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No Margin for Error
Despite its modest height—6,288 feet (1,917 meters)—Mount Washington is America's deadliest peak. And yet the killing cold and hurricane gusts that scour its summit and load its ravines with avalanche snow are far from New Hampshire state secrets. So why do otherwise smart, capable people keep losing their lives up there? By Laurence Gonzales

Photo: Stop sign at Mount Washington
HIKER BEWARE: Signs on Mount Washington, like the one pictured here, don't beat around the bush. They warn—or is it boast?—of the "worst weather in America."

When Monroe Couper and Erik Lattey left Harvard Cabin on the morning of February 26, 1994, the weather was relatively mild for winter on Mount Washington. The temperature was in the teens and the wind gusts ranged from 40 to 60 miles (64 to 96 kilometers) an hour on the summit. The forecast called for the conditions to hold until nightfall, and since Couper and Lattey didn't plan to go to the summit, they weren't that concerned about it. They intended to hike up Huntington Ravine and climb a wall of frozen groundwater known as Pinnacle Gully. They planned to be back by dark. Traveling light, they left their packs at the cabin.

It's not known for certain, but it's likely that the two ice climbers from South Orange and Riverdale, New Jersey, had read the recent article in Climbing magazine about an ascent of Pinnacle Gully, a challenging intermediate climb. The exciting story of two teenagers who nearly died on a shield of rotten ice before rescuing themselves had attracted a lot of climbers to the route, but search and rescue (SAR) volunteers worried that it might encourage people to push beyond their abilities.

As Couper and Lattey were hiking up the broad and rugged trail, Alain Comeau, a local guide and team leader for the Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) in New Hampshire, was leading a group up another trail. When he saw fast-moving clouds on the horizon, he turned his group around. Bill Aughton, another member of the MRS, was also out guiding that day. He was so impressed with the clouds that he photographed them before directing his group back toward shelter.

Comeau had guided Couper and taught him ice climbing. "Couper wanted to learn to lead," Comeau recalls. "He wanted to move off on his own. A lot of people aspire to a climb like that. But Pinnacle was not the right next step. It's a serious climb in a serious environment. Technically he could have done it—maybe, on a good day in perfect conditions. But on a scale of one to five, Pinnacle's a three-plus."

As Couper and Lattey reached the base of the gully, they realized that in their rush they'd forgotten their climbing rope back at Harvard Cabin. It was noon by the time they'd picked up the rope and left the cabin again. Despite their limited experience, they might have easily calculated at this point that they no longer had enough time to make the climb and descend before sunset. (It takes one hour just to get from the cabin to the base of the climb.) They almost certainly could have seen that the weather had started to worsen. And even if they weren't convinced to turn back, they could have read the big yellow signs posted at trailheads. "Stop," they say. Then in smaller letters: "The area ahead has the worst weather in America." Not some of the worst, the worst. The notice continues unequivocally: "Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad."

Couper and Lattey pressed on.

The mythology is that anyone can get up Mount Washington, if not to ski its steep ravines, then at least to stand on top and look around. At 6,288 feet (1,917 meters), it may not be high by Rocky Mountain standards, but it ranks as the highest peak in the Presidential Range, and each year scores of people hike the 4,000 vertical feet (1,219 meters) from the trailhead up to the top. (Others drive: An auto road snakes up the northern shoulder of the mountain and is open from May to October.)

But a gorgeous day on Mount Washington can turn bitter so fast that most people can't imagine it. They've never seen or felt anything like it, so they don't come armed with the true belief that one gets from direct experience. Like falling into icy water, the sudden cold shocks and numbs and defeats people before they have a chance to think clearly. The first person to climb Washington in winter conditions, in 1849, was also the first person to die there. Since then, 133 more people have lost their lives on the mountain, 24 of them in the past decade.

Not long ago, I hiked up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail on the first beautiful warm day of spring to see some of the half million pilgrims who visit there each year. As I slogged up the steep, slippery slush in a dense forest of birch and pine richly floored with blowdown and ice storm damage, I was never out of sight of at least a dozen people. I saw octogenarians in long johns and six-year-olds in high-tech, expedition-weight summit gear. There were snowshoes and no shoes and serious looking people with ice climbing gear. Everyone was grinning, joking, saying hi to strangers in a giddy spring rite of passage. It was hard to tell how much we were risking just to be there.

After studying accidents for more than 30 years, I had come to Tuckerman Ravine with a question in mind: How do smart, capable, even well-prepared people—people like Couper and Lattey—make seemingly stupid mistakes and end up in serious trouble? There are many such happy places with their dark secrets—from the beaches of southern Lake Michigan to the waterfalls along the Potomac River to the Grand Canyon—and they all have two things in common: People, even experienced people, underestimate the hazards and overestimate their ability to cope with them. But Mount Washington is perhaps the ultimate example of a deceptively hazardous destination.

Situated within a day's drive of 70 million people (a quarter of the nation's population), Mount Washington is what modern-day search and rescue volunteers call "instant wilderness." We come from the relatively safe environments of the city, where our mistakes are mostly forgiven, and we bring with us the careless ways we've learned there. Worse still, we travel to these danger zones and have a benign experience —like mine on Mount Washington on that beautiful sunny day. And that gives us a false sense of security.

"Climbers from out West like to say that they have to dig to get to 6,000 feet (1,829 meter)," Rick Wilcox says. Co-founder and president of the MRS, Wilcox is also owner of International Mountain Equipment, a gear and apparel shop that lies in the shadow of Mount Washington, in North Conway, New Hampshire. IME can outfit you for a day hike or for a climb up Everest. (Wilcox himself summited Everest on May 15, 1991.) Since 1972, he's been on more than 300 rescues on Mount Washington. His friend Rick Estes, a former lieutenant with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, says: "People come here and say, 'I've climbed K2. I've climbed Annapurna. How bad can Washington be?' "

Photograph by Tim Kemple
Map courtesy of Computer Terrain Mapping

Mount Washington's legacy of disaster has claimed the lives of 134 climbers since 1849. Pick up the November print issue to find out more about this perilous peak, and America's most dangerous beaches, rivers, and deserts.

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, November 2004

Adventure Travel 2005: Amazing excursions for the new year
Return to Zootopia: David Quammen revisits the Galápagos
No Margin for Error: America's most perilous peak
Pelton's World: Former no-go zones make a comeback

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November 2004

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