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Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains

By Richard Higgins

I was startled a few years ago when the man training me in CPR, a very safety-conscious person who had saved many lives, declared flatly that there were no accidents.

No accidents? What could be more preposterous, I thought. “What about car accidents,” I asked with moderated sarcasm, “don’t they fit the bill?

Car crashes are not accidents, he replied. “They always could’ve been prevented with adequate forethought or risk assessment. Yes, that could mean not passing, not taking a certain road or not driving at all, but if that’s the cost of your life, it’s worth it.” I grudgingly had to admit he was probably right.

Sandy Stott makes the case for prudence more firmly in his book Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, a compendium of heroism and hubris in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. The hubris comes from hikers who perished (or nearly did) near those peaks, and over the course of the book their tales tumble together into an avalanche of poor choices and missed cues. The heroism comes from the hundreds of dedicated volunteers and professionals who test their own limits as they yank injured, dazed or frozen people from the jaws of danger again and again.

In recent years, search and rescue has become more necessary and more challenging, writes Stott, himself a seasoned hiker and former editor of the Appalachian Mountain Club journal Appalachia. The promise of safety from cell phones, locator beacons and other high-tech devices has made recreational hikers, and sometimes even experienced ones, overconfident. And the hell-bent, triathlon-before-breakfast extreme fitness culture has turned to mountains paths for endurance training.

Critical Hours is partly a history of hiking, from the Romantic era forward, and of search and rescue efforts when the hiking goes awry, as well as the culture behind each, partly an inquiry into why we ascend summits and partly a biography of Mount Washington—all wrapped around a series of rescue stories Stott analyses for lessons.

The mistakes take many forms: not knowing the weather forecast, hearing but ignoring it, being fooled by mildness at the base, setting off too late, being experienced or poorly equipped and leaning over a waterfall. A missed trail sign, glove dropped or twisted ankle can snowball into full-blown crisis. While most of those who make such mistakes live to tell about it, the rescues are not always pretty or even truly necessary. My favorite numbskull is the large man who reported a badly sprained ankle, which required alternating teams of 12 men to carry him down in a litter—and then, in the parking lot, pronounced himself better and got up and walked away.

Trouble above the tree line is not confined to the clueless or naïve, Stott tells us, noting that even Henry David Thoreau nearly lost the trail in a fog on Mount Washington. Even legendary climbers of the Whites are not immune. One famous hiker, Bill Curtiss, was so strong and fit at age 67 that doctors could not believe the deep musculature of his chest. Unfortunately, their discovery came during an autopsy. Curtis was consumed by winter’s fury atop Washington.

Stott is well equipped to narrate the tragedies.. Born into a family of hikers—his father performed one of the rescues in the book — he is steeped in the history and culture of the White Mountains. And insightful about why some of us are driven to extreme challenges.

He is very good at describing the twilight dimming effect of hypothermia of the body, how it slowly robs first our physical, then our mental, faculties. Indeed, the weather is almost a character in this book, and its personality is fickle and sometimes cruel as it teases or deceives us about its true intentions.

Self-awareness, the ability to see and take in actual conditions, regardless of preconceived thoughts or expectations, and alertness to potential perils, Stott says, is the only the way to avoid becoming an anecdote in any sequel to this book. A little fear doesn’t hurt either. In Moby Dick, the second mate, Stubb, declares that he won’t allow a man in his whaleboat who doesn’t have a healthy fear of the whale.

Those who ignore the perils will likely be rescued by the large and increasingly professional network of private and government rescuers. But these teams have their work cut out for them. Prometheus was in bad enough shape when he had merely stolen fire from the gods. Now that we, his descendants, have GPS, emergency locator beacons and various other high-tech gizmos, it seems inevitable that the vultures will have a lot more picking to do.

Richard Higgins is the author of  Thoreau and the Language of Trees.

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Thermal Being: a little winter walking, or “an adventure on life”

“When he has obtained those things that are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.” “Economy,” Walden

Scene from a few days ago: The short-long month dwindles to a day, even as the morning temperature (ten below zero) offers reminder of its power. I’ve just returned from some days in the White Mountains, where, true to their name, winter’s grip endures. Each day, I climbed out of night’s valley toward the ridge-tops, feeling the cold sharpen as I got higher, and heeding its insistent reminder that winter climbing is all about carefully managing temperature, a lesson in essential heat that Thoreau considers at the outset of Walden.

Walking up on snowshoes also gives you ample time to think- it is the slowest form of walking I know – and I spent some of that time considering my little island of heat on the way up. The counterintuitive trick in deep cold is to avoid overheating and its bath of sweat, which, if generated, tends quickly toward ice when you stop and cool. As all winter walkers know, this focus leads to a parsing of layers of clothing that is different for each walker. I spent considerable steps debating 3 versus 4 layers, adding in consideration of a tucked versus an untucked underlayer.

