by Thomas Wailgum

Managing IT atop Mount Washington: Not Your Typical Tech Job

Mar 18, 20098 mins
CareersData CenterIT Leadership

On Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern U.S., the winds whip faster than they do in Antarctica, the bitter cold will freeze bare skin in seconds, and Steven Welsh tends to the IT infrastructure that meticulously records the mountain's extreme weather conditions.

It may be starting to feel like spring where you are, but at the top of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the highest point in the Northeastern U.S. and home to the self-proclaimed “World’s Worst Weather,” it just about always feels like winter.

Clinging to the summit of the 6,288-foot mountain is the Mount Washington Observatory, a nonprofit, membership-funded organization that conducts scientific and meteorological research and keeps a 24-hour record of the mountain’s perilous weather conditions.

image of Mount Washington Observatory

Image credit: Mount Washington Observatory

Mount Washington is located at the convergence of three main storm tracks. Consequently, it boasts a near constant combination of severe cold, fog and low visibility, loads of snow, rain and rime ice (frozen fog), and extraordinarily high winds. Hikers are just as apt to perish in June as they are in January. It is also the location that recorded the world’s highest surface wind speed: a mind-boggling 231 miles per hour on April 12, 1934.

It is in this most inhospitable of environments that Steven Welsh hangs his IT hat. His official title is IT observer and shift leader, and typically he is one of three full-time observatory employees in the summit building on any given day. (The others are a meteorologist and an educational outreach specialist, who will sync up with schools, via videoconferencing.) These employees work for a week at the summit and then get a week off.

“It’s not your typical nine-to-five job,” says Welsh, with classic British understatement. In the winter, his “commute” includes a one- to three-hour (depending on the weather) Snow Cat crawl up the mountain. Then there are the weeks when the horrendous weather rolls in and he and the other staffers are confined to the safety behind the observatory’s two-and-a-half-foot-thick concrete walls. Welsh likens it to being on a submarine or ship. “You certainly can’t go out for a stroll around the summit to clear your head,” he quips, “because you’re going to get lost or blown off the side.”

Welsh is a born and bred Englishman and a systems engineer by trade who came to the United States in 1997. He also knows a thing or two about bad weather: He joined the British Antarctic Survey and spent two years at Faraday Base, working on IT infrastructure and other meteorological duties. Welsh is a seasoned traveler and experienced hiker.

On one of his days off the summit, Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum talked with Welsh about do-it-yourself IT, being literally in the middle of a thunderstorm, and the thrill of walking outside in 100 m.p.h. winds. So what is your job officially and unofficially?

Steven Welsh: My title is IT observer. Officially, I’ve got two roles: the ‘observer side’ is weather related, and I’ve trained to take weather observations. We do those every hour. How the shift works: We’re one week on, the next week off, and there’s three observers up there who work 24 hours a day. There’s always somebody up doing the weather.


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What are the weather observations?

We go out every hour and check some standard stuff: visibility, whether it’s raining or snowing, are we in the cloud or is it clear, and we try to identify the cloud types—if we can see them. We spend two-thirds of the time in the fog, so I don’t often get to see blue skies.

We also verify the automatic measurements, which measure temperature, humidity and pressure as well.

And the IT side?

It’s the more traditional role. We have a lot of computers, and we run database applications, and have the local area network. We have radio links down to the valley where our headquarters is, in North Conway. So I’m responsible for looking after those and making sure they’re running. Also, there are the weather instruments up on the tower for recording weather—winds, humidity—and interfacing those with our applications.

There’s definitely a lot of stuff to it. It’s one of the reasons I like the job. I used to work in the manufacturing industry, in the more traditional IT role. You basically knew what was coming up on the next day and pretty much every day was the same. With this, you have no idea what’s going to happen. There’s always stuff breaking and going wrong.

What do you do if something breaks outside and it’s dangerous?

The No. 1 priority is safety, and everyone has to make their own judgment call. So if the weather’s bad, then we would wait. If something breaks, we’re certainly not going to put anyone in harm’s way to bring it in. There are the really high winds and cold—80- to 90-m.p.h.-plus winds and 20 degrees below. If you take your mittens off for just a few seconds, you’re just going to get frost bite.

And there’s also the thunderstorms, which are probably the biggest danger. Many times in the summer, when we are literally in the middle of a thunderstorm, the building gets hit. It’s not like a great bolt going off, like in the [Conway] valley. It’s so short. You get this immense crack; it’s very, very quick. It hits the tower quite regularly.

I don’t think most people appreciate the ferocity of the winds up there and the harsh climate. Was it surprising to you?

I’ve never experienced anything as windy as the top of Mount Washington—winds of 120 m.p.h. and 130 m.p.h. fairly regularly. It’s an amazing experience. I was in Antarctica for a while, and we got some pretty big winds down there, but not over 100 [m.p.h.].

SG register
Just another day at the office for Steven Welsh, IT observer at the Mount Washington Observatory. “It’s not your typical nine-to-five job,” he says. Image credit: Mount Washington Observatory

Have you joined Mount Washington’s “Century Club” yet?

Yes. It basically involves walking around the observation deck, which is on top of the main building, when the winds are sustained at over 100 m.p.h. And you’re not allowed to hang on to anything, and you can’t use crampons [metal spikes affixed to the bottom of boots to help with traction on ice]. If you fall over or anything, you’re out.

But the caveat here is: [The walk] really depends on which way the wind is coming. If it’s coming from the West, you’re kind of sheltered by the main summit cone and some of the buildings. If you pick your time right, and it’s coming from the West, and it’s not too gusty and there’s no ice on the deck, it’s not that hard to do. But if the wind is coming from the Northwest it’s really, really difficult to do. And I haven’t done it from that direction.

Wait. If you fall over, “you’re out”? What do you mean, you’re dead?

No, no! You have to start over again. You have to get around without falling on your knees or crawling around, which is especially hard to do if the wind’s coming from the Northwest.

What’s hardest about your job?

If something breaks, say a radio link, or something essential goes down, you’re pretty much on your own. You can phone someone for advice, but nobody is going to come and help you. You’ve just got to try to fix it yourself.

I’m guessing the UPS delivery truck isn’t making it up to the summit to drop off a new piece of equipment.

We don’t have a huge area to store [IT equipment] in, but we do have some essential supplies up here. If something goes wrong, it can be several days before we can get a spare up there, especially in the winter when the road is closed. It can be just once a week.

You’ve got to think and plan ahead. If we’re doing a project, we have to ensure that we have everything we need for that project. You just can’t just pop out to a store to grab some wiring.

How about your commute? Must be fun in the winter?

The shift changes on Wednesdays. So I’ll meet up with the others at the base of the [Mount Washington] Auto Road. And get driven up in Snow Cat.

What’s that like?

It can be really nice on a clear day. But it can also be a bit of a nightmare. The road is 8 miles long, and the snow tractors’ top speed is basically 8 m.p.h. On a really nice day, it can take an hour.

But if we get some bad weather and the road gets drifted in with snow, then they have to plow it as [we go up]. So you’re stuck in the back of this Cat, going backward and forward, figuring out the snow drifts. It can take two to three hours. And when it’s foggy, you can’t see anything. That’s when the novelty kind of wears off.

Even with all the weather peril, you still like it?

I really enjoy it. The 9-to-5 life gets kind of dull for me. I enjoy the challenge of this environment. You never know what’s going to happen next.