The extreme weather on top of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington is well known. The 6,288-foot-high peak in the White Mountains can get cold, snowy, and windy, and have little visibility.
Former Monroe resident Ken Rancourt knows more about that than most people, because he has spent much of the past 33 years living at the Mount Washington Observatory (MWO).
Rancourt has been there on days when one could see 125 miles or more, to Montreal and beyond, and when visibility was much more limited.
“There’s been so much blowing snow and fog you can’t see your feet,” said Rancourt, 62.
He’s also been there when wind speeds have reached 187 mph (the maximum ever observed by man anywhere is 231 mph, also at Mount Washington).
Mount Washington gets an average of 250 inches of snow a year, with snow drifts up to 15 feet high not uncommon on the alpine summit. Still, because of high winds, the ground often is exposed in mid-winter near the peak, he said.
‘Home to the World’s Worst Weather’
The MWO promotes Mount Washington as being “Home to the World’s Worst Weather.”
Rancourt retired this fall as director of summit operations at MWO, where he began working as a weather observer in 1979.
The MWO records weather at the summit and shares that information with other scientists. It has a long-term contract with the National Weather Service. It also offers “distance learning” via the Internet with schools, the Weather Channel and other entities.
The MWO “has grown into a wonderful research footprint,” said Rancourt, noting that some inventions can be directly traced to weather research at Mt. Washington.
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He’s had the chance to meet and interact through the years with major weather personalities, such as Weather Channel reporters. “They’ve spent time up here and I’ve been on their programs,” Rancourt said.
Masuk ’68 graduate always liked science
The 1968 Masuk High graduate was always into science. He handled lighting, sound and wiring duties for theater while growing up. He was inspired by a Masuk biology teacher, Mr. Kemetz.
Rancourt went to college to study aerospace engineering but then signed up for a college work-study program to research weather. “I hadn’t known much about meteorology but my interest was piqued,” he said.
He eventually earned a master’s degree in meteorology from McGill University in Montreal in 1977.
Two years later, Rancourt began working at MWO. In 1980, the observatory operation was moved to a new facility at the actual summit, 400 feet from the former wooden structure. “I helped move everything,” he said.
He is the son of Ken and Irene Rancourt, who have lived in the same house in Monroe for 51 years. His father grew up in the White Mountains, and he would visit the area as a child. He has five siblings.
Rancourt recalls growing up in a mostly rural Monroe. “Across the street from our house was a field with cows,” he said.
He now lives with his wife, Jane, near Mount Washington in New Hampshire. They rely on solar power for energy.
During his retirement, he hopes to travel, including to the Panama Canal, and visit Monroe more often to see his family. Jane also has a “to-do” list of chores for her husband.
Through his marriage, he has two children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Odd schedule on the mountain
At the observatory, Rancourt’s normal schedule was eight days on the mountain, then six days off. The longest he ever stayed on the mountain was 21 days. “It was a long stretch,” he said.
In the winter, the observatory is reached by a snow tractor that carries two people. The trip takes about an hour but can take six hours on bad weather days.
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The observatory can house 17 people in six bunkrooms. It has a kitchen, sitting area, work areas, museum, TV, and Internet. “It’s like a college dorm,” Rancourt said.
Living at the observatory offers limited privacy. About 250,000 people visit the building from May to October, and in the winter, groups of 10 people come for educational trips on science, photography and literacy. “It’s fun to share what we see up there on a regular basis,” he said. “For most people, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Technology at the summit of Mount Washington
One of Rancourt’s main duties was overseeing technology. He joked about having to argue with his boss in 1979 to get a fax machine on top of the mountain.
Bringing the Internet to the summit presented technical challenges. The Web arrived in 2006 in the form of a dedicated microwave dish.
Rancourt expects people’s interest in weather to only grow because of the Internet and human mobility (we know more people in different locations). “People have more immediate knowledge of what is going on,” he said.
As for the controversial topic of climate change, Rancourt said it is real and human activity is a factor. “I see the numbers,” he said.
He said at Mount Washington, temperatures are warming at lower elevations, in the valleys, and plant life will adapt by moving upward to colder surroundings.