A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing – The deadly allure of New Hampshire’s White Mountains

Source: Mt Washington Observatory

“Stupid!” I grumbled, pulling myself out of the spruce trap I had fallen into after a brief stumble off to the side of the hard-packed snow. A nice monorail had formed on the trail, broken in by hikers and solidified by the melt/freeze of fluctuating New Hampshire temperatures in the weeks leading up to my Christmas morning jaunt. Monorails are simple – stay on the middle of the trail and it can be very cruisy and comfortable. Step slightly to the left or right and you’ll be promptly reminded why it is we choose to hike on trails.

“Fucking spruce trap!” I cursed at no one in particular, walking off a mildly sprained ankle. For my friends who reside in warmer climates and may be unfamiliar with spruce traps, think Indiana Jones in quicksand, but replace the quicksand with a shrub. A layer of snow creates the illusion of solid ground, under which a cavern of dead space separates you and the actual solid ground somewhere below.

I wasn’t the only one on Mt. Osceola that cold December morning. There was one elderly gentlemen I had crossed paths with about 10 minutes prior as I crested the ridge near the summit. The hiker, who I presumed to be in his seventies, had apparently decided to spend retirement grunting his way up 4,000 foot peaks in the dead of winter. He looked incredulous, almost irritated, that someone else would be hiking way out here on Christmas day, but I doubt he could hear my cursing from our relative distance apart on the trail.

The ankle, as it turned out, was fine after a couple of minutes of me swearing at it. Had the injury been worse, it would have made for a very long day, and at worst, a brutal night in the cold accompanied by some frostbitten extremities. There I stood on the ridge between the summit of Osceola and her sister peak, East Osceola, miles from the Kancamagus highway parking area. I had no cell service and still had to ascend East Osceola before making a final descent to the warmth of my Jeep. It’s a relatively easy stroll on two good legs, but a potential nightmare scenario on a broken ankle.

Alas, I dismissed it as a nothing and gimped on down the trail, humming to myself as if nothing significant had occurred. Why should I worry? The road was close.

At that same time, roughly 10 miles away, John Holden’s frozen body lay somewhere near the summit of Bondcliff as rescue workers searched tirelessly for him. Just as I had, John had decided on a solo hike. However, his was a far more ambitious undertaking – a grueling 22 mile out-and-back of West Bond, Bond and Bondcliff.

The Bonds are an alluring prospect for any hiker. They are some of the most remote peaks in all of the White Mountains, physically challenging even when done as an overnight during summer months. The rewards take the form of some of the most spectacular views in the entire mountain range. From June through September, hikers flood the Guyot campsite, just a short half-mile from the summit of Bond, to get a taste of what these venerable peaks have to offer. In winter, it is a popular, yet infrequently trafficked traverse for more experienced, fit hikers.

By all accounts, John was just that. He was an Eagle Scout, a strong 26 year old who frequently hiked alone in these woods. He knew what he was doing. He had all the right gear, warm layers, a locator beacon. He had informed family members of his plan the night before. One could assume, however, that he had never experienced hypothermia, or knew how to identify the early symptoms in himself.

Who could blame him? That’s not exactly something that’s easy to train for, especially with a condition that affects cognitive function the way hypothermia does. John Holden became so disoriented from his blood cooling his brain that he had put his jacket on upside down and failed to turn on his locator beacon, a device which would likely have only served to mark his grave when rescuers did finally arrive. Despite being the most remote peaks in the White Mountains, the Bonds are still accessible in a long day. It would have taken rescuers at least a few hours from the trailhead to reach John’s location. That’s not accounting for the time it takes to coordinate a rescue and arrive at the parking area – too long if you have hypothermia. Technology surely would not have saved him.

The consensus was that he had made it to his destination but succumbed to hypothermia on his way back over Bondcliff. His body failed him just a few hundred yards short of the protected tree line.

The author above treeline on the summit of Bond, looking over the exposed ridgeline to Bondcliff (Photo by Ryan Siacci)

The White Mountains are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The meteorological phenomenon of harsh, unpredictable weather there is well-documented. A state-of-the-art weather observatory sits on the summit of Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the range. Still, the modest slopes appear so tame from the road, a siren song to tourists and novice hikers. Every year, thousands of hikers are happy to oblige the invitation. I have plenty of mountaineering friends who reside in bigger mountain ranges out west who would almost certainly pick on me if I brought up the relative danger of the mountains of New Hampshire. They live near “real” mountains, complete with intimidating knife edge peaks, glaciers and avalanches, and all of the pretty pictures that come along with them.

While more famous mountains of the world stand tall and broad, Mt Washington is a hunchback topped with a comparably unremarkable, rounded summit, its poor posture carved by millennia of erosion. It has a paved road to the top as well as a cog railroad. Along with the observatory, there is a cafeteria and gift shop. It’s common to hike it in the summer time with hundreds of other people on the trails. You’ll likely arrive to a horde of tourists in the cafeteria, mostly people who have driven to the top or taken the train. I’ve seen biker gangs scarfing down hot pizza, commenting on how amazing it is that there are trails for people walk to the top of the mountain on. It’s a scene that does a disservice to the seriousness of this perilous alpine environment.

