Taming of the Mt. Washington Auto Road – Click above for high-res image gallery
In our last long term update, I mentioned that my wife and I took the 2010 Subaru Legacy 2.5GT on a two-week road trip up to New England. Our ultimate destination was Bar Harbor, Maine, though a stop in New Hampshire on the way home became our most memorable vacation moment of all time.
The story goes her father had convinced them all to hoof it up to the top rather than hitch a ride on the mountain's Cog Railway by offering them each the price of the train ticket as bribe money. Sounding like something my father-in-law would do, I trusted my wife's memory was accurate and imagined a post card-quality bluff, easily scalable by a trio of children and their persuasive father.
This is the story of how wrong I was, and how the 2010 Subaru Legacy 2.5GT fared as our mule on the harrowing eight-mile ascent up the Mt. Washington Auto Road.
My first clue that Mt. Washington wouldn't be a kiddie climb came at the front gate. The rate for a passenger vehicle with two occupants was $31, which struck my already vacation weary wallet as steep for the privilege of driving up what I thought to be a family friendly mountain. The guard took my money and handed me a large packet, instructing me to pull over and read its contents thoroughly before we followed the road up ahead into the trees.
Three items in this packet made me nervous: a disclaimer, a full page of safety instructions in small type and a bumper sticker that read "This car climbed Mt. Washington." The bumper sticker's implication that there were cars that tried to climb Mt. Washington and failed created a small bead of sweat on my brow, as did the safety instructions' suggestion that we turn off the Subaru's air conditioning to avoid overheating the engine.
Other items in the packet included a fact sheet about why Mt. Washington has the title of "World's Worst Weather," an audio CD with two tracks named "The Ascent" and "The Descent," and a "Master of the Mountain" certificate, the latter of which seemed odd considering the only thing mastered at that point was returning my wallet to my pocket. Nevertheless, with the ground temperature hovering around 97 degrees Fahrenheit, I lowered the windows, hit Play on the CD and turned back on the road.
The safety instructions said we should go 20 miles per hour, and I soon realized that first gear would be the only gear we needed as level ground immediately gave way to a winding incline as soon as we entered the cover of trees. As if on cue, the audio CD's narrator began reassuring us that the the Auto Road is in fact two lanes wide as a Ford F-150 rounded the corner ahead. The safety instructions said that vehicles ascending the mountain had the right of way, but the F-150 driver must not have read his packet as closely as I did. I moved the Legacy over to the right as far as I could, but swear we would've slapped side-view mirrors had they been at the same height.
The next 7.5 miles were a blur. The Auto Road is about eight miles long, but climbs over a mile in elevation. That means the nose of our Legacy was – on average – pointing up at a 12-degree angle. Doesn't sound like much? It felt like a 45-degree angle with my back pressed into the seat and hands clenching the steering wheel to avoid any unintentional and possibly deadly steering inputs. Meanwhile, the Legacy is putting along under 20 mph in first gear. Its turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is running around 3,500 rpm, but with the windows down and no wind noise, it sounded like it was redlining the whole way up.
Aside from not steering us off a cliff, my other worry was the Subaru Legacy 2.5GT's six-speed manual transmission. Driving up Mt. Washington has officially replaced the traffic jam in my book as the most annoying situation for a manual-equipped car. It was tourist season and the Auto Road was generously clogged with gawkers more interested in sightseeing out their car windows than getting to the summit quickly. So our speed rarely hit the recommended 20 mph as I was forced to get on and off the clutch to avoid stalling behind a string of rubbernecking drivers. Someone driving a Jeep Patriot even repeatedly came to a dead stop, jamming up the cars behind him (or her) and making those of us operating a stick wish for an impromptu test of his CUV's rollover rating.
Fortunately, there are frequent turn-outs staggered up the mountain. They're designed to give engines (and their cooling systems) a break on the ascent and drop brakes temps on the descent. I used one on the way up to let the Patriot get far enough ahead that our lives would no longer be in the hands of Subaru's hill-holder function, as well as to shield my wife from a personal pep talk I needed before we hit the gravel section. Yes, there are portions of the Auto Road left unpaved, which means the edge of the road becomes an undefined thing that's liable to crumble beneath your tires as you gamble on how far to move over to let the descending hoards pass.