Deep Snow along the Crawford Path (hat off to shed heat). Photo by Paul Ness

Deep Snow along the Crawford Path (hat off to shed heat). Photo by Paul Ness

Then, there was our adaptability to cold to figure – in short the longer your exposure to cold, the more you acclimate to it. Even my three days of climbing pointed this out. By day three, I was down a layer, even as the temperature stayed stubbornly near zero. And, as further example, I recalled a few years ago being out on Zealand Mountain on a zero-degree day, when the caretaker for the nearby hut passed us wearing only shorts and a halter top as she cruised up the trail. Yes, she did admit to “layering up” once she reached the open ledges near 4000 feet, but her winter of living in an unheated hut had given her impressive resistance to cold.

Finally, there was the feeding of my “firebox,” a practice nearly identical to that of keeping a wood stove going throughout the day. (Thoreau notes this analogy as well.) I learned stoves during a winter in a wood-heated cabin when I was in my early 20s. By March, I could mix woods of varying density and dryness to get the consistent heat of a slow burn day and night. And, having become inured to the cold, I kept the cabin at around 50 degrees. So too with the burn of the body’s fuel during winter walking – mixed feedings, often while still walking, keep you warmer. And here is happiness: enduring cold asks for calories of fat. You like cream cheese or butter? Bring (or layer) it on. It’s not unusual for someone out in deep cold to burn 5000 calories in a day. Falling short of that intake can bring on insistent chill.

Zero and Windy - a look at Mt. Washington. photo by Paul Ness

Zero and Windy – a look at Mt. Eisenhower.
photo by Paul Ness

I know too Henry Thoreau set out on snowshoes when winter was deep – I saw his snowshoes at last year’s exhibit of Thoreauvia at the Concord Museum – and surely he left a record of sensitivity to temperature – both his and that of the Walden world. Thoreau understood that we are truly thermal beings; sometimes it takes winter drive home our dependence.

Postscript: for 24 hours after returning from days outdoors in the cold mountains, I got thermal reminder: indoors, even with central heating set low, I burned with heat. Then, the fat worked through my firebox, and I returned to the temperate feedings and feelings of the lowlands.

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Uplands of Time

It’s been nearly a year since I stepped out the door, turned left at the driveway’s end and walked off into these New Hampshire hills. But even as the town road bears right uphill and I go straight along this spur’s tire-flattened gravel, the images arrive: in them I (or we) are setting out, often with the Oregon Ridge in mind. It could be blueberries on the ledges; it could be relief from the heat; it could be hope of another moose antler; it could be solitude. Any of these pretexts will do.

Fifty years seems a long stretch, unless, as I have, you have been reading a book set in geological time; then, fifty years seems a mere intake of breath, a shallow one at that. I have a mind habituated to the ephemeral, the thought equivalent of a day moth, whose 24-hour life cycle seems hurried, but usual. But on this return to the ridges I first walked 55 years ago, I keep making a conscious effort to see the slowest motion of long time and its events. The tilted planes of rock remind of a time when they were not aslant. And the pluton of Cardigan itself, a resistant dome of weathered rock, reminds of all the companion rock and soil washed away over millennia to reveal this mountain.

On my way up the aptly named Skyland Ridge, I drop into a small drainage, where a clear brook burbles its little July song. The climb up the bank on the east side is reach-out-and-touch-the-ground-before-your-face sharp, and, as a I look back down some 50 nearly sheer feet to the brook, I take in the cutting it has done… is doing, even as I watch its little summer flow, taking down this mountain a few molecules at a time.

Usually the shift to this sort of deep time meditation is too great a leap, and I return soon to looking at leaves, musing about mosses and listening to birds sing their territories. The nearby drumming of a pileated woodpecker reminds of time’s more immediate beat, as do the fist-sized holes in a trailside tree. But on this day a recurring perception keeps nudging me back to longer spans of time, and, after a while, I realize that I am also looking at changes in the land over the 55 years. In particular, I keep seeing the slow crawl of trees as they recolonize and reclaim the bare rock.

Cardigan’s brother peak is named, arrestingly, Firescrew. As a boy, I simply noted that it topped out just above 3000 feet and hurried toward it summit, repeatedly. Later, I began to wonder about its odd name, and I found it derived from a massive forest fire in 1855; its heat was so intense that it burned with a swirl (or screw) of flame and smoke visible for many miles. Then the charred, sterile soil washed off both mountains, leaving them as domes of rock, with views worthy of their higher northern neighbors, the White Mountains.

Firescrew's Ridge and Its Returning Forest (note Mt. Washington in the Farground)

Firescrew’s Ridge and Its Returning Forest (note Mt. Washington in the Farground)

As a boy I reveled in the Cardigan’s exposed mountain feel; it played much bigger than its 3100 feet; so too did Firescrew. The absence of trees and brush created this feel; it was all elemental rock pressed up into the sky. Over these decades, soil and seeds have blown into creases in the stone, and generations of grasses have lived and died. Gradually enough soil has accumulated to host bushes, in spots the much-loved blueberry. And on: more growth, more decay, deeper or taller brush, with trees following. It takes only a little imaginative effort to see both peaks reforested some hundreds of years in the future.

And with this little effort and this day’s walking, the door to the room of deep time opens. In this room the rocks live and move; we are kindred, I think, as I sit here looking out.

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