A rapidly dwindling patch of snow on the northeast slope of Mount Jefferson is pretty much all that's left of winter. I look across the Great Gulf with binoculars and see it sparkling in the sun.
Amazingly, ski tracks still scar the snow's surface. Somebody has trudged five miles up a rocky trail with a pair of skis for the sake of a 20-yard run. It must have been a member of the semi-(in)famous local group of winter sports addicts who challenge themselves to ski in as many consecutive months as possible. Their only rule is that enough snow must exist to allow room for at least 10 turns. So if your skis are bigger than the snow patch itself, you might as well stay home; it doesn't count. The record is 24 months of uninterrupted skiing—that is, if you call a two-second jaunt across pebbly corn snow "skiing."
Patches of corn snow are all that Mother Nature has to offer at the moment. It's been too warm. The last time a "real" winter hit New Hampshire was in 1997, turning this mountain into a skier's paradise (and a summer tour director's nightmare). Old Man Winter dumped 96 inches of snow on the summit in May, effectively canceling the summer months altogether. The boundary of the jet stream—you can usually see this on splashy, colorful weather maps like USA Today's, dividing warmer oranges and reds from cooler greens and blues—dipped far south of the Canadian border. Storm after storm followed the jet stream's path from the Great Lakes into New England, whitening the peaks. Down near the Lakes of the Clouds, the snowy northwest slope of Mount Monroe provided hours of entertainment for the observatory's summer interns. They went sledding every chance they got. One morning I walked into a strangely empty weather office and asked aloud, "Where did everybody go?" Far in the distance, faintly carried on the breeze, I'm convinced, I heard an excited chorus of "Wheeeeee!" as our team of minimum-wage college students careered gleefully downhill on plastic sleds.
Humans aren't the only creatures who enjoy frolicking in the snow above the timberline. Last winter we witnessed a raven purposefully playing on a snow bank. Ravens are very large and very smart—so smart, apparently, that sometimes they get bored. This one had found a unique way to amuse itself. On top of a small incline just outside the weather-room window, the raven tucked in its wings, lay flat on its side, and then voom! … down it tumbled and rolled, kicking up a tiny cloud of snow. At the bottom of the hill, the bird then jumped up like an eager child, shook itself off, and waddled back uphill on two stubby legs. It turned around and repeated the maneuver. Over and over. For half an hour. Our interns grabbed their sleds and went outside to join it. (At that point, unfortunately, the raven flew away.)
There aren't too many jobs in this country where it's possible to commute to work by sled or ski. In summer, though, we're forced to hang up our sliding implements and make the trek by truck or on foot. The rigors of alpine transportation are such that it's difficult in the summer (and impossible in the winter) to travel up and down the mountain on a daily basis. As a result, shifts on the summit last eight days straight. I've just finished an unusually long, nine-day stint and am ready to go home. I'm out of clean laundry, for one thing, and also out of energy. The observatory workweek can be a tiring one. I doubt I'd find the stamina to sled down today, even if there was snow to sled on.
People always ask what it's like to live on the summit. They want to hear about blizzards, violent thunderstorms, bruised bodies flung across the observation deck by 140-mph winds, reckless skiing escapades, and trucks encased in 10 inches of ice. But I tell them that the appeal of working on a mountaintop isn't so much the extremes. It's the variety. Sometimes the simple, comical sight of a tobogganing raven is reward enough.
Toboggans and skis are all useless today, so four of us head down the mountain in a van. I slump into the front seat, exhausted. Overhead, the ravens are swooping and gliding on warm currents of air. I can still see the observatory's cat, Nin, perched on the radiator in the weather room, his eyes flitting back and forth as he follows the ravens' flight. Poor Nin doesn't realize that they're bigger than he is. The ravens could probably lift him in their talons and carry him away, like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. Nin has trouble enough with smaller game. He's a lap cat, not a hunter. Soon the van rounds a corner, and both the ravens and Nin disappear from view … until next week.
As we travel down the mountain, the climate and scenery change swiftly. The air is thicker here, and the temperature is higher. Bleak, boulder-strewn tablelands spotted with tiny clumps of leftover snow soon yield to evergreens and finally to lush, leafy hardwood trees. It's like visiting a different planet.
We finally reach the bottom. The van door opens, and the June air rushes in with surprising intensity. I feel like I've just opened an oven door. It's only 80 degrees, but on my skin—acclimated for nine days to temperatures in the 40s and 50s—it feels hot enough to bake a cake. I let out an involuntary "Whew!"
One of my co-workers from the valley laughs at me. "This is the warmest air you've felt in a while, huh?"
I suddenly realize I'm still wearing a fleece jacket from the top. Sure won't need that down here. I take it off and fling it into my car. At long last, it's time for a day off. Time to collect a paycheck and rejoin civilization. I can't help wishing, though, that civilization wasn't quite so darn hot.