Meanwhile, the narrator on the audio CD has been speaking this whole time in a friendly, calming voice. He imparts mountain factoids in sync with wherever you are on the road (or out of sync if you're stuck behind a Jeep Patriot), though I found the narration more useful as a nerve-calming sedative. His Discovery Channel-esque delivery was particularly helpful when trying to avoid the mountain's victims. The most worrisome was the sight of a second-generation Toyota Prius coming down the mountain on the back of a flat-bed truck. My guess is its batteries gave out before it reached the top and the 1.5-liter engine couldn't make the grade alone. Either way, we were now involved with its failure, n as the Legacy had to make room for its tightest pass of the day. On a side note, I hope the Prius owner gave his bumper sticker back.
After a half hour of ascension, we reached the summit of Mt. Washington, parked the Legacy and kissed the ground. On our mile-long journey into the clouds, the temperature had dropped 35 degrees to 62 degrees Fahrenheit. That's a heat wave for the top of Mt. Washington where the average yearly temp is just 34 degrees and a balmy -50 degrees was once recorded in 1885.
The first building we encountered was the old stage office, ominously anchored to the ground by three giant chains slung over its roof and bolted to the ground. Built in 1908, this structure was where scientists recorded the world's fastest ever wind speed of 247 mph back in 1934. The main building for visitors is the Sherman Adams Summit Building, constructed in 1979 and built directly into the summit. Run by the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation, it houses a gift shop, concession stand, museum and even a post office, as well as offers the best views through its large glass windows or from the rooftop promenade. This is also the first building to greet travelers who rode the Cog Railroad to the summit, something we would've considered doing if tickets weren't $62 per person.
For the people who drove themselves to the summit, which includes a large number of brave motorcyclists, their time at the top seemed less about enjoying the destination than gearing up for the drive down, or maybe that was just me. Fortunately, descending Mt. Washington via car turned out to be much easier than driving up. There's plenty of warning via roadside signage to not ride your brakes on the way down, but we found the Legacy's first gear worked well with the angle of decline to hold us at a reasonable speed while cruising, only using the brakes for tight or blind turns.
The ease of descent also allowed us to actually listen to the audio CD this time. The narrator spoke on the CD's second track of people breaking records on the Auto Road for things like fastest run to the top, fastest horse-drawn vehicle to the top and, of course, fastest car to the top. Motorsport found its way to Mt. Washington all the way back in 1904 with the inaugural Climb to the Clouds road race. The record time set that first year 24 minutes and 37.6 seconds, which isn't much faster than our modern day Subaru did it in a pack of tourist traffic. Compare that to the current record of six minutes and 42 seconds set in 1998 by Frank Sprongl driving an Audi Quattro. Thanks to YouTube, you can still view Sprongl's record run and get a sense of what it's like to drive a 100-turn course where no two corners are the same.
This being Autoblog, you may be wondering why this piece isn't accompanied by a large high-res photo gallery of the views we took in while driving up and down the Mt. Washington Auto Road. Well, I'm kicking myself for not having my camera at the ready, but the point of this story is how caught off guard we were by the challenging drive. The fact that I didn't dare take my eyes off the road for even a second to reach in the back seat and grab the Canon is just more evidence to that point. Yes, my wife could've snapped away while I drove, but her head was buried in her hands half the time and – bless her heart – I don't blame her. The same urge arose in me once or twice and was only quieted by a conveniently placed pull off and a quick smoke.
After two weeks of driving and more than 2,000 miles traveled, both my wife and I agree that those eight miles spent going up the Mt. Washington Auto Road were the most exciting, fun and memorable of the whole trip. They were also probably the eight worst miles of fuel economy, but if you fancy yourself an auto enthusiast, sacrifice the gas to experience how exciting going slow can be. And as for our long-term 2010 Subaru Legacy 2.5GT, it earned its bumper sticker.