Mount Washington Hillclimb – A Climb To The Clouds
As a photographer, I’m fortunate enough to be able to see and do some pretty amazing things sometimes. Most recently, I packed up and headed to Gorham, New Hampshire which is nestled in the foothills of White Mountain National Forest, and more specifically, just a stone’s throw away from Mount Washington. It’s a beautiful part of the country, littered with pristine golf courses, thrilling ski resorts, and the reason why I was there: the Mt Washington Auto Road. This special road would play home to the Subaru Mount Washington Climb to the Clouds Hillclimb, an all-out, maximum attack time trial to the top of the mountain. While plenty of smaller hillclimb events happen all over the country, this particular event only takes place once every three years. The tight, bumpy, and often treacherous road may not draw as much attention as the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb, but it’s often considered the more harrowing of the two, with rough, lumpy pavement and a number of deceptive, blind corners that can easily catch a driver out.
This being my first time to visit Mount Washington, I was tagging along with my friends from CPD Racing and their road-racing prepped Subaru WRX STI hatchback. Scott Putnam, who regularly co-drives alongside driver Lauchlin O’Sullivan, works at our Morrie’s Minnetonka Subaru store, which is how I connected with him originally. Without a passenger seat installed for the hillclimb, however, Lauchlin would be on his own in the car. And that’s why we ended up in Gorham, New Hampshire on a Thursday when the hillclimb itself wouldn’t start until Sunday. This gave Lauchlin a few days to practice, both in the race car as the team dialed in suspension during practice sessions on Friday and Saturday morning, and also in our Mazda3 rental car, just following traffic up the mountain and trying to create a strong mental picture of the entire road. Surprisingly, there was a lot of attrition during the test days with several cars crashing or breaking down prior to the start of the event. From my perspective, the most thrilling error of the weekend involved a Ford Fiesta R2 rally car prepped by Team O’Neil that got up on two wheels in one of the tight esses on the course before flipping over just 10 feet in front of me and sliding into a rocky outcropping just to my left. It was absolutely surreal, watching the car pop up on two wheels in the tight corner while continuing to rotate more and more before I realized it was going to tip over and I tried in vain to keep my camera’s shutter going while resisting the urge to run for cover.
Of course, the cool thing about a hillclimb event like this is the diversity of cars that it brings out. Unlike a traditional rally that is run mostly on dirt, the Mount Washington Hillclimb is predominantly a paved road aside from a roughly 1-mile stretch of relatively well-maintained gravel. This means that you’d see everything from home-built, tube frame race cars with gigantic wings, all the way down to vintage Sunbeams, Opels, and Jaguars. While there were a couple of purpose-built hillclimb cars that were looking to set some blisteringly fast times, Subaru wouldn’t have sponsored this event if they weren’t prepared to win it. They brought out their two top rally drivers, David Higgins and Travis Pastrana, along with two purpose-built Subaru WRX STI hillclimb cars, and a plan to decimate the previous hillclimb record that Higgins set three years earlier: a 6-minute, 9-second run up the mountain. This time though, their usual rally cars were both fitted with engines borrowed from Subaru’s Global Rallycross cars, giving the drivers a fearsome 650 hp to work with. With that much power on tap, it just came down to the question of which Subaru driver would take the record.
While Higgins was the early favorite coming into the weekend, an uncharacteristic error for the normally pinpoint precise driver on the gravel hairpin called “The Cragway” would see his car spinning off down the hill on the first competition run on Sunday. Although Higgins only bruised his ego in the crash, this put him out of contention to break his own record and dropped the opportunity directly into Travis Pastrana’s lap, who rose to the occasion and crushed the lap record with a scorching 5:47 time. Meanwhile, Lauchlin made good use of his new car finishing the first lap with a stellar 6:44 time, securing him a victory in his P1 class.
After clearing the course of Higgins’ car as well as a few others that had crashed or broken down on the first run, the second run of the day commenced. This time, Lauchlin lost a little time on the way up, while Pastrana set out to beat his own record and did so with an incredible 5:44 time! After the dust had settled, and trust me, there was a lot of dust, we made our way back down the hill to celebrate with Lauchlin and the other podium winners. With three long years until the next Mount Washington Hillclimb, it’s anyone’s guess what will need to be done to beat Pastrana’s new record, if anyone even can. As most victors do, Travis left nothing on the table and used the full capability of his car. It’ll take something awfully special to topple that record in 2020.