A mountain full of dreamers.
Follow historic Route 16 up from Conway, New Hampshire, and take a left at the 302 intersection. Past the fairy tale themed amusement park Story Land and continue north on Route 16. The two lane road twists its way out of the resort town of Jackson and up into the White Mountain National Forest. Suddenly the landscape changes, a back country tree lined road opens into a stunning mountain pass as it climbs into Pinkham Notch. Historic Wildcat Ski area and the Wildcat range rise four thousand feet up on the east side of the valley. The Presidential Range looms higher still to the west as Route 16 flows north. The area is lush and green with vegetation and freckled with bits of granite rocks left over from the ice age. Three miles after Wildcat, the valley floor opens up to the base of Mount Washington.
A large billboard alerts you to the presence of the Mount Washington auto road. “Drive Yourself” it proclaims. Turn left onto the access road, and only the very beginning of the famous auto road is visible. A slim ribbon of tarmac winds up into the hillside. Rolling up to the toll house, signs warn that the auto road is a narrow, winding, steep mountain drive and those with a fear of heights may not enjoy it. Mount Washington is the highest peak in New England and has some of the worst weather in the world. It rises six thousand feet above sea level, but the top half of the mountain is free of trees above four thousand feet, where the winds are too high for trees to grow.
Historic, challenging, unique. All words to describe the Mount Washington Climb to the Clouds. The auto road dates back to before the Civil War and has been in near continuous use for over 160 years. The Mount Washington Auto road existed before the invention of the automobile, but the automobile is what has defined it over time. It’s impossible not to compare the Mount Washington Climb to the Clouds with Pikes Peak. It is, however an older event. The Mount Washington hill climb was first held 1906 and then sporadically pre, and post, WWI and WWII. It was reinstated in the 90s, stopped again in 2001, then revived in 2011 after a publicity stunt by Redbull and actions sports hero, turned rally driver, Travis Pastrana.
Hill climbs have a long history dating back to the beginning of the automobile. What better way to prove a vehicle’s strength and endurance to the public than a grueling up hill climb? Motorsport serves three purposes, engineering, marketing, and entertainment. In the early days, hill climbs were an important way to bring notoriety to a carmaker. Before purpose built race tracks existed, the best way to test a car was up a steep and winding mountain road. As the most extreme version of any conditions found during normal driving, it makes perfect sense to prove a car’s worth at a hill climb.
Fast forward to present day, Subaru has their car trailers and paddock area set up prominently in the front of the parking area, nearest the road. The rest of the event field is filled with dreamers, adventures and weekend warriors. Everyday folk who want a chance at the historic hill climb. A chance at immortality in the event standings or maybe even in the record books. These competitors spill out over the field in a semi organized manner. Most set ups consist of a truck, a trailer and an EZ-up to block the blazing July sun. Drivers, crew members, friends and family mill about. Some are tinkering with setups, someone cooks on a grill. The smell of gas, oil and cheeseburgers waft through the air. Nuts and bolts are checked and rechecked, ball joints are inspected and tire pressures adjusted. With a limited amount of runs and the potential to have a huge “off” there isn’t time for parts failure. While every car has to pass a safety inspection, roll cages and safety equipment are by far the most scrutinized.
July in New England can bring fickle weather, complicate this with high mountains that surround the Pinkham Notch Valley and it’s a recipe for crazy weather. The base area can remain in the high 80s or even 90s in with a high percentage of humidity. While the summit can be bright, sunny, windy, cold, rainy, fogged in, or all of the above. However, Mount Washington is a known killer. Even in warm summer months, it has claimed the lives of unsuspecting hikers. The fact that you can drive to the summit can mask this deadliness. It was warm and the humidity was high at the base for most of the weekend; surprising for a place that has few clear days at the summit. At least two of the event days the summit was wide open instead of socked in with clouds.
