CONWAY — Is Mount Washington being "loved to death"?
Home to the Mount Washington Observatory since 1932, the mountain this weekend is hosting the 18th annual Seek the Peak fundraiser for the non-profit, member-supported scientific observatory.
The mountain known to Native Americans as Agiocochook (“dwelling place of the Great Spirit”) has long been a focal point for New Hampshire, especially in the years since the Old Man of the Mountains fell in 2003.
Concerned about usage, the Mount Washington Commission, which oversees operations by the network of users of the 6,288-foot summit, plans to examine capacity at the top of the Northeast’s highest peak.
The study was proposed last summer, and is targeted to get underway soon, said Amy Bassett of the State Division of Parks and Recreation.
“It is still on the front burner; other things have taken precedence, but it is going to happen,” Bassett said Wednesday, after conferring with Parks and Recreation Director Phillip Bryce.
In addition to Bryce, the commission comprises representatives of state government, the White Mountain National Forest, the Mt. Washington Auto Road, the Mount Washington Cog Railway, Townsquare Media (WHON-FM) and two members of the public at large.
Commission Chair Walter Graff of Randolph, senior vice president for the Appalachian Mountain Club, was unavailable for comment.
But state Sen. Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro), who with state Rep. Karen Umberger (R-Conway) on the 12-member commission, said he obtained funding in the budget for the yet-to-be undertaken but planned study.
The issue of the summit perhaps being too popular for its own good is not a new one. It’s always been busy, given that the iconic top of New England has been a destination for visitors since the 1800s.
The first basic hotel opened there in 1852. By the dawn of the 20th century, there was a grand hotel and daily mountaintop daily newspaper called Among the Clouds.
Now, upwards of several thousand people a day visit the summit, whether by hiking, taking the Cog or chauffeured vans or driving their own vehicle up the 7.6-mile Auto Road.
Once at the summit, they visit the 60-acre Mount Washington State Park, including the cafeteria and gift shop in the state’s 1980-built Sherman Adams Summit Building, which also houses the observatory and its Extreme Mt. Washington museum.
Howie Wemyss, general manager of the Auto Road, is one of the biggest proponents of the study.
Prior to Friday’s quarterly commission meeting at the Tip Top House on Mount Washington, Wemyss answered questions from the Sun.
“Has the summit reached its limits? There are lots of good questions and issues that we can’t keep hiding from and one which we need to air. Some of us are interested in addressing those questions; others less so. We are willing to talk about it and brainstorm what the answers might be,” Wemyss said Tuesday.
“It will be tough, because you’ve got two competing for-profit businesses — in the Auto Road and the Cog — who are doing business, taking people to a state park surrounded by a national forest," he said.
“I would like to hear from others about what some of our options might be," Wemyss said, "but it seems fairly clear to me that something has to change, because what is happening is not sustainable either for us, the Cog or the hiking community because we are all seeing increasing numbers: We are all headed to the same small mountaintop and it’s just not sustainable."
He said that upgrades to the Cog Railway over the past decade by switching its fleet of locomotives from coal-powered steam engines to more efficient diesel engines have brought more trains and therefore more passengers to the summit.
“One of the exacerbating issues is the Cog has finally gotten successful and is delivering more to trains to the summit than before — three trains of 70 passengers arrive at a time and there have been five trains on the summit at one time. That’s a lot of people,” said Wemyss, whose company still out-delivers passengers to the summit via the Auto Road.
Also interviewed Tuesday, the Cog's Presby countered that the Auto Road didn’t seem to have a problem with heavy use until the Cog began being more competitive.
He said the Cog doesn’t get credit for initiatives it has made to improve the mountain, including clearing 100 years' worth of debris beside the tracks to enabling the state to bring electrical power along its right of way to the summit instead of having to store fuel in tanks at the summit.
He added that the Cog once had seven steam engines and one diesel; now, it has six clean diesel locomotives and one coal-burning steam engine.
Presby — part of the team that bought the Cog in the early 1980s and who bought out his partners in 2017 — doesn’t dispute the fact that his train excursion company has increased its business over the past decade as a result of those more efficient, less-polluting locomotives.
“We are maybe 120,000 riders per year now, versus the Auto Road’s 150,000 — and that compares to 309,000 for rail riders at Pike's Peak in Colorado and another 250,000 for their auto road," Presby said.
"Most of the trains in Europe are 500,000 per year,” said Presby, acknowledging that the Cog has doubled its use over the past seven or eight years but still is drawing fewer passengers than the Auto Road.
He said that while it’s true that thousands visit the summit each day either by rail, vehicle or on foot, many don’t stay longer than an hour or so before heading back down.
The Cog and the Auto Road have been engaged in a dispute over parking at the summit, a contentious matter scheduled to be discussed at Friday’s quarterly meeting of the commission.
The state Attorney General’s office was expected to give an opinion on the issue — results of that meeting will be reported in an upcoming edition.
The controversy concerns property rights dating back to 1894 that the railroad feels are being violated by the Auto Road and to some extent by the Mount Washington Observatory, which now operates overnight EduTrips to the Sherman Adams Building — a sole right to accommodate overnight guests that Presby says was purchased by the railroad back in the 1894 agreement.
On the parking area rights issue, the Auto Road counters that those rights have been superseded by policies, ownership changes and uses over the years.
Those issues, along with concerns about septic capacity at the summit and what to do with the former Yankee Building at the summit continue to dominate meetings of the Mount Washington Commission.
Of course, any discussion about the summit has to include the most controversial issue to face Mount Washington in recent years — Presby’s proposal announced in 2016 to construct a 35-room hotel over the train tracks, at a location about 1,000 feet from the summit.
The proposal has drawn criticism from at least seven conservation groups who are concerned that the lodge would have a negative impact on the mountain's alpine zone.
Presby counters that it would meet the demand for lodging and also alleviate water and sewer problems at the Sherman Adams Visitor Center.
Presby says he has not furthered those plans to date, and is still gathering documentation. He drew further ire when his crews cut a 3-mile path along an old state power trench without a permit on land it owns beside the track to the summit.
Last week, that controversy was aired anew when two large Sherp ATVs made an ascent up the path in a test drive — Presby said the company contacted him, and he agreed, riding as a passenger in one of the vehicles.
“I am interested in using them perhaps as maintenance vehicles, not, at this point, as a tourist excursion,” said Presby, pointedly adding that it happened just a day or two after the Auto Road had 1,800 ATVs up there. “We have indicated that at some point we may be interested in taking people up on Snowcats in winter, just as Howie (Wemyss) is letting people do.”
Presby also points to Wemyss’ company’s ongoing construction of a new 68-room, three-story Glen House hotel at its Great Glen Trails property at the base of the Auto Road, due for completion this fall.
It’s unclear how things will develop — or settle.
As an aside in the conclusion of the commission’s July 2017 meeting at the Tip Top House, the minutes noted that the Cog Railway and the Auto Road monitor public comments they receive from TripAdvisor.
Comments related to the Mount Washington State Park are forwarded to the park staff. It was noted that “visitors don’t seem to mind crowding on the summit.”
But then, when it comes to Mount Washington, it all depends on who you are talking to.