Highlights From Ed Webster's Mount Washington Lecture

Highlights From Ed Webster's Mount Washington Lecture

It was a real treat to sit in on the recent lecture given by Ed Webster at the Tin Mountain Conservation Center in Albany. We drove to Albany in the dark and almost couldn't find the Tin Mountain Conservation Center on a quiet backroad just outside Conway. It's a lovely place, nestled into the trees, with high ceilings, exposed beams, and lots of windows. It was a blustery night, the first real taste of winter we've had this year. The woman who hosted the event let us know that Mount Washington experienced negative temperatures that very morning, so it was fitting to gather on this night to learn about some of its history and lore.

Ed Webster is a well-known climber, author, and historian of all things mountaineering. Over the years he's pioneered many rock-climbing routes in the White Mountains and beyond. He's also the first American to ever summit Mount Everest's North Peak. He even has a chunk of Everest named after him – the Webster Wall – after partaking in an epic climb with a team that spent four nights above 8000 meters with no oxygen, radioes, or sherpa support. Also, he lots eight of his finger tips from frostbite.

His talk tonight would be focused a bit more on something closer to our hearts and our homes, Mount Washington. Mount Washington is 6288 feet high – the tallest mountain in the northeast United States – and has some wild weather, a kill-list hundreds of people long, and some amazing history. It can be seen from the Atlantic Ocean on a clear day – and you can see the Atlantic Ocean from it on a clear day, too. But if you live anywhere near it, you probably hardly notice it. It's just there. Isn't that marvelous?

“The History of Agiocochook (Also Called Mount Washington)”

All of us, he began, have some story or relationship with Mount Washington. Often from our youth, “usually that you never forget.” Everyone nodded. Memories flooded each and every one of us.

What's wonderful to think is that history is really just collected histories, blended together to tell a riveting tale. And we all contribute to the pantheon with every single adventure we take.

Webster's talk was punctuated with rare images – some well-known and some from his private collection. He showed a vintage image of Mount Washington from its classic viewpoint – standing in Intervale just north of North Conway, Tuckerman Ravine falling down the mountain. The first white man to climb and summit the mountain was Darby Field, who accomplished the feat “with or without some Abenaki guides.” Field travelled up from the seacoast by boat, on a trip that required over a dozen portages. Back then, what is called Conway today was just a little village called Pigwacket. From there, Field convinced his guides to lead him to the summit of what they called Agiocochook (AY-ghee-OH-ko-chook). In the Abenaki language, it means something like “where the Great Spirit lives.” Fitting.

The White Mountains were once called the Crystal Hills – and for good reason. Darby Field thought the mica which gave the rocks their shine would be valuable, but he learned upon his return that it was nothing to celebrate. He did report that there were ponds and lakes near the top of Agiocochook, but no one believed him. What we now call the Lakes of the Clouds on Mount Washington have had many other names over the years, including Blue Pond and Washington's Punchbowl.

The next major expedition of the mountain was in 1784, most famously recounted by Jeremy Belknap in his three-volume history of New Hampshire. The mountain was known as the White Mountain, the Crystal Hill, Great Mountain, and Sugar Loaf before it was named after the first president of the United States. The oldest-surviving example of someone using the name “Mount Washington” was from a man named Reverend Cutler in 1792. In the letter he had written, he used the name casually, which leads historians to suspect there are older examples, but the primary source has never been found.

The first settlers in the area to capitalize on the mountain were Abel Crawford and his son Ethan Allen. Abel started farming his land in what is now called Crawford Notch. Webster showed us Abel's signature, which had two apple leaves sprouting from the “d.” The man kept over seven hundred apple trees. The Crawfords kept an inn for travellers to stay at, and over time, their inn became a well-known destination for folks to escape from the cities.

Abel and Ethan Allen built the first hiking trail in America. Right to the top of Mount Washington. Not long after, they widened the path and Abel, who was seventy-five years old, rode a horse up the mountain. He apparently remarked, “And to think that a horse is standing on the top of Mount Washington.”

