Backyard Arctic

In winter Mount Washington blows climbers away.

This story appears in the February 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Mount Washington rises rumpled and soft above the New Hampshire forests, beyond the brick towns, the old mills, and the cold cities, but not really too far away from anything. Just within reach. In summer you can even drive up it. On a clear day you might almost see home from the summit, and the Atlantic Ocean gleams calmly on the horizon, a thin sliver of mercury. It's practically in the backyard, people say. How dangerous can it be?

It can be very dangerous. The mountain is a foothill compared with western peaks, but it sits at the convergence of three storm tracks, along which weather systems and wind hurtle seaward. Barely 6,000 feet, Mount Washington is the largest obstacle blocking this crush of weather, an atmospheric pinch point, a boulder in a fast moving stream that