Runs begin just before the toll house at the base. Cars rocket up the steep ascent through the tree line. The car-and-a-half wide auto road lacks guard rails, it hugs the side of the mountain as it ascends. Below the tree line, only thick woods could stop your car from plummeting off the side. There are no run off areas, a few turnouts for over heating tourist cars, but otherwise, it’s mountainside or cliff side if you make a mistake. Frost heaves break up the surface and make suspension setup a priority. This auto road never claimed to be a pedigreed racing surface. A dizzying array of tree line corners repeat themselves till the tree line ends. Climbing further still up the road, it opens to a relatively straight section cleverly nicknamed “quarter mile” after it’s length. This section is a full throttle blast to the next set of corners. Speeds over 100mph are not uncommon, which hardly seems possible while on a sightseeing drive.
The tree line ends quickly as you approach “Signal Corps”, the halfway point of the climb. The landscape changes dramatically, trees shrunken and bent over from the high winds recede to rocks, boulders, and ferns as you enter the alpine zone. Pushing through Signal Corps, the car gets light over a crest at the halfway point and a few short turns later, the left side of the car has a 4500 ft exposure. If you dare to look left, the view to the valley floor is spectacular. The dirt section appears, it’s too difficult to pave and remains the only section of dirt left on the mountain. Cars fight for traction as hot tires pick up loose dirt and small rocks. Several blind corners lead into “Cragway”, a sweeping right-hand 180-degree carousel turn. It’s as wide as a car is long and this gives drivers plenty of room to enter sideways. As cars drift and fight for traction, the full view of Pinkham Notch, Wild Cat and RT16 on a clear day disappears behind them. It is truly a spectacular back drop.
After several “offs” by some competitors during Friday and Saturday practices. Word through the Paddock was that Travis Pastrana had been edging out David Higgins. Pastrana’s less conservative driving and adrenaline junkie nature seemed to be helping him on the short sprints during practice. During other events over the years, Pastrana has not seemed as comfortable in the car. Lately, he has seemed to have matured in his car driving abilities, and has been showing more and more speed during stage rallies. However, not having to conserve a car for an entire rally appeared to be working Pastrana’s favor. This left Higgins really pushing hard to hold onto his 2014 record.
After much anticipation, Sunday’s race day arrived. The weather forecast was clear; dry with high winds. As ideal as you can get for Mount Washington. The Mount Washington Van service or “Coaches” as they call them are a throwback to the stagecoach days of ferrying passengers up the mountain. Eager spectators and media are shuttled to their perspective viewing spots. One of the best viewing spots is the aforementioned Cragway turn, with its panoramic view of Pinkham Notch. From the right spot, one can view the base and the summit; again, only if the weather is clear.
Word goes out over the radio that course opening car is on the road. Some 10 minutes later the course opening Subaru WRX appears and scurries it’s way to up to the summit finish. The course is declared open for competition and cars are run in reverse order, slow to fastest. After what seems like an enormous amount of time in the blustery wind. Several vintage cars trundle by the Cragway turn, one after the other. A true throw back and tribute to the hill climb’s beginnings. A Sunbeam Rapier in dark green on light green looks dashing in the brilliant sunlight as it’s carburetor struggles with the elevation change. The lush green mountains and bright blue skies behind it paint a beautiful picture as if it was cresting the Col de Turini in the 1960s.
With each passing car, the speeds are increasing, and the depth of automobiles is surprising. Small British sports cars give way to a Datsun 510, a Mustang Fox Body, an Opel Asconda. Then into some BMWs, a Talon and its sibling the Eclipse. A few Subarus appear, of course, and then into the really wild stuff. Hoonigan Racing/FCA Fiat 124 Spiders in rally trim are running up the mountain. A contingent of competitors from Colorado, who have regularly run Pikes Peak brought out open wheeled cars, purpose-built for hill climbs. These open wheel cars look like a cross between an outlaw sprint car and a 60s Formula 1 car. Mid-rear engines, tube frames, a varying mix of power plants. These are serious hillclimbing weapons, will they best the Subarus?
