The temperature was around 10 degrees when we arrived at the summit of Mount Washington. A slight breeze was blowing, but it felt like spring atop the Rock Pile. My hiking partners — Ken, Karen and Susan — and I hung out at the summit, welcoming the warm sun and admiring the views. I could easily pick out Gunstock and Belknap Mountains in the south, the Green Mountains to the west, and, in the distance, the mountains of Maine stood shining in the sunlight. Clouds were non-existent and it seemed that something was wrong. How could this winter day be so magnificent, when most days on the summit of Mount Washington has howling winds, winds chills are off the charts, and visibility is limited to a few feet?
In the language of White Mountain Trekkers, it was a “Presi Day.”
I was on this hike to prepare for a four-day climbing expedition to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. The Adirondacks are rugged and remote. Few roads cross the ‘Dacks (as they are lovingly called) and that means hiking several miles just to get to the foot of the mountain. Mount Marcy (5,344 feet), the highest mountain in New York, is a round trip of 15 miles and an ascent of 3,166 feet. The climb of Mount Washington would provide a good warmup to the climbs I planned.
Susan and I drove to the Mount Washington Cog Railway parking lot in the Ammonusuc Ravine to meet Karen and Ken. A new policy has been implemented by "The Cog," charging $10 per person to park in the base station lot. It used to be free; now it’s not. We muttered to ourselves when the attendant took our money, but the payback was worth it, as we could use the warm confines of the Cog Base Station to “boot up.”
Our plan was to hike the Ammonusuc Trail to the AMC-Lake in the Clouds Hut, summit Mount Monroe, and then Mount Washington, returning to the Cog Base Station via the Jewell Trail.
The Mount Washington Cog Railway has a very interesting history. It was founded by Sylvester Marsh, a brilliant engineer and inventor born in Campton. In 1852, he hiked to the summit of Mount Washington after a challenging and exhaustive hike to the Tip Top House, a hotel at the summit. Following that experience, a “light bulb” went off in his head: Why not build a railroad to the summit?
He teamed up with Herrick and Walter Aiken of Franklin and together they developed plans for the railway. Initially the New Hampshire Legislature balked at the idea of granting Marsh a charter. They thought the idea was far-fetched and ridiculous. One legislator remarked that it the idea was similar to building a railroad to the moon. Undaunted, Marsh finally succeeded in winning-over the Legislature and, in 1858, was granted the charter.
Due to the incredible engineering challenge of building a railroad up a mountain and the interruption of the Civil War, it wasn’t until July 3, 1869, that the steam engine Old Peppersass hauled the first passengers up Mount Washington. The innovative engineering of the cog tracking system and the locomotive to pull passenger cars up a mountain was a marvel of its day.
This year will mark the 150th anniversary of the Mount Washington Cog Railway.
After suiting up in the warm confines of the base station, we began our trek on the Ammonusuc Trail. As the morning sun rose higher in the sky, we trudged along the trail, gaining elevation quickly. By the time we were a mile along the “Ammo,” I was sweating profusely; time to delayer.
We played hopscotch with several parties heading to the same destination: Lake of the Clouds Hut. When we arrived at the hut, which is closed in the winter, we were greeting by a dozen other hikers enjoying the day, basking in the sunshine, and downing trail delicacies: gorp, brownies, fruit, beer, cheese, crackers, and many more staples of the trail.
Following a long hiatus at the hut, we began the final push, climbing the summit cone of George. The sun’s warmth bore down on us as we lumbered along. A young climber, clad in only running shorts and a shirt, ran by us. I thought, “To be young again, when hiking this mountain was so easy.” I always say to myself, “This is the last time I climb Mount Washington," but the pull of the highest mountain in the northeast always draws me back at least once every year.
When we reached the summit, we disappeared into a throng of other hikers, many like us following the Crawford Path. Others came by way of the Winter Route-Lion’s Head Trail. All of us were reveling in a rare, perfect day on Mount Washington. People were chattering, craning their necks to take in the views. Lines formed for photos atop the summit highpoint.
The day will be long remembered, especially by those first-time summiteers. As I embraced the beauty and serenity of the day, I knew that this mountain and others in the Presidential Range can unleash brutal conditions that can and have caused injury and death. Nicholas Howe, in his book "Not Without Peril," documents140 deaths between 1849 and 2009, just on Mount Washington. Julie Boardman’s book, "Death in the White Mountains," recounts 219 deaths in those mountains. Many of the deaths are obscure and forgotten; others made headlines and are still written about today.
One such highly publicized incident took place in January 1994, during one of most severe winters on record. Derek Tinkham and Jeremy Hass were UNH students, enamored with high mountain climbing. They planned a Northern Presidential traverse, hiking the Valley Way Trail to Mount Madison, over Mount Adams, onto Jefferson and Clay and finishing on the summit of Mount Washington. That traverse is challenging, but can be done on a “Presi Day.” The day they planned their traverse, severe weather was predicted: extreme cold with temperatures well below zero and winds accelerating to over 80 mph.
Jeremy and Derek intended to hike light and fast, deciding to leave behind critical clothing and gear needed for a successful traverse in the deteriorating weather conditions that were predicted. As they made their way over Madison, Adams, and into Edmunds Col, the wind chill began to bite into their bodies and consume their vital functions. Derek’s pace slowed considerably and he was unable to keep up with Jeremy. Derek’s pace was most likely slowed by hypothermia. Jeremy kept pushing ahead, with the sole intention of completing the traverse, with little regard or ignorant of Derek’s condition. When they reached Edmund’s Col, they could have descended from the exposed ridge and dropped down to tree line, out of the brutal wind and found refuge in at one of three RMC shelters. Why didn’t they make this decision? Jeremy was blinded by their goal of completing the traverse and Derek was in no condition to make a decision. His rational thinking was sunk in a hypothermic quagmire.
When they reached the summit of Mount Jefferson, Derek collapsed in a “furious torrent of Arctic wind.” (Howe). He couldn’t move any further and darkness had overtaken them. That night, the Mount Washington Observatory recorded temperatures at -40 F and winds peaking at 103 mph. The wind chills were off the chart. Jeremy left his friend in a sleeping bag with whatever clothing he could find and struggled on to the summit of Mount Washington where he could find safety and help to rescue Derek. It was a Herculean effort for Jeremy to make it to the weather observatory where he was able to save himself, but not Derek. Derek’s body was recovered at 10 a.m. the next day. It was only through the heroic efforts by the search-and-rescue team from Mountain Rescue Service in extremely harsh conditions that Derek’s body was found.
Many lessons can be taken from this story, and I’m sure you are able to list several: knowledge of the weather forecast, having a turnaround time and a bailout plan; clear understanding of the goals with your partner(s); backing appropriately for any condition and circumstance; knowing your limits and those of others in your party. These are just some, and there are others that are quite obvious. However, the main point in this story, juxtaposed to the Presi Day I experienced, is that of respecting the mountains and using sound judgment when venturing into the higher summits. There are days when hiking to the high summits can be a walk in the sun and then there are other days you should choose to stay home in front of the wood stove and read "Not Without Peril" by Nicholas Howe or "Death in the White Mountains" by Julie Boardman.