Driving the Mt. Washington Auto Road is an eight-mile journey that invokes a range of emotions. The start of the ascent fills one with excitement, while the first views into the distant New England surroundings move you to a sense of awe. Transition from tarmac to dirt, however, and awe gives way to trepidation. This is a narrow road with two directions of traffic, no protective barriers and a long drop-off that sits uncomfortably close to your car's tires.
Still, this a must-drive road, and we were delighted when Mini reached out with an invitation to join them on a trip to the top. Our ride was a 2011 Mini Cooper Clubman with fresh rubber and a manual transmission, and our expectations for the experience climbed into the clouds. Would the compact Clubman prove to be an ideal chariot for this New Hampshire ascension adventure?
We're not alone in our pursuit to put a Mini on top of Mt. Washington. The automaker's PR team extended the invitation, but it's a group of Mini owners and enthusiasts that are kind enough to let us tag along with them. This isn't the first time they've tackled the mountain, either. The event is called Minis on Top, and the 2011 running represents the 9th year for these passionate fans of the brand.
That's nine years running, without any direct support from Mini USA. Not that the automaker hasn't been paying attention. In fact, Mini President Jim McDowell has been attending MoT for the last six years. This year, McDowell brought along a KISS-edition Mini Countryman, a Cooper Coupe prototype and a basketful of balloons to toss randomly at other cars. If you're going to run a fun brand... you'd better be fun yourself, and McDowell seems like the perfect person to helm this ship. If you have any doubts, simply ask him for a Bulldog handshake should you ever meet him.
McDowell is just one of the many Mini fans who made their way to New Hampshire for MoT. The entire group meets at the base of Loon Mountain, where old friends mingle and new friends introduce themselves. A sea of Mini machines already fills the lot by the time we arrive, and all told, the total number is expected to climb to around 220 vehicles.
Mini loyalists continue to pull in as organizers conduct the drivers' meeting. License plates read Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and so on down the list of nearby states. A few shockers arrive in the form of a Florida plate and a smattering of Canadian Mini enthusiasts. Our Clubman wears a Jersey tag, but we won't hold that against it. After all, we and the car our in this together, and the daunting trail awaits.
The Mt. Washington Auto Road is a 7.6-mile path that snakes its way up to the top of the Northeastern United States' highest peak. Drivers begin their journey at an elevation of 1,527 feet, climb 4,618 feet and arrive at the 6,125-foot peak. Along the way, the road passes through a thick army of trees, the open-air above the treeline and ultimately into the often cloud-covered summit. As you move from the road's entrance, it narrows and the gradient increases.
The average degree of incline on the Auto Road is 11.6 percent. This means you're looking way up as you scan the asphalt in front of you. The tricky part here is that the scenery is so beautiful, you'll start staring everywhere except where you should. A dangerous decision, since the narrow road is boxed in by the mountain on one side, and well, nothing on the other.
We've got a great big convoy, and our Clubman is part of the first group sent up the Auto Road. The Coopers, Clubmen and Countrymen line up at the toll gate, and with the wave of a road worker's hand, we're off. Our pace isn't fast or furious, and would probably be downright boring for those named Sprongl or Pastrana. In fact, your author was even looking for a bit more speed. That thought disappeared when the convoy crested the tree line and began traversing the unpaved section of the Mt. Washington climb.
Our group's slow speed was now a welcome part of our journey, and the Clubman's manual gearbox was getting a boxer's workout filled with cries for a 1-2 punch. Third gear was not necessary here. Still, our Mini Clubman didn't break a sweat over the course of the trek, even if we did.
Any perspiration faded, however, the higher we climbed. Mile markers five, six and seven came and went, and the temperature quickly dropped from the mid 80s at the base to a rather chilly 40 degrees at the summit. The temperature didn't take us on by itself, as a backup arrived in the form of wind and clouds that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The group pressed onward, of course, as this is Minis on Top, not Minis that Almost Made It.
Like a ghostly moonbase, the summit came into view from a space where nothing had existed prior. Eerily beautiful, the top of Mt. Washington was windy, gray and literally in the clouds. It felt like our convoy of Minis was led by Rod Serling into another dimension. We unlocked our Minis eight miles ago with a key. Beyond that, we had moved into a land of both shadow and substance, of wind and weather, having ust crossed over into the
We weren't alone up there, as other groups made the climb. Everyone who signed up for the journey had arrived, and Mini even brought its Coupe prototype to the top. Once our feet had explored the ceiling of the Northeast and our cameras finished fighting Mother Nature's unique lighting conditions, it was time to head back.
The journey down the Mt. Washington Auto Road can actually be more perilous than the trip up. What was an 11.6 percent incline becomes a Top Chef cooker of brakes. Turnouts are plentiful, and on this particular day, they were very welcome. Not because we needed to give the Clubman a rest – in fact, we sensed no fade at all. We needed to pull over and grab our camera. The clouds had parted as soon as we left the top, and presented the entire group with the type of sunset that makes you feel good to be alive. It was a damn good sunset, filled with greens, blues, pinks, reds and a whole lot of smiling Mini drivers.
After we return to our home for the weekend, a multitude of Minis sit retired in the parking lot of the Attitash Grand Summit Hotel. Our cars are resting, but our minds and hearts are still pumping. We mingle with the Mini folk and talk ranges from the day's events to Minis and on to cars in general. These are full-blooded enthusiasts that happen to have a specific love affair with the diminutive Germanic Brit. Almost all of the cars in attendance have been tweaked a bit, be it with a decal package or a complete suite of performance upgrades.
Hanging out with fans of a specific brand can sometimes be daunting, and if we're being truthful, annoying. Discussions can quickly devolve into a game of one-upsmanship or even trash talk, but no so with the Mini faithful. The evening winds down with jovial chatter, and occasional reflection on the awesomeness of day's drive.
Yet there was already another buzz growing amongst those still standing after the long day... next year is Minis on Top 2012, the 10th annual running of the event. That means more people finding an excuse to hang out together to celebrate a brand they love, and even more Minis making the trek to the top.