PINKHAM NOTCH — How does one walk away from a mountain where you’ve worked for nearly 40 years? The same way you climb it: in stages, as longtime Mt. Washington Auto Road General Manager Howie Wemyss is demonstrating as he transitions to “retirement.”
That’s quote-unquote retirement because Wemyss, 69, who officially stepped down May 16, already is taking on several consulting roles within the company that owns the Auto Road.
But he will no longer be overseeing day-to-day operations of the 7.6-mile-long attraction, handing those reins to Tobey Reichert, a sixth-generation member of the Libby family that has owned the “Road to the Sky” since 1903.
“The mountain definitely does get to be a part of your blood, no question,” Wemyss said in a wide-ranging interview this week. “And how I deal with no longer being actively part of running the road remains to be seen.”
But, he said, “my wife, Sue, and I are among the owners of the Glen House Hotel (near the Auto Road’s base), along with the Libby family, and I also have several projects on which I am consulting for the Libbys.”
That includes a recreation path from Gorham across forest service land to connect to Great Glen Trails, “so I am going to stay busy,” Wemyss said.
He also will continue to represent the Mount Washington Summit Road Co. (Auto Road) on the Mount Washington Commission, the organization — composed of state park officials, political leaders and stakeholders including representatives of the Mount Washington Observatory and Mt. Washington Cog Railway — that oversees at the mountain’s 6,288-foot summit. He also plans to stay on as a trustee of the Observatory.
Wemyss, who is of Scottish descent, was born in Cambridge, Mass., and grew up in Maine. He graduated from Biddeford High in 1968, then attended Colorado State, where he studied forestry and landscape architecture.
It being the Vietnam War era, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to West Germany, where he ended up having special duty on the ski patrol.
Following his Army service, Wemyss took up residence at his parent’s ski home in Conway’s Transvale Acres, where the family had frequently ventured on weekends from Maine when Wemyss was growing up.
“She told me to do whatever it took to get it sold. Instead, I stayed in the valley, and never left,” says Wemyss, noting that because he was working winters for Wildcat ski patrol director Al Risch, Risch asked him to work landscaping summers for his crew.
Many of his fellow Wildcat ski patrollers were spending their summers driving for the Auto Road. That led him to do the same. He was hired as a driver by longtime Auto Road general manager Douglas A. Philbrook (1916-2001), who ran the company from 1964-87.
A White Mountains history buff, Philbrook told many a story of the mountain to Wemyss, who was captivated by them. In turn, Wemyss would share those stories with his Auto Road guided van passengers on trips up and down the mountain.
“One of the stories I told was about a woman named Blanche who was staying at the old Glen House around 1859, when the Summit Road was still being built,” Wemyss said.
“Over cocktails, I imagine, she wagered $1,000 with someone who said they bet she couldn’t hike to the summit and back in a day. What I should point out is that she weighed 300 pounds! Well, she did it, and the story goes that she danced all night to celebrate once she made it back down,” laughed Wemyss.
He took a sabbatical from the Auto Road for a few years to work on fixing up old farmhouses with first wife Cathy, then was recruited back in 1986 by Philbrook. But this time it wasn’t as a stage driver.
“I went up to his house in Gorham, and he told me he was going to retire and what did I think of succeeding him as general manager? I thought about it, saying I needed more time.”
Eventually, he set up a desk in Philbrook’s office, learning the ropes from the veteran.
As Wemyss had done with Philbrook, Reichert last year set up his desk in Wemyss’ office, and learned the ropes working side-by-side with Wemyss.
The sixth generation of the family to manage the Auto Road — Elihu Libby purchased the Mount Washington Carriage Road in 1906 — the 42-year-old Reichert said he is thrilled to be in his new position.
“I love the idea of being able to manage the family business,” he said. “I grew up with Mount Washington in my backyard, so to speak, living in Gorham, and I enjoy looking at it and coming to work every day. It’s something you never want to take for granted,” said Reichert, who is married and a father of a 6-year-old son.
“This year, we all are dealing with the constraints of the pandemic on our operations, but we are just awaiting the word from the governor and making plans,” he said.
Some of those plans may include:
• Allowing private drivers up the road and requesting them to wear PPE (personal protective equipment such as face masks) when they enter buildings and maintaining social distancing.
• When it is OK’d, reopening the base lodge cafeteria, retail and the Philbrook Red Barn Museum.
• Under Phase Two, requiring PPE for chauffeured stages and limiting groups to families or friends and limiting the number of passengers per van. Private tours would be allowed at an adjusted rate.
“I just look forward to us getting open and being able to see people smiling,” said Reichert, noting that Great Glen Trails across Route 16 was set to reopen today for trail running and mountain biking.
(After press time, Gov. Chris Sununu was expected to make an announcement concerning attractions Friday. For updates for Auto Road operations, call (603) 466-3988 or go to mtwashingtonautoroad.com.)
