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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).
Somewhere 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.