Webster is a wonderful storyteller and often broke off from the chronological narrative to tell anecdotes and stories about colorful characters and other fun tidbits of Mount Washington and the area. We learned that the first winter expedition of Mount Washington took place in 1870. That dude climbed the mountain nineteen times during the winter and lived on the summit throughout. Today the toughest section of the mountain, Huntington Ravine, is named after him.

And, well, then there was English Jack. “Did you know Mount Washington had its very own hermit?” Webster spouted quite unexpectedly. In 1900, this fellow threw up a house with scrap wood from a hotel he helped build near the base of the mountain. English Jack would get drunk and eat live frogs for tourists. This brings us to an important and little known fact about the history of White Mountain tourism....

“Morbid curiosity” & stereo photography

The birth of tourism in the White Mountains was dipped and dripping with what Webster called “morbid curiosity.” The real tragedy that occurred to the Willey family in 1826 is a tough one to swallow, but that was the first big break for the area.

Here's what happened. The Willeys lived a bit south of the Crawfords and they also kept their home as an inn. Moving through the area was slow-going back then, since there was no Routes 16 or 302 to speed down. One night there was a terrible storm and they could hear a rock slide on the steep and boulder-covered mountain (called Mount Willey today) behind their home. It seems that they decided to abandon the house in order to not be crushed, but ironically ran right into the slide. A few days later, their house was discovered untouched, a candle burnt all the way to its wick, a bible open on the table, the door open. Most members of the family were found dead, not far from the house. Some of them were never found. It's been said that the man who discovered the family heard a moaning sound in the night and discovered a poor cow stuck under the damaged barn. Spooky!

The story made all the newspapers and spread like wildfire. Tourists flocked to the area to see the house and get, in Webster's words, “a case of the Willeys.” And that wasn't the only weird bit of tourism around. Not far away in Franconia Notch is a magnificient slab of carved rock with water blasting through called the Flume Gorge. Until the 1890s, a huge boulder hung precipitously over the Flume, so some smart dudes built a wooden bridge that went right under it. “They wanted to terrify themselves by walking under the hanging boulder above the Flume,” said Webster. “People were terrified by this, but they loved it.”

Stereo photography was an early form of picture-taking that was becoming popular in the mid-19th century. It just so happened that a rich dentist from Boston liked to vacation at the Crawford House. He spent so much time there that he ended up becoming part-owner and eventually inherited the entire property and all the land around it. Today it is the land that makes up Crawford Notch State Park. This guy was one of the pioneers of stereo photography (he could afford it) and so some of the first pictures ever taken in America are of Crawford House. As other photographers came to the mountains to take pictures, the scenery became accessible for the first time to those in the cities, and the tourism market grew exponentially.

“The beginning of capitalism on the summit of Mount Washington...”

It wasn't long after people began hiking and horse-riding to the summit of Mount Washington that they wanted to spend the night there, as well. So some entrepeneurs built the Tip Top House, a savvy hotel with a full bar and dining room. Guests would be stirred in the morning and led out to watch the sunrise. There was even a viewing platform that could be lifted with a crank – and cost twenty-five cents to ride – so that folks could get an even higher view. The platform didn't last two years, though, thanks to the violent winds that grind that summit down.

When the carriage road opened in 1861, the summit was accessible to anyone at any time. Famous author Louisa May Alcott wrote about her ride to the top. A famous opera singer of the time broke out in a casual song from the summit. Mrs. Abraham Lincoln rode up during the Civil War.

And things just got wilder from there. By 1866, Sylvester Marsh had his first working demonstration of the Cog Railway. He had to lobby the state of New Hampshire for a charter to build his railroad. One government official famously quipped, “Might as well grant you a charter to the moon!” With the rise of stereo photography, the railway became immensely popular. The photographers tilted their cameras to get crazy angles, which blew people's minds. Ulysses S. Grant rode on the Cog Railway while he was president, which also attracted tourists.

