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For much of the 20th century, the summit of New Hampshire’s 6,200-foot Mt. Washington was the site of the highest wind speed ever measured at the Earth’s surface—a 231 mph gust recorded in April 1934. (That record was surpassed in 1996 by a confirmed 253 mph gust on Barrow Island, Australia, during Tropical Cyclone Olivia.) That a peak just over a mile high in the relatively cozy confines of New England should be home to some of the planet’s most erratic, violent and downright crappy weather strikes many people as astonishing.
For meteorologists, meanwhile — and hikers and campers who have suffered its extreme mood swings — Mt. Washington’s weather is a source of constant, and sometimes terrifying, wonderment.
The unofficial motto of the Mt. Washington Observatory weather station? “Home of the World’s Worst Weather,” and whether or not the claim is quantifiable, it’s nevertheless unlikely that any other place on earth with comparably forbidding conditions is as readily accessible, or sees as many people each year, as the fabled peak.
In March 1953, LIFE magazine published a feature, with pictures by the intrepid Peter Stackpole, chronicling the work of a military and civilian team atop the “windiest spot in the U.S.”—a team that, in winter, turned “the 6,288-foot mountain into a gigantic laboratory for defense department experiments into jet age techniques of warfare and survival. Standing at the focal point of a natural wind tunnel, Mt. Washington is continuously ripped by shrieking winds, [while] the 1934 blow of 231 mph makes the average 75-mile gale seem mild.”
The brutal weather, meanwhile, “can cause a jet engine to ice up in 20 seconds” and “builds up rime ice so quickly the process can almost be seen by the naked eye.”
Here, LIFE.com heads to the White Mountains, and the deceptively small peak with the huge reputation as a place where very, very bad weather is born.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.