At Nature’s Mercy

 
100_0612

Mt. Adams is the peak in the foreground, on the right. Taken by author, June 2009.

Over Presidents’ Day weekend, a hiker died in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, specifically, between Mts. Adams and Jefferson. Sadly, this is not very unusual. The Whites are within easy drive of Boston and extremely picturesque, which makes them attractive both to experienced and careful hikers as well as novices and idiots. That wouldn’t be so bad if the mountains didn’t have some of the worst and least-stable weather in the world. Compounding all this, Mt. Washington — the highest peak in New England and the site of the most extreme weather conditions — has a roadway that goes straight up to the summit, which furthers the perception that the Whites are no big deal (as does their relatively low elevation compared to peaks out West or in Europe.)* Every year, there are a few bodies.

What made the story this past weekend unusual was that the hiker in question, despite being well-equipped and experienced, made an incredible error in judgement in deciding on this particular hike during such generally awful weather. Under good conditions, the route she chose is feasible in a single day (as she’d planned) for someone who’s in good shape and has the right equipment. In the middle of winter, during one of the region’s worst chills, it’s probably not doable at all.

After activating a satellite emergency beacon — told you she was well-equipped — her location was known almost as soon as she got into trouble. It was horrific. Above the tree line, she had no protection from the 75mph winds, putting her windchill-adjusted temperature around -67F (-55C) at 3PM, when she first turned it on; it only got worse from there; to find worse conditions, you’d apparently have had to go to Antarctica. The surest way to survive such weather is to avoid it.

The first rescue party — sent up only a few hours after her distress call — turned up empty-handed after searching the site of a second beacon signal. The following day, a second rescue team found her body near where the original signal had indicated after (quite literally) getting blown off their feet by the wind a number of times and trudging through waist-deep snow. Though the exact location is a little difficult to tell from the maps provided in the Globe story, it seems she was less than half a mile from Madison Spring Hut, a recently-renovated hostel for hikers. It was closed but, even if she hadn’t been able to break in, she could have been shielded from the winds had she made it there. Unfortuantely, the updrafts were so bad that it may well have been harder for her to have gone down the mountain than it had been to go up. She may also have been injured by one of those gusts the rescuers ran into.

Five and a half years ago, I was co-leading a hike up Mt. Adams, taking the exact same route as the hiker this past weekend. There were about a dozen of us, including two other co-leaders, and a full-fledged Appalachian Mountain Club leader who’d likely had more experience than the rest of us combined. I’d had terrible sleep the night before; while my muscles were functioning, I developed a bad headache and started feeling unwell shortly after summiting Mt. Madison (having lived at sea level for the last few years, the elevation likely wasn’t helping).

100_0613Somewhere between the hut and Mt. Adams — very likely within 100 yards of where the body was found on Monday — I told the leader how I was feeling. It was humiliating, as I was supposed to be the one helping the newbies, not asking for assistance myself. We decided that one of the other co-leaders would take me and another person who who didn’t feel up to completing the trip back to the trailhead, while the rest of the group trudged on toward Washington. Two hours later, we were back at the trailhead and, after a short nap in my Jeep, I felt embarrassingly well. I got home early and the others got home late — but we all got home safely.

Nature’s unforgiving. It doesn’t care what your plans are, how badly you want something, or how generally sensible you are; the fact that the deceased’s hike was over the Presidential Range and made over President’s Day Weekend was likely not a coincidence and it’s not uncommon for hikers to make foolish decisions to complete such capricious goals. Humanity’s made incredible strides in allowing ourselves to thrive and flourish in hostile environments. But when it’s just one or two of us against the elements without easy recourse for assistance, we’re living at Nature’s whim. Often times we’ll make it, but sometimes we won’t.

* “6,200ft!?” I said when I first moved out here and was told how high Washington was. “Buddy, I start hikes at 6,200ft!” I was quickly disabused of hubris.

There are 27 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. user_554634 Moderator
    user_554634
    @MikeRapkoch

    Sad Tom. But all too true. Although the incidents have fallen off in recent years, every so often in Glacier Park or Grand Teton somebody will ignore the signs telling them to keep out and wander into Grizzly Bear country. Sudden encounters with the bears generally turn out badly. Every so often a Mountain Lion will attack someone. These attacks usually don’t result in death, but when little kids are the victims, well, that sort of speaks for itself.

