Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hypothermia On Mt. Washington

It is always this time of year when the winter snows fall and the mercury drops that my thoughts invariably begin to reminisce about my past excursions into the mountains. While I was thinking about some of these icy adventures, a particular memory was resurrected.  Though I had not really contemplated this particular incident much after it occurred, now close to a decade later, I often wonder what might have occurred, should my climbing partner not been in the right place at the right time. As unfortunate fate would have it, this particular incident was not the last my climbing partner and I would see in the mountains and before the conclusion of our careers as hobbyist mountaineers, we would be involved in a total of three rescues and see the deeply troubling death of a friend. Please excuse my inclusion of photographs in this particular posting having completely nothing to do with this story or Mt. Washington. Searching through my archives, I was unable to find any pictures from these past excursions . . . I sense that the Gremlins have been at work once again. Instead, I choose to provide a few images from some of my previous trips to other high places to provide a taste for what a life lived high is all about! Enjoy!
Inter-Glacier Mt. Rainier
It had been a hard day of climbing on Mt. Washington, on a long forgotten date sometime in late February. My climbing partner and I had started our summit attempt, well before the sun had managed to crest the horizon. Our plan was to hike from the Pinkham Notch visitor center, up into Huntington ravine, complete an ascent of Diagonal gully and finally cross the wind-swept alpine garden to the summit of Mt. Washington. On our descent, we had decided not to to down climb Escape Hatch gully but instead the popular Lion’s head trail, as avalanche warnings had cause other routes become less favorable. After climbing for around 10 hours, we finally came to the end of Lion's head trail. As the day turned to night, the temperature started to drop quickly and a strong northeast wind began to gust.

Summit Mt. Hood
Even in the relative security of “treeline”, things began to get bitterly cold but through the day, we had managed to stay relatively dry and were well fed and hydrated. Given our situation, we had no fear for our own relative exposure to this sudden drop in the mercury. Our conversations were light hearted and we began exchanging the occasional joke and openly voiced our dreams about the pizza, we were soon to eat at Flatbreads in North Conway, NH. As we hiked, I lamented about how my tired legs felt like two boiled hot dogs but I was still jubilant.

Just as we began to see the glimmering lights of the Pinkham Notch visitors center, we were suddenly surprised by a group of 5 people huddled around a young man. As we stepped closer, one of the groups members frantically ran up to us and asked if we had a stove and cook pot. When I inquired why, she said that her friend was cold and unresponsive. At this point, I became seriously concerned. This was not the first time I had seen someone injured in the mountains and as fate would have it, unfortunately not my last.
Mountains of Patagonia, Climbing Aconcagua
I ran up to the young man and asked his name and received no reply. Upon examining the boys face, he was expressionless; his blue lips visible even in the low glow of my headlamp. I shook the young man and two hand warmers fell out of his hands. “What are these?” I exclaimed! “Heater packs” someone in the group responded. Agitated I thought, well if this boy dies at least he will be able to greet St. Peter with a warm handshake!

Receiving no response from the boy and with him exhibiting all the classic signs of hypothermia, I knew we were going to have to work quickly to get him off the mountain and someplace warm. The temperature during most of the day had been in the upper teens but was dropping fast now and we were racing against time.

Leaving Camp 3, Aconcagua
I removed my down jacket from my backpack and we worked to wrestle his stiff arms into it and to get it zipped. Once on, we enclosed his head in the hood allowing only a small hole for air.  Thus readied, my climbing partner and I each grabbed one of the boys arms and at the count of three, had him standing and quickly walking him down the mountain. With his legs uncontrollably flailing out behind him, it was apparent that the boy’s body had no idea it had been set in motion. As we walked, we continued our interrogation of the boy and after about 15 minutes were managing to get his name and some personal information. In another 5 minutes, he was stumbling along on his feet and attempting to walk.

Upon arriving at the Pinkham notch visitors center, we managed to wrestle the boy into the lodge and set him down. Assessing his current condition, he appeared to be slowly pushing coherence and was now being quizzed by several of his friends. Once of the centers medical response personnel appeared and began assessing the boys situation. Determining that the situation was well under control, my buddy and I slid outside and into the cold night, content to be the anonymous strangers that potentially saved a young man’s life.


  1. Wow! He's a very lucky young man that you were there. The tragedy is that it would, likely, have been a tragedy had you not happened along. It doesn't sound like the group really knew what to do.

  2. Good job Steve. I spent a cold night on that very same Mtn. back in Oct. '74 and lost 6 lbs. shivering while everything I had including my down bag was covered with freezing rain. I was lucky to have survived. I too was in the trees and half an hour from Pinkham Notch where I spent the night and was found by S & R the next morning. Those Mtns. are not meant to be taking likely.

  3. Wendy, To tie this post back to what you so eloquently write in your book, our society lacks a general understanding for what it takes to adapt and survive in even very basic survival scenarios. Kids these days may be able to successfully fix the blinking light on Mom and Dad's DVD player but not understand how to properly clean out and bandage a basic wound. Parents need to take a more involved role in raising their kids better adept at thriving despite the circumstances.

  4. TS, Brrrrrr! Glad S and R found you!

    That mountain is extremely fickle and seems to have the ability to create its own weather patterns. We have started many days climbing with sun to see it change to freezing rain and then to temps in the single digits all in less than 8 hours!

  5. Climbing to very high spots during winter has never been on my Bucket List..I can enjoy vicariously..

  6. Very excellent post, I remember your account during one of our first hunting trips.

    From that, I have always tried to stay above 90 degrees simply because I fear the survival spoon.

    It's time for you to do some articles about each of your major summits. People would certainly enjoy those.

    Febauchery in one month...

  7. PBM, I have a stack of mountaineering books on my bed stand. I to live out my love of high places through the stories written by the real life mountaineers. My wish has always been to mimic their stories based on the "limited" skills I have and much smaller budget!

  8. DDH, Thanks buddy, I have a couple more mountaineering stories currently being slowly written. Another posts next week on Ned Green.

    Yes, I understand your fright. I thought that duck opener two years ago you were going to climb in my tent and spoon me during the height of the rain storm. Glad I always sleep with a loaded shotgun. :)

    I am trying to write up my climb of Aconcagua but the climb was so long and monumental to me personally that it is a long and difficult piece to write . . . soon however it will be resurrected.

    Febauchery awaits!!!!!


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