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Going to extremes to rebuild US mountain museum

MOUNT WASHINGTON, New Hampshire -- Weeks spent in some of Earth's harshest conditions are finally paying off for a photographer whose images are central to a refurbished museum atop the highest peak in the northeastern United States.

At 1,916 meters, Mount Washington offers views of six states, plus the Atlantic Ocean on a clear day. But it's better known for its extreme weather, including a 371 kph gust in 1934 that remains the highest wind speed ever observed by man.

Now, summer and winter are coming together in Extreme Mount Washington, a museum that recently underwent a US$1 million transformation from a modest collection of artifacts behind glass to a modern facility packed with hands-on exhibits.

Boston-based director of photography Tom Guilmette spent about 30 nonconsecutive winter days at the summit to capture the photos and video footage, constructing elaborate heated cases hooked up to car batteries to keep his cameras working.

At one point, he had to take apart a US$60,000 camera and use a hair dryer to remove ice crystals that had formed inside. Another time, he got blown across the observation deck and had to scramble to find another way back into the building.

“There were times when I was setting up time-lapse cameras out on the summit thinking to myself, 'If there was no building for shelter for me to go inside and grab a hot cup of tea, that if I was out here for five minutes more, even the way I was dressed, that I would die,'” he said.

Mount Washington owes its weather to its location at the confluence of three major storm tracks and its high profile, combined with its steepness and the north-south orientation of the Presidential Range, which aid wind speed.

Housed in the lower level of the Mount Washington State Park visitor center, the museum aims to explain the cold, wind, snow and ice to the 300,000 people who reach the summit by foot, car or cog railway each summer. More than 60 percent of the time, they're surrounded by fog.

It has stunning time-lapse video of rime ice growing overnight on the railing of the observatory's observation deck and video showcasing both the harsh conditions weather observers face and the frozen beauty that often surrounds them.

Just last Sunday, the weather changed from blue skies and sunny to foggy with 112 kph winds in seconds. Visitors struggled to stay upright as they

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A simulator of a snowcat driving up the Mount Washington Auto Road is used at the new Extreme Museum on the top of Mount Washington on Monday, June 16. (AP)

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