    We don’t have that many hikers who get caught in bad weather. I think that’s because the high peaks are simply too dangerous for Winter hiking. Even experienced hikers avoid Granite Peak this time of year.

    Little mistakes can result in disaster. You’ve got it right: nature is unforgiving. Nature has no conscience and no mercy.

    • #1
  2. Mendel Member
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    In my younger years I helped carry a body off Mt. Washington as a member of the AMC Search and Rescue team after two guys died in an avalanche in Tuckerman’s Ravine in November. EDIT: link to a description of the accident.

    The thought of dying in an avalanche in New Hampshire in November seems patently absurd – and yet the victims walked past two signs reading “HIGH avalanche danger” before stepping onto the newly-loaded 45-degree snow slopes.

    That mountain is probably the least appreciated deadly mountain in the world. RIP.

    • #2
  3. MikeHs Member
    MikeHs
    @MikeHs

    No offense to this poor young woman and her husband, but hubris can be a very, very bad thing.

    (Also, that is first-rate reporting by the Globe.)

    • #3
  4. DocJay Member
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    Mountaineering is a fantastic sport but foolish decisions will cost you.

    I have done HoodX2, Ranier, ShastaX2 and St Helens before it closed.   The person who mentored me drilled it in to me to have no fear….of turning back.   I’ve abandoned two climbs because of weather.  One was a false alarm and the other would have killed me.

    This person was prepared in every manner but the most import one, common sense.   In the day and age of extreme everything, Kodak courage, and hospital level air off jumps, I’m positive that common sense is a dwindling commodity.

    • #4
  5. Albert Arthur Podcaster
    Albert Arthur
    @AlbertArthur

    My wife read about this the other day and it has been the subject of conversation a couple times in our house. We like the outdoors. It’s a big reason why we left New York City and moved to New Hampshire. (Also the taxes!) But I also love my life. I mean my wife. And my life. Happy wife, happy life. Dead man in the snow, sad wife. Dead man.

    • #5
  6. user_409996 Member
    user_409996
    @EdwardSmith

    Is it wrong or harsh to ask this:

    Did this climber have access to too much of the “right equipment” to make a sound decision about even trying to climb that day?

    • #6
  7. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Edward Smith:Is it wrong or harsh to ask this:

    Did this climber have access to too much of the “right equipment” to make a sound decision about even trying to climb that day?

    There’s been discussion on some listservs I’m still on about whether her gear might have given her undue confidence. Obviously, it’s all speculation, but it’s more than plausible.

    Again, I lean strongly towards her getting overly-goal orientated. She’d traveled up from NY and this hike — again over the aptly-named holiday — was likely the main attraction for her. It’s easy to see how someone could talk themselves into a bad decision based on not wanting to disappoint themselves (“I came all this way up here…”). That’s speculation, too.

    • #7
  8. Tuck Member
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    I saw this in the news last week, after my wife pointed it out to me.

    I’ve done Mt. Washington a number of times in winter, in varying conditions, from 35F and pouring rain to -54F wind-chill with 90 mph gusts to a day when it was -15F, blue sky, not a hint of a breeze, and we were all jealous of the fellow who hiked up in shorts.

    The poor woman made a huge error in judgement, as Tom observes.  I suspect the root was that she was from Siberia, so she probably figured she could handle the cold.  But you literally cannot stand up in a sustained 70-mph wind.  I’ve tried.  And you can’t make the progress she needed to if you crawl.

    Her biggest mistake was that she had no equipment for travelling over snow: no snowshoes or skis.  Even with skis, it might not have been possible, but at least she would have had a chance.

    To see what’s possible at the absolute outer limit of human capability:

    Kilian Jornet completes ascent-descent record on McKinley (6,194m) with a time of 11h 48′.

    If Kilian had done the Presidential traverse on that day, he might have made it.  But it helps to be super-human.

    (For enthusiasts: Kilian accomplished that feat while consuming 1/2 L of water, and 200 calories of glucose.)

    • #8
  9. Tuck Member
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Edward Smith:Is it wrong or harsh to ask this:

    Did this climber have access to too much of the “right equipment” to make a sound decision about even trying to climb that day?

