Here's How the Mount Washington Hillclimb Came To Be

The Climb to the Clouds has been taking place for more than 100 years, with the first event held in 1904.

Justin Hughes

The Mount Washington Auto Road existed long before cars began to set record times up it in the Climb to the Clouds. The road was built between 1854 and 1861 and was intended for horses rather than horsepower. Supplies came from the nearby town of Gorham, New Hampshire, eight miles away, without trucks or the modern Route 16 to deliver them. Without dynamite, workers drilled holes in the granite by hand and used black powder to blast a path to the summit, 6,288 feet above sea level.

It wasn't until 1899 that the first car would ascend Mt. Washington - a Stanley Steamer driven by Freelan O. Stanley himself. He completed the drive up the eight-mile road in two hours and ten minutes - a far cry from Travis Pastrana's 5:44.72 record run. The first official competition up the mountain was held in 1904, seven years before the first Indy 500 and twelve years before the first race at Pike's Peak. Records fell regularly in the early days, with Harry Harkness piloting his Mercedes up the auto road in 24:37.60 in 1904. This is roughly how long it takes the average driver to make the climb at the posted speed limit today. Many famous racers have raced at Mt. Washington over the years, including “Cannonball” Baker and Carroll Shelby. In 1956, Shelby set a new record time of 10:21.80 in his Ferrari 375 GP. That record would stand until 1961 when Bill Rutan would break the ten-minute barrier with a run of 9:13 in his Porsche-powered Volkswagen.

Rutan's record would stand for 29 years between Climb to the Clouds events. In the late 1980s, organizers approached auto road management with the idea of bringing back the historic event. they agreed, and events resumed in 1990, with national rally champion Tim O'Neil setting a new record time of 7:45 in his rally-prepared Volkswagen Golf. This is the same Tim O'Neil who later founded Team O'Neil Rally School in nearby Dalton, New Hampshire. SCCA rally champion Paul Choiniere and Canadian Rally Champion Frank Sprongl would trade the record several times in subsequent years, with Sprongl setting a record of 6:41.99 in his Audi Quattro before the event went on hiatus once again.

In 2010, Subaru Rally Team USA driver Travis Pastrana set an unofficial new record up Mt. Washington of 6:20.47 in a Subaru WRX STI rally car. The record was unofficial because it occurred outside of a sanctioned Climb to the Clouds event. But his fast time, plus the 150th anniversary of the Mt. Washington Auto Road, led to the revival of the hillclimb once again in 2011. David Higgins beat Pastrana's time with a 6:11.54, which he would break again in 2014 with a 6:09.09 run, both in Subaru Rally Team USA cars. With double the horsepower this year Higgins hoped to beat teammate Pastrana by setting a new sub-six-minute record. But after crashing on his first run, it was Pastrana who broke six minutes, with a 5:46.28 on his first run followed by a 5:44.72 on his second run. 

But the story doesn't end here. The next Climb to the Clouds will take place July 10-12, 2020, and David Higgins is eager to retake the record from his teammate. Though he was an excellent sport about losing it last weekend, there's no doubt that he will do everything he can to beat Pastrana next time.