Peak Experiences: Danger, Death, & Daring in the Mountains of the Northeast is a diverse collection of writings about difficult climbs, near catastrophes, and the occasional death in the mountains from the Catskills to Mount Katahdin. Edited by Carol Stone White (and including four of her own pieces), these are writings by the survivors. Some conclude with lessons learned by the writer, but the editor also periodically includes a “Cliff Note” to emphasize the lessons that readers should take away from an incident.
As the author of the “Accident Report” column that appears periodically in Adirondac, I was particularly interested in reading about the close calls—incidents of the sort I would never hear of. How those groups managed to deal with unexpectedly difficult conditions should be instructive to readers who find themselves in a similar situation. Additionally, as a longtime leader of groups, often composed of members with differing abilities, I was also interested in how other leaders had dealt with difficult groups in challenging conditions.
The book is divided into seven parts with a total of fifty-five stories. The parts are: “Weatherwise or Otherwise,” “Rescues in the Mountains,” “A Treacherous Place in the Peaks,” “Dangers of Water in the Mountains,” “Animal and Avian Behavior,” “Odysseys,” and finally “Lost, Unprepared, Leader Lapses, and Bushwhacked.” Only nine of the stories are about the Adirondacks, but the whole book should interest Adirondackers since most of these stories could have happened in any rugged, mountainous area with steep slopes, areas above timberline, and swift rivers.
In the first story, “Winter Above Tree Line,” Guy Waterman tells of his overly ambitious trip with his son and their trials on an attempted traverse of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. Waterman’s account includes thirteen lessons that can be drawn from his experience, and I would highly recommend this article to anyone who has similar ambitions. The Waterman story is followed by several more describing winter Presidential climbs in which the writers successfully battled, and sometimes even seemed to enjoy, harsh winter conditions that would have caused most “sane” hikers to turn around.
Another story in the Weatherwise category, by Ellen McDowell Ruggles, describes the challenges she faced leading a hiking-club group up Mount Washington via the Great Gulf. Despite her efforts to screen the participants in advance, she ended up with a group with diverse abilities. Deteriorating conditions above timberline further complicated her role as the leader. Her main challenge was keeping the group together, and as a longtime group leader myself, I could easily relate to her problem. In inclement conditions, the stronger hikers will want to push even harder to get to a perceived shelter or safety (in this case the summit buildings on Mount Washington), while the weaker members will be further slowed by the difficult conditions. It’s an accordion that continually wants to pull apart. For the most part Ruggles succeeded, but she ended up reaching the summit with one straggler missing in the fog and wind. Fortunately, the straggler showed up before any serious search had to be initiated.
A story by the editor’s husband, David White, deals with the issue of how to convince unprepared hikers to turn around. Late one winter afternoon on the Wildcat Ridge in New Hampshire, White met two unprepared hikers who had reservations at a hut many miles away. They didn’t have snowshoes and had only one flashlight. Despite White’s warnings, they continued, but he later learned that they did turn back. White believes it likely that his words caused the pair to belatedly make the right decision. I will add that White’s experience matches my own in such situations. A group or individual will rarely turn around at the time of the encounter because that would be a loss of face, but later when it seems as though it was their own idea they will make the more prudent decision.
The “Dangers of Water in the Mountains” section contains several gripping narratives of groups that had to either change course or make risky crossings when encountering unexpected high water. Most interesting to me was the story “Broken Compass” (warning: it contains adult language) about three women with differing experience having to first make risky crossings and then totally alter their course on the descent. The title comes from the belief that long after darkness the one compass the group had was broken since it seemed to point the wrong way. This belief resulted in more bushwhacking rather than following a vague road, but that is just the sort of decision one can make when panicked and confused. The trio is ultimately successful, but the shifting group dynamics are quite interesting—and in the calm afterwards the “broken compass” pointed the same direction as another one.
An understandable reaction to many of these stories would be, “Why didn’t they just turn back?” or “How could they have been so dumb?” However, there is an old saying: “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment.” What better way to experience “poor judgment” than to read about it rather than exercising it yourself? Of course, you may still go out and make your own mistakes and end up in a desperate struggle against the elements. Assuming you survive, write it down and save it for Volume 2. ■