Soon there was a newspaper being published on the summit, Among the Clouds. One of the ideas they had was brilliant: they would publish the names of every person who visited the summit. This created a market for their publication, as everyone wanted to know who was on the summit – and of course, wanted the souvenir from their own trip.

The paper was printed daily and needed to compete with other newspapers. So, asked Webster, “How did you get down the mountain if you wanted to get down really fast?” He showed us images of the slideboard. Men would ride the the little pieces of wood down the railway three-and-a-half miles to the base with nothing holding them to the boards but their butts. The fastest known time down on the slideboard was two-and-a-half minutes. Even better, he joked, you know how dogs like to stick their heads out of car windows? He showed us a picture of a dog riding the slideboard with a young boy. “This is the first dog that ever had that experience! This is one brave dog.” I sure wish I could find that photo online, it's a bummer. And you know how they Observatory has a summit cat? Well, in the 1890s, there was a dog. His name was Medford. I wanted to pet him. Webster had to buy the picture he showed us from someone in Uruguay.

Roof of the World

The final stage of the lecture turned to a topic more dear to Ed Webster: extreme sports. The early rock-climbers of the 1910s on Mount Washington wore suits and ties and fedoras and let's just say the pictures were so silly they needed quippy captions. One guy was scraping his entire front side against the rocks and all Webster could do was shrug and suggest the “full body friction” wasn't too comfortable. It is quite possibly the first ever photo taken of a rock climber and it is most likely on Mount Washington; he and his rock-climbing friend found the spot and recreated the photo. By the 1930s, climbers were wearing sneakers, at least, but I thought one of the climbers looked an awful lot like Gilligan – and the techniques were certainly still being mastered.

Miriam Underhill was a leading woman climber in the 1920s. Her husband was Robert Underhill, the editor of Appalachia and one of the founding fathers of rock-climbing. Both Underhills made first ascents up various sections of Mount Washington – some of it is harrowing to look at! Miriam Underhill once wrote an article about guideless climbing and titled it, “Manless Climbing.” She went on to write a well-liked book about the White Mountains titled Give Me The Hills. Webster was selling a personal copy of hers that we salivated at, but could not purchase in the moment. Alas.

One of Webster's early successes as a writer came when he managed to work up the nerve to call ninety-four-year-old Robert Underhill and request an interview. He spent a few hours with him and the effort turned into a story for Time. Underhill passed away just four months later.

Webster ramped up his storytelling for one last adventure, the 1939 American Inferno ski race down Tuckerman Ravine. An Austrian-American skiier named Toni Matt won the race with a ridiculous mistake that could have cost him his life. Matt scoped out the course down Tuckerman Ravine and put a twig at a spot where he planned to turn. But somehow he flew over the Headwall and hit 85 mph, miraculously landing and winning the race. Webster impersonated Matt with a hilarious Austrian accent, building up the story with a play-by-play of the race, then explaining his simple error: “It is ze wrong twig!” Matt seemed to have a good sense of humor. Years later he described himself as “Age 19, stupid, and had strong legs.”

Webster ended his talk with his own personal Mount Washington story, from his early days of rock-climbing this very mountain. He showed some hunky shirtless pics of himself and his friends climbing the Roof of the World, a tough section in Huntington Ravine, a climb they pioneered. The fun part is that it was the day of the “astrological convergence” in 1987 and things were definitely a little weird out there.

Like he said earlier, we all remember our experiences on Mount Washington. “Some with fondness, some not with fondness.”

We all went home that night with memories, some fresh, some hazy, rushing back to us. I have many stories from that crazy mountain. I've hiked it numerous times, as a kid, as a teenager, as an adult. I've been lost on its violent side, I've drank a beer in a snowstorm on it, I've seen the guy who played the principal in Ferris Beuller on it. Oh gosh, I could write about these stories someday soon, I promise you.

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