    It’s never wrong to try to learn from an incident to prevent a like incident in the future.

    See my comment above: she did not have the right equipment.

    • #9
  10. Tuck Member
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Again, for the enthusiasts: Rick Wilcox’s take on the whole incident.

    “”There are two ways to go (in climbing): light and fast, or heavy and slow,” said Wilcox. “But if something happens when you go light and fast, you’re screwed. That happened to her, and there is no way to spend the night. If you’re on Lion’s Head on Mount Washington, and there are 40 or 50 people around you, and you get in trouble, that’s one thing — if you’re in the Northern Presidentials, and you get into trouble, there is no one to help you.””

    Expert: Woman’s Climbing Death Offers Lessons

    • #10
  11. Mendel Member
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Edward Smith:Is it wrong or harsh to ask this:

    Did this climber have access to too much of the “right equipment” to make a sound decision about even trying to climb that day?

    It’s impossible to know what the precise psychological factors were that made her decide to push on.

    However, one clear mistake she made had nothing to do with gear: the fact that a storm was in the forecast (even if for later on in the day).

    You can’t do the hike she did without walking past at least two signs warning not to proceed if there is any sign of bad weather. And the main guidebook – which she almost certainly had read – spews out pages of warnings that a storm in winter above treeline is almost never survivable with even the best gear, and that one should never proceed above treeline if there is either bad weather in the forecast or in view.

    • #11
  12. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Mendel:In my younger years I helped carry a body off Mt. Washington as a member of the AMC Search and Rescue team after two guys died in an avalanche in Tuckerman’s Ravine in October.

    Gawd. I know of the Ravine, but have never been in it.

    That sounds terrible.

    • #12
  13. Mendel Member
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Mendel:In my younger years I helped carry a body off Mt. Washington as a member of the AMC Search and Rescue team after two guys died in an avalanche in Tuckerman’s Ravine in October.

    Gawd. I know of the Ravine, but have never been in it.

    That sounds terrible.

    I got lucky and only had to help carry the body of the deceased. The guy who really had it tough was the rescuer who had to walk back down the mountain with the third member of the group who survived but had just lost his two best friends.

    In an unrelated story, we also had someone die at almost the exact same spot as the one in this current event. It was a typical situation for the presidentials: early fall, temperatures just above freezing, pouring rain, hurricane-force wind. Within minutes a simple sprained ankle turned into a cardiac arrest, which soon turned into my friends on the SAR team having to abandon the patient and fight for their own lives to get back to Madison a half mile away.

    Just listening to the whole episode over the SAR radio was enough to give me nightmares.

    • #13
  14. JimGoneWild Coolidge
    JimGoneWild
    @JimGoneWild

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: she was less than half a mile from Madison Spring Hut, a recently-renovated hostel for hikers

    Even a 1/4 mile is a long way when you’re in trouble–and in 70 mph wind, forget it.

    • #14
  15. Tuck Member
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Mendel: Just listening to the whole episode over the SAR radio was enough to give me nightmares.

    Kudos to you for undertaking that work, Mendel.  I’ve had to interact with ski patrol in a number of occasions for my own child—happily, never anything too serious, and they’re sterling individuals to a man.

    • #15
  16. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Mendel:

    In an unrelated story, we also had someone die at almost the exact same spot as the one in this current event. It was a typical situation for the presidentials: early fall, temperatures just above freezing, pouring rain, hurricane-force wind. Within minutes a simple sprained ankle turned into a cardiac arrest, which soon turned into my friends on the SAR team having to abandon the patient and fight for their own lives to get back to Madison a half mile away.

    Good Lord.

    • #16
  17. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    JimGoneWild:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: she was less than half a mile from Madison Spring Hut, a recently-renovated hostel for hikers

    Even a 1/4 mile is a long way when you’re in trouble–and in 70 mph wind, forget it.

    Oh, I know it.

    On a subsequent hike I c0-lead, we had one of the hikers fracture his ankle during a descent. The weather was cooperative, we were a good sized group, but it still took us about six exhausting hours to travel the last four miles back to the trailhead.

    • #17
  18. Tuck Member
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: Good Lord.

