Rejoice, ye fans of mad motorsport! In just under two weeks the toughest hill climb in the country will once again kick off to determine who out there is the fastest of the rubber room fugitives, the quickest of the window-licking insane. Over 70 cars are registered to attempt the fastest time up the terrifying mountain road, racing above the trees and into the clouds, laughing in the face of perilous drops all the way up. I am, of course, talking about the upcoming
Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Mount Washington "Climb to the Clouds." Wait, what?
It's no surprise many balk at the claim that the Mount Washington climb is tougher than Pikes Peak. Pikes has become synonymous for hill climb in the states, a legacy that has now spread around much of the globe as well. From the long-standing record of New Zealand's Rod Millen and his constant drive to break the ten minute barrier to last year's globally touted record-obliterating run by French rally god Sebastien Loeb, if you're a racing fan you know of Pikes Peak, regardless of where you get your mail. On the flip side most people outside of New England couldn't get within 150 miles of pinpointing Mount Washington on a map, and more than a few would guess it's on the opposite side of the country from it's actual location in northern New Hampshire. So honestly, where do I get off saying the climb up Mount Washington is tougher than the climb up Pikes Peak? The 12.4 mile run up Pikes is a full five miles longer than the measly Mount Washington Auto Road, and the pathetic 4,500 foot vertical ascent up Washington is absolutely dwarfed by the mighty 4,700 foot climb of Pikes Peak.
Did you catch that? Despite being a full five miles longer, the climb up Pikes Peak is only about 200 feet greater than the run up Washington, even though Pikes is a significantly taller mountain. What this means is that mile-for-mile Mount Washington is far steeper of a climb. So steep, in fact, that some older Hondas with automatic transmissions aren't allowed to drive up the mountain because they can't be locked into first gear and their second gear is too tall to safely restrain the car on the descent, and driving down riding the brakes the whole way is virtually guaranteed to overheat the brakes to dangerous levels.
But it takes more than just grade to create a difficult climb. Anyone can drive up a straight road (well, anyone not in a Honda). So let's take a look at the roads themselves. Pikes Peak has 156 corners, which averages out at an impressive 13 corners per mile. I've run rally stages with far less frequent corners than that. Mount Washington meanwhile sits at about 130 corners, or just under 18 corners per mile. That is, according to my records (and yes, I do track this stuff), twistier than almost any rally stage I've ever run. Score another point for Mr. Washington, and the mountain named for our founding father is just getting started.
The Pikes Peak Highway, the toll road used for the hill climb, is a fantastic road. One look at the smooth, winding tarmac and gorgeous scenery and it's no wonder it's become such a popular tourist destination and legendary race course. Even at the 15 MPH speed limit a drive up Pikes Peak is a fantastic time in a car. Mount Washington is, effectively, the antithesis to the carefree journey of the Pikes Highway. Most residents of the northeast have seen at least one car driving around with a "This car climbed Mount Washington" bumper sticker plastered to the back. Most dismiss the declaration without a second thought ("Big deal, you drove up a hill"). But the fact of the matter is that sticker is a badge of honor, because put simply the Mount Washington Auto Road is terrifying (and I mean that in the best way possible). The average width of the road is a scant 20 feet (less than the length of the Mount Washington shuttle vans), with no shoulder or runoff beyond that road edge. Go six inches off the road and you're either against a tree, against a cliff face, or taking the express elevator back down to ground level. There are no guardrails, for most of the road there are no painted lines, and for one pucker-inducing mile just above the tree line the road shrinks to about 15 feet wide and becomes dirt. After finishing his first run up the mountain in the 2011 climb, mad Freightliner hilclimb rig driver Mike Ryan, a man with stones bigger than his turbos, unsteadily got out of his cab and reportedly uttered "That was so scary my hands were shaking for the last few miles!"