Managing IT atop Mount Washington

Managing IT atop Mount Washington

On Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern US, 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.

Image credit: Mount Washington Observatory

Image credit: Mount Washington Observatory

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.

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 bread Englishmen 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, 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?

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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