    Thank Heavens my wife isn’t reading this thread!

    It’s a wonderful place to visit.  I try to get up there each spring to ski, and took my 8-year-old daughter up there once.

    Fantastic people, and an amazing experience.

    But do take care.

    • #18
  19. user_1008534 Member
    user_1008534
    @Ekosj

    Lots of people underestimate the Eastern forest. Even though you might never be more than a few miles off road, you can find yourself in some serious back country. Example: In 1996, a Lear jet crashed in rain and fog after missing the approach to Lebanon, New Hampshire. It had been on radar, so people had a rough idea where it crashed. It was in a strip of woods no more than 10 miles from 2 interstate highways … Maybe 30 (40) miles from Ivy League Dartmouth College. It took 3 YEARS to find the wreckage!

    • #19
  20. Mendel Member
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Tuck:

    Mendel: Just listening to the whole episode over the SAR radio was enough to give me nightmares.

    Kudos to you for undertaking that work, Mendel. I’ve had to interact with ski patrol in a number of occasions for my own child—happily, never anything too serious, and they’re sterling individuals to a man.

    Thanks for the appreciation, although I can’t say my intentions were the most noble. I was around 20, in the best shape of my life, felt invincible and was looking for adventure.

    The first rule of alpine SAR is not putting yourself (as a rescuer) into any kind of danger that might make you the next victim. That was also the first rule that I broke, usually within about 3 minutes.

    On an amusing note, most of the SAR guys in the Globe article were around when I worked for the AMC. They were in their 40s yet could run laps around me. Mike Pelchat in particular was a beast – while we were readying the stretcher for a hiker with a twisted ankle, he would get impatient and just throw the patient on his back and start jogging down the trail.

    • #20
  21. user_1065645 Podcaster
    user_1065645
    @DaveSussman

    Im also an avid Peakbagger. When I saw this last week I was saddened. We (mountaineers) have all had ‘oh sh*t’ moments when unexpected weather comes in.

    I was alone on Trail Crest (Mt. Whitney) at 14k’ when a storm came in. Trail Crest is completely exposed. The hail storm made the granite slick and I fell, busting my hand open and between the elevation and being soaked and freezing, I was unable to affix bandages, resulting in significant blood loss over the next hour. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared.

    Obviously I survived, but it was because I was prepared with plenty of first aid and a thermal blanket.

    Another point: There were some really awful comments from trolls on the CNBC article on this. It seems that since she “worked on Wall Street” it gave permission for people to lower the value of her life. Sad.

    • #21
  22. Metalheaddoc Member
    Metalheaddoc
    @Metalheaddoc

    DocJay:Mountaineering is a fantastic sport but foolish decisions will cost you.

    I have done HoodX2, Ranier, ShastaX2 and St Helens before it closed. The person who mentored me drilled it in to me to have no fear….of turning back. I’ve abandoned two climbs because of weather. One was a false alarm and the other would have killed me.

    This person was prepared in every manner but the most import one, common sense. In the day and age of extreme everything, Kodak courage, and hospital level air off jumps, I’m positive that common sense is a dwindling commodity.

    Now you’re ready for a real challenge, a manful challenge, a daring summit…

    Mount Sunflower!

    http://www.peakbagger.com/peak.aspx?pid=6307

    • #22
  23. user_1065645 Podcaster
    user_1065645
    @DaveSussman

    Metalheaddoc:

    DocJay:Mountaineering is a fantastic sport but foolish decisions will cost you.

    I have done HoodX2, Ranier, ShastaX2 and St Helens before it closed. The person who mentored me drilled it in to me to have no fear….of turning back. I’ve abandoned two climbs because of weather. One was a false alarm and the other would have killed me.

    This person was prepared in every manner but the most import one, common sense. In the day and age of extreme everything, Kodak courage, and hospital level air off jumps, I’m positive that common sense is a dwindling commodity.

    Now you’re ready for a real challenge, a manful challenge, a daring summit…

    Mount Sunflower!

    http://www.peakbagger.com/peak.aspx?pid=6307

    Lol… Never understood the appeal of the US State High Points. Seems like a lot of motels and not much climbing.

