Written By: Ben Cosgrove

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 and violent 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 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 edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

Brutal weather atop New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

Brutal weather atop New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A guide on foot leads the way down New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

A guide on foot led the way down New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A technician clambers around Summertime Hotel which, in dead of winter, stands castle-like and forbidding, its doors and windows sealed with foot of ice.

A technician clambered around Summertime Hotel which, in dead of winter, stood castle-like and forbidding, its doors and windows sealed with foot of ice.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Eerie formations in rime ice, Mount Washington, 1953.

Eerie formations in rime ice, Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Hooded weather-study team member, New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

A hooded weather-study team member, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Hooded weather-study team member, New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

A hooded weather-study team member, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Near edge of precipice for snowcat whose driver in tipping vehicle can see only 25 feet ahead through wind-whipped snow.

This snowcat driver, his vehicle tipping, could see only 25 feet ahead through wind-whipped snow.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

Snug civilians doing technical work and enjoying a poker break were warm and comfortable behind the double plate-glass window. Civilians were subject to same rules as military personnel: no liquor allowed.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Jet test, carried on in an open-front steel hangar, is run day and night to measure and photograph ice which forms at the intake on the inside of mounted engine. Depression in snowbank is created by the engine's fiery blast. . . . When engine is turned off, water quickly refreezes rock-hard.

This jet test, carried on in an open-front steel hangar, was run day and night to measure and photograph the ice which formed at the intake on the inside of a mounted engine. The depression in the snowbank was created by the engine’s fiery blast. When the engine was turned off, water quickly refroze.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Military test, New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

Military test, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Military test, New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

Military test, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Military test, New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

An air rescue team successfully outsmarted the weather in an improvised para-tepee made of an old parachute.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Military survival test, New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

Military survival test, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Military test, New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

Military test, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Wet test by three Army men at bottom of mountain proves efficiency of Quartermaster Corps' new 'cold bar' suite, which though not waterproof utilizes two layers of rubber and insulating barrier between to conserve body heat.

This wet test by Army men at the bottom of the mountain proved the efficiency of the Quartermaster Corps’ new gear, which though not waterproof utilized two layers of rubber and an insulating barrier between to conserve body heat.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Military test, New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

Military test, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Hooded weather-study team member, New Hampshire's Mount Washington, 1953.

A hooded weather-study team member, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, 1953.

Peter Stackpole The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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