But of course, there is a good reason for which the road and weather observation center exist. Mt. Washington has seen world record land wind speeds exceeding 230 MPH. On average, the mountain will see wind gusts over 100 MPH weekly and typical conditions in the winter months resemble something you might anticipate on a much larger mountain in the Alaska Range. The atmosphere there is so volatile that it’s worth studying, and forecasting for the safety of visitors.

And therein lies the danger of the White Mountains: Accessibility. Every peak is accessible from the road, in a day, and there are well-marked, well-maintained trails to the tops of all of them. So it goes, every year you’ll read stories of wayward hikers being rescued, or sometimes not rescued, due to a variety of reasons. During the winter of 2016-17, responders initiated as many as 200 rescue missions, according to the Boston Globe. It’s a staggering number when you consider the diminutive size of the mountain range.

Experienced hikers are certainly no exception to complacency in these mountains. Kate Matrosova was a 32 year old Judo champion who had already knocked off 4 of the 7 summits (the highest peaks on each continent), including Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro and Elbrus. She had spent most of the past 5 years of her life training and climbing difficult mountains. She was strong, fast, and confident that she could knock out the northern section of the Presidential Ridge in a single day.

The Presidential Traverse is an ambitious undertaking which includes the peaks of Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Washington, all spread out over 10 miles of the most exposed ridgeline in the White Mountains – a serious challenge in winter. Kate was dropped off at the trailhead by her husband the morning of 15th February 2015 and walked straight into the teeth of the worst storm of the season with winds that would reach 141 MPH, and wind chills of -85 F.. Within a few hours, she was beyond rescue, summiting Madison and then activating her locator beacon in the col between Madison and Adams. It took rescuers 22.5 hours to reach her. She had succumbed to exposure by the time they arrived.

It’s unclear what Kate’s state of mind was when she left the car, but one can only surmise that she hadn’t been as concerned with these peaks as she was with her previous, more famous objectives, each of which called for weeks of planning and prep. She may have simply overlooked the forecast that morning and decided to go for it. She was on a trail, and had just been dropped off by a car. The road was close.

The activation of Kate Matrosova’s PLB saw Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue members venture into subzero temperatures and winds up to 108mph (Photo by Mike Cherim)

Later that evening, showered and cozy in my apartment, I flipped open my laptop and saw the news of John Holden’s death. I had seen countless stories like this before about hikers of various experience levels meeting their demise in the White Mountains. My reactions usually ranged from a smug “How could they be so careless?” to an arrogant “This would never happen to me.” Just read the comments sections on some of these articles and you’ll find an endless stream of armchair quarterbacks celebrating Darwinism, as if to validate to the world how much smarter they are than everyone else.

Yet, there I sat at my laptop, ready to silently castigate young John for his stupidity and inexperience, when my brain began to piece together the details of his tragedy. I was overcome with an entirely different response than I had anticipated.

John was not so different from me.

He was a young man. Younger than me by 7 years, and likely stronger. He had experience in the outdoors, particularly the White Mountains. Like me, he hiked alone there frequently. He had the proper gear and took careful planning steps before venturing out. He had some prior education in the outdoors. For all of my experience in the mountains, I had made more mistakes than he did that day, only mine didn’t happen to carry such dire consequences.

My hike was of the spontaneous variety. My family gets together every year on Christmas Eve. Being a single guy, it’s really my only obligation. More often than not, Christmas is a rather dull affair for adult me. So, with little lead time or planning, I decided on an easy morning hike with the equipment that I had with me in my car, not quite the full kit that I would typically have with me, but enough to get me through. Plus, I’m experienced – like Kate was, like John was. At least that’s how I rationalized it.

How ignorant I was not to have realized that the trails would be almost completely devoid of other people on Christmas morning. This, in and of itself, is not a big deal. I can easily justify hiking alone in winter on a well-maintained trail just a few miles from the road, especially an easy mountain like Osceola.

But my far more egregious mistake was that I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. It didn’t matter that it was an easy mountain, or that I was less than 2 hours of walking from my car. Had I really hurt myself in that spruce trap I may as well have been on Mars. Nobody would have been looking for me. John Holden hadn’t made that mistake, and people went looking for him, but he was too far away. I would not have been.

A broader look at these incidents reveals a common trend. Many of those who die in the mountains have ventured out alone. When alone, the margin for error shrinks significantly. Simple oversights such as forgetting to read the forecast or not telling someone where you’re going can have dire consequences. A hiking partner of equal or greater ability than John Holden may have recognized his symptoms early enough to turn him around. A lesser hiking partner likely would have slowed him down and kept him from sweating as much, and/or turned him around long before he pushed so far. It’s impossible to say for sure, but had he been hiking with a partner there’s a much higher probability he would still be here today.

Then again, it’s unreasonable to expect people to stop venturing off into the backcountry alone. There are a million different reasons for not having a partner – solitude, pace, independent decision-making. Often times, there is simply nobody else available.

There are also a million ways to lose your life to nature. It’s impossible to account for all of them. We’re just tiny specs on a rock, hurtling through space, ready to be plucked like lint the first time our human programming throws an error. Every now and then we’re reminded.

John Holden was pushing himself that day, and nature got the best of him. It’s a brutal little reminder. Perhaps the accessibility of the White Mountains perpetuates a comfortability across all skill levels that is, frankly, unwarranted. Perhaps the overriding lesson is to heed these brutal reminders. As brutal as they are, we should be thankful for the reminder that preparation, and a healthy respect never become less important.

Adam McKenney
January 2018

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