehicle to the top of Cow Pasture, but at that point, he realized he could not make it up, so he turned around and missed the road, ending up in the middle of Cow Pasture [about a mile below the summit] somewhere and he had no idea where he was. So,” Rancourt continued, “he went out of the vehicle — as we know today, you are supposed to rope up when you go out to find the road. You put an ice ax down, move a bit, and put the ax down again. He didn't have a rope, though, and he couldn't find anything. He turned but he couldn't find the vehicle [in the whiteout]. He didn't know which direction to walk in.”
Rancourt was driving his vehicle down from the 5-Mile area, two miles or so below where Labbe had stopped his vehicle.
“Phil was able somehow to find the road and get down to where we were — he knew he had to get down, as soon as possible, because he had lost one if not two gloves in falling and falling. His hands were getting frostbitten,” said Rancourt.
As for those in Labbe's vehicle, Rancourt said they stayed in the vehicle “four or five hours.”
“At sunset, the wind decreased, and a clear pocket blew by. They saw where they were, and immediately one of the guys got in the driver seat and got it over to the road and drove down. They were off by 300 feet, and when the road is 28 to 30 feet wide, that's a long way,” said Rancourt, once again with characteristic understatement.
Rancourt was plowing with the help of his passengers, who were shoveling the snow out of the tracks, when he looked up to see his mentor in the rearview mirror.
“He never found the other machine [which had caught up with Rancourt's vehicle well below the eight-mile-long road's halfway section and headed down ahead of Rancourt, reaching the base a half hour ahead of Rancourt]. We radioed that Phil was with us — that must have been 4:15 or 4:30 or so, and they had reached the base at 5:30 or 6,” said Rancourt.
Other stories revolve around countless rescues — and body retrievals. “Killer Mountain” exacts its toll, often from people who do not respect its capacity to take lives.
“The best thing with this mountain is the old Boy Scout motto, 'Be prepared.' The trouble is people don't necessarily know what conditions they are to prepare for — it's why education is so important, especially about the weather. It's about being what you may want to call 'situationally aware' — if you are halfway up the mountain, you've still got a long way to go, and it's 3 p.m., you're not going to make it. Turn around! But that turn-around decision is the toughest to make.”
How ya doin' buddy?
In a recent television show on WMUR-TV 9's “New Hampshire Chronicle program, given the challenges of the mountain and problems created by its weather, Henley related that he has come to fear when the even-keeled, always courteous Rancourt opens a conversation with, “Myyyyyy buddy, have I got a deal for you!”
“When Ken arrives at your desk with a smirk, and says that, you know you're in big trouble. You'll soon be lifting something heavy, pitching in on a project, making a large purchase or committing to something you never intended to commit to. That's Ken. His style of interaction with colleagues is always gentle, always joking and always with a smile,” said Henley this week.
He credits Rancourt with guiding the observatory through major changes and technological growth during his years of service.
“Over the years,” noted Henley, “Ken has positively affected the lives of dozens of weather observers and literally hundreds of interns. He has participated in research projects relating to icing, cosmic rays, precipitation, air quality and many other areas, as well as product tests ranging from outerwear and expedition-grade tents to windshield scrapers and skin-care products. The biggest single accomplishment during Ken’s tenure was the completion of a $1.5 million National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration-funded project that completely overhauled the observatory’s research infrastructure and digitized our climate record. This project enabled the observatory to obtain the servers, instruments, computers, software, communications equipment and all the tools necessary for a bright future in scientific research, a technological backbone that is a critical part of who we are as an organization today.”
President of the Conway Historical Society, Rancourt says at 62 he and his wife, Jane, have decided it's time for him to step down from the summit and to devote more time to life down below.
He may write a book. Or, just tend to more mundane chores.
“You know how everyone has a “To-Do' list? Well, after all these years of shift changes, to quote a line from [famous former Mount Washington WMTW-Channel 8 engineer] Marty Engstrom, I've got 30 years of a 'do' list to finish.”
He has made many friends on the summit, and he wouldn't trade his years on The Rockpile for anything.
“The outlook of having one job 35 years is becoming less the norm, and that's where these experiences come from — it's not just one summer on the mountain; it's 30 years' accumulation of fun, and adventure,” said Rancourt.
He has learned from the mountain, and now Briedé is learning from him.
“Like my Alaska experiences,” she said, “you have to work with what you have. It's about self-reliance. Growing up, I always enjoyed working with my dad, tinkering with things. In high school, I was building tornado replicating chambers. I like the hands-on aspect to work — I never wanted a full-time office job, as I love to be outside in the elements. I'm especially fascinated by the wind.”
Sounds, then, like she has found exactly the right job on Mount Washington — which was home, after all, to the world record wind of 231 mph set in April 1934 until that record was broken by Typhoon Olivia over Barrow Island, Australia in April 1996 with a new official mark of 253 mph.
“All these things that I have done in my career have prepared me for this or that — they are all what the director of summit operations on Mount Washington does,” she said.
Asked if she feels she has what it takes to succeed in the demanding position, she replied, “I've got a month [on Mount Washington] now under my belt — I may look nice, but I can be strong. I think long term, in the big picture, so although no one wants to have to make life or death decisions, there will be times when I will have to make decisions that may keep me up at night. I hope that my previous experiences and what Ken has taught me will guide me to make the right decisions, and if I make wrong ones, I hope they will not be the big ones.”
Asked how the mountain has changed him, Rancourt said, “I think it taught me how to be careful, how to work with nature and not try to work against it.”
Sounds like something the Professor would say — but with a MacGyver action plot line thrown in for entertainment value.
“Definitely the Professor,” said Briedé.
• • •
Founded in 1932 by the late Joe Dodge and Bob Monahan, the Mount Washington Observatory is a private, non-profit scientific and educational institution. Its mission is to advance understanding of the natural systems that create the Earth's weather and climate, by maintaining its mountaintop weather station, conducting research and educational programs and interpreting the heritage of the Mount Washington region. For more on the observatory, visit www.mountwashington.org. or call 356-2137. The Weather Discovery Center on Main Street in North Conway Village is open daily with free admission.