There are a few stand out cars, The first rally prepped 2016 Focus RS in the US is being piloted by Tim O’Neil and Chris Cyr. A 10k RPM redline Toyota Starlet driven by Kataja Mikko echos off the the surrounding mountains as it rips toward the summit. Alex Grabau in his highly prepared Pleasure EVO 3, running in the same class as the factory backed Subarus, rockets through the Cragway turn. Bill Washburn pilots his 240RS MAXI up the auto road. The car’s massive front splitter collecting grass from the edge of the road and loose gravel from the dirt section. The car resembles the Suzuki Escudo Pikes Peak racer; or more recently Loeb’s Pikes Peak prize winning Peugeot. All these competitors put on a show. The Subaru Climb to the Clouds is as much about watching Higgins and Pastrana try to best the record, as it is to watch the everyday folks with day jobs. Some, who just want to finish, and others want to set class records.
They all came for adventure.
It was announced earlier that all cars would finish, and a 5-minute gap would be taken before releasing factory Subarus for their attempts at the record. Subaru Rally Team USA and their motorsports arm Vermont Sports Car used every bit of development knowledge they have from both Global Rally-x competition and stage rally to build these unlimited class monsters. The standard Rally car chassis was lightened by 500lbs. No co-drivers meant no seats, no rally computer. The relatively smooth surface meant heavy duty skid plates were replaced with thinner material. Headlights became decals and a far more powerful GRC engine was swapped in for the heavily restricted engine used for stage rally.
“Car 75 has started.” the Radio cackled
Media people stood at the ready, the crowd became alert, straining to hear the exhaust note over the howling winds and helicopter there to cover the event for Subaru. Within minutes David Higgins closes in on the Cragway Turn at full pace. Higgins is on maximum attack, he’s only got two timed runs and wants to make them both count. Everyone cranes to watch Higgins enter Cragway in a classic rally style four wheel drift. The helicopter chases above. Wind howls up the slope. The distinct roar of a turbo boxer four mixes with helicopter and wind gust noise.
The left rear wheel impacting the granite boulder on the outside of the Cragway turn probably made an incredible noise as the wheel and brake rotor exploded into bits. Combined with the wind and helicopter, to me it seemed silent and as happening in slow motion. Higgins car was now nose down and nearly vertical as it left the road. What felt like minutes passed, but it was only few seconds. No one seemed to understand what just happened. Higgins, a rally driver known for his consistency and a perfect season in 2015, had wrecked.
There was some yelling and confusion, the helicopter hovered above and made it difficult to hear. The Team Subaru photographer was over the edge and at the car door in an instant. Peering over the edge we feared the worse, but Higgins had his hands out the window and giving thumbs up. Within a few seconds, Higgins disentangled himself the car and plopped into the the low brush the car had landed in. Miraculously the nose of the car landed on the only rock in the area which kept it from sinking further down into the waist deep brush. Higgins hurriedly waded through and paced up the road, clearly furious at himself. Without saying much we all stood in what seemed like a stunned silence. The kind of awkward silence when you have to share the same space with a person who’s really upset about something. You know you didn’t cause it, yet you just sort of look around, trying to make eye contact with anyone but the person who’s upset.
Meanwhile, Higgins hiked down the adjacent trail and sat facing away, just absorbing the beauty of Mount Washington and gathered his composure. With Higgins out of ear shot, everyone talked in shock and awe at what had just happened. Then, as a true professional does, Higgins strolled back up the trail, now relaxed, fire suit tied at his waist and strutted up to meet the spectators with a smile and wave. Everyone responded with a round of applause, he shook a few hands and then joined the media folks down by the turn for Pastrana’s run. Might as well have the second best seat behind driving.
It was all up to Pastrana now, he had been faster than Higgins in practice and it clearly pushed Higgins to test the limits. Pastrana’s run was textbook; right driver, right car, right conditions. He ripped by the Cragway turn as Higgins looked on in a perfect four wheel drift. A true show of team spirit, on the parade lap down after the first run, Pastrana picked up Higgins, who got to ride down on the passenger side floor of the car. We can only imagine what the conversation was. It will be hard to push Pastrana’s record further, someone will try, but the record will be a hard mountain to move.
Travis Pastrana’s new record up Mount Washington, 5:44.72, over 8 miles.