NORTH CONWAY, N.H. (CBS) – It’s not out-of-the-ordinary to see hurricane-force winds atop New England’s highest peak. Mount Washington averages over 110 days per year of hurricane wind.

But on April 12, 1934, weather observers at the summit of Mount Washington recorded wind speeds that no one else on Earth has ever witnessed since.

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Gusts that afternoon hit 231 mph, setting the record for strongest surface-based wind speed record that stood until 1996, when an automated instrument station in Australia clocked 253 mph winds during a typhoon.

Mount Washington still holds the record for the strongest surface wind speed ever directly observed by a human.

(image Credit: Mount Washington Observatory)

The legend of the “Big Wind” starts a few days prior to the record gust. On April 10, 1934, observers noted completely calm wind, a rarity at the Mount Washington summit.

Little did they know that a strengthening ‘double-barrel’ low with centers over the Great Lakes and the Carolinas was getting stronger, as was the block high pressure northeast of the mountain. The ensuing pressure gradient between systems put the squeeze play on Mount Washington.

(Image Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

A harrowing morning on April 12 was spent clearing ice outside the observatory. This dangerous outing was key to ensuring all instruments were recording properly. The afternoon turned into a record-breaker. At 1:21pm, the 231 mph gust was recorded.

“Will they believe it?” wrote weather observer Sal Pagliuca. He and the others were astonished at the data they were seeing. “Was my timing correct? Was the method OK? Was the calibration curve right?” added Pagliuca.

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The log entry from a record-setting wind day atop Mount Washington in New Hampshire. (image Credit: Mount Washington Observatory)

The instrument that recorded this remarkable gust was a specially built anemometer. The observers knew full well that a standard anemometer wouldn’t do the job because it basically turns into an ice cube with the frozen fog on the top of the mountain.

Brian Fitzgerald, director of science and technology at Mount Washington Observatory, said the observers teamed up with engineers at M.I.T. in Cambridge to build was they called “Heated Number 2.”

“It was pretty compact, pretty rugged,” Fitzgerald said. “It was a rotor-cupped anemometer that would spin around. It was heated, and that was probably the most important thing.”

A heated wind sensor. (image Credit: Mount Washington Observatory)

The record was an important milestone for Mount Washington, cementing its nickname as “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.”

“We are building this long and valuable climate record on top of Mount Washington,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s helping us to understand the impacts of our warming climate on high elevation sites, and to continue learning every day how to be better engineers.”

The strongest wind gust in recent memory was February 25, 2019, hitting 171 mph.

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“There is no place like it [Mount Washington] on Earth, and we’re very fortunate to have it in New England’s backyard,” added Fitzgerald.

Jacob Wycoff