    • #23
  24. Tuck Member
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Mendel: The first rule of alpine SAR is not putting yourself (as a rescuer) into any kind of danger that might make you the next victim. That was also the first rule that I broke, usually within about 3 minutes.

    Yup.  I was just skiing in icy Utah on a mogul field with a mom and her son.  Son slipped, lost a ski which shot down a bit, mom took off her skis above us and started to climb down, falling and then sliding.  “Don’t become part of the rescue!” I said, and insisted that she and her son climb through the adjacent trees while I skied down to the lost ski and waited.

    Mom probably thought I was being over-cautious, and I was.

    Five minutes later we watched a guy slide 1200 feet down a groomed trail, beaning the person he was trying to help with a ski, screaming all the way.

    “That’s what I wanted to avoid.”  Mom and son both got it at that point.

    • #24
  25. Eugene Kriegsmann Member
    Eugene Kriegsmann
    @EugeneKriegsmann

    As a climber for more than 40 years, a member of Mountain Rescue and National Ski Patrol, a professional climbing guide for more than 25 years I have seen my share of poor judgment and it’s consequences. Many who have paid the ultimate price have been among the best and most experienced climbers I have known. The unfortunate reality is that the difference between good judgment and bad is whether you survive the choices you have made without having to be rescued. Bad judgment is determined by those who do the body recovery or rescue the injured climber.

    Out here in the Pacific Northwest the largest number of fatalities are from hypothermia and occur in weather well above the freezing level. Surprisingly few people die of hypothermia in the winter when people tend to be better prepared for the cold and wet. A surprisingly large number of moderately to very experienced people die in avalanches well below the starting zones, because when they hear that avalanche danger is high above 4000′ they neglect to notice that the valley they are traversing is surrounded by peaks reaching 6000′.

    Climbing is a sport which for most of us who do it needs to entail a certain amount of risk in order to be fun. Explorations of terrain both external and internal are a part of the experience. A certain amount of graveyard humor is a reminder of the hazards. In my rescue unit we often kidded about cutting the unit patches off your clothing and discarding them as you fell so as not to embarrass the team when they recovered your body. Some used to ask if my interest in climbing represented a kind of death-wish. I always refuted them by saying that quite to the contrary it was an affirmation of life.

    I have made hundreds, possibly a thousand climbs in my life. I can only assume that I have excellent judgment having survived so many years, though quite a few people questioned the choices I made at the time. I enjoyed the risks. In retrospect, following a particularly difficult or dangerous route, I have always felt a sense of exhilaration. In almost every climb of any significance there was always what I called “the moment of maximum despair”, a time when I questioned whether we would make the summit or whether good judgment necessitated a retreat. I probably made nearly as many retreats as successful climbs. However, I have never had accident or had to be rescued.

    There is one very basic error in judgment that the women mention initially in this thread committed which may well gainsay any statements of her being an experienced climber/hiker. I have seen that descriptive used far too often and with little or no factual basis. Choosing as she did to solo a peak in the weather conditions extant at the time demonstrates a lack of knowledge/experience. That she chose to continue upward rather than building a shelter out of the wind or simply heading downward could imply two possibilities, either she was hypothermic and unable to make a reasonable decision or simply didn’t have experience to judge the dangers of progressing. The reliance on GPS and cellphones and rescue parties to get you out of trouble is very much the action of an inexperienced climber. Part of good judgment is the acceptance that you are ultimately responsible for yourself.

    • #25
  26. No Caesar Thatcher
    No Caesar
    @NoCaesar

    It needs to be repeated Mt Washington often has the most extreme weather conditions on earth.  Fall can be particularly deceptive in the Presidential range.   When I was younger I climbed Mt. Jefferson with my scout troop.  We did it in September as the scoutmaster felt that was as late in the season as he was willing to go with the troop.  We carefully prepared and we got up and down just fine.   It was a beautiful day.  Afterwards we drove to the top of Mt. Washington.  I distinctly remember leaning, with my arms outstretched, into the updrafts on the summit and having them hold up my (then) 140lb self at a 75 degree angle.

    • #26
  27. Ball Diamond Ball Member
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Ekosj: Maybe 30 (40) miles from Ivy League Dartmouth College.It took 3 YEARS to find the wreckage!

    Lost in the ivy, no doubt.

    • #27

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.