A Gorham native who worked 16 years in law enforcement, first with the Berlin Police Department and then the Coos County Sheriff’s Department, and grandson of former Mount Washington Summit Road Co. Treasurer and Secretary Ed Reichert, Tobey Reichert started at the Auto Road four years ago on the road crew, a post his father, James Reichert, held for 42 years.
Wemyss became all too familiar with Auto Road maintenance challenges when he took over operations in 1987.
Under his management, the Auto Road has continued to make improvements to the road that winds and twists its way up the mountain at an average grade of 12 percent, with perhaps only 10 percent left unpaved today.
Highlights of the Wemyss years:
• The annual Alton Weagle Day. Weagle worked there in the 1950s and came up with all sorts of unusual ways to ascend the Auto Road. “This one-day annual event honors his spirit,” explained Wemyss.
• The introduction of popular track-equipped van SnowCoach tours.
• The return (after a 29-year hiatus) of the Climb to the Clouds automobile race. First held in 1904, the race was brought back in 1990 by Wemyss with then marketing director Paul Giblin and renowned American rally car champ and official John Buffum. After the departure of longtime sponsor Audi after a decade, the race was presented as a vintage automobile uphill rally for the race’s centennial in 2004.
In 2011, the road was approached by Subaru and Red Bull to do a sports car test that resulted in Rally America champion driver Travis Pastrana setting a new unoffical record of 6 minutes and 20.47 seconds.
“We realized, wow! With a guy like that behind the wheel we can get some serious press! So, 2011 saw the return of the Climb to the Clouds,” said Wemyss. “We were set to hold it this year, but then the COVID-19 popped up and we had to postpone it to July 2021.”
• The many runnings of the Mount Washington Road Race and Mount Washington Bicycle Hillclimb, the latter of which now benefits Tin Mountain Conservation Center.
• The opening in 1994-95 of Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center, for cross-country and snowshoeing in winter and mountain biking, trail running, fly fishing and kayaking in summer. Wemyss took over management of Great Glen the following year.
• The annual hosting of the Great Glen Nordic Meisters weekly Nordic series, the Ski to the Clouds and Bill Koch Ski League events for children, with his wife as director of the ski school (Howie and Sue met during a Nordic Meisters awards banquet in 2000; they were wed at the Auto Road/Great Glen base lodge during a snowstorm in November 2002).
• The Auto Road’s 150th celebration in 2011, when Wemyss worked with Madison writer Steve Caming and events director Mary Power and the Auto Road and Great Glen Trails’ dedicated crew to celebrate the road’s colorful history at a gala in a tent at the base. Caming (who had worked as media director for the road) also produced a book and video on the history of the Auto Road.
• The opening in 2012 of the Douglas A. Philbrook Red Barn Museum. The museum collection, which was largely brought together by Philbrook, features rare horse-drawn and motor vehicles and a diverse array of items that memorializes much of the Auto Road’s 150-year history.
• And perhaps most significantly, the opening in September 2018 of the 68-room Glen House, built on the site of the original Great Glen Lodge that burned in March 2001. Its walls pay tribute to local White Mountain history.
The three-story hotel is the fifth Glen House to reign over the expansive area at the base of Mount Washington that is known as the Glen. But unlike those previous structures, the new Glen House sits on the west side of what is now Route 16.
The hotel embodies classic New England vernacular exterior and a modern, welcoming interior. Most important to Wemyss, it features green-friendly technology.
Heating and cooling are provided by geothermal energy, and a hydroelectric generator provides some of the electrical power.
In a year or two, Wemyss says the board of directors will assess how effective those alternative energies have been and will determine whether to build solar arrays as well to reduce the building’s carbon imprint. It also features electric car-charging stations.
“The hotel was exceeding our projections in terms of occupancy prior to the COVID-19 downturn,” said Wemyss.
“This always has been a great setting here at the base of Mount Washington. What I like is that the view you enjoy from the hotel is the same you would have had 150 years ago,” he said.
On the down side was the fire that claimed the Great Glen Trails base lodge in March 2001 on the site of where the new hotel now sits.
“I met with the staff upon my return and basically said that out of this incredible tragedy we had a golden opportunity to make this better,” Wemyss recalled.
“Ed Reichert, one of our company directors, came to me and suggested renovating the base lodge for the Auto Road into a base lodge for Great Glen Trails. We got the OK from the directors,” he said.
“It worked out tremendously after we came out of a great challenge,” said Wemyss, noting the renovated lodge opened for the 2002-03 season.
His greatest reward? He says it has been working with a longtime crew of seasoned and enthusiastic veterans who all share his love for Mount Washington and all of its whims.
“I have had a great opportunity to work with a lot of really talented people, and they are what makes the company what it is,” said Wemyss.
In addition, “It has been a pleasure to work for a family who see themselves as stewards of this area at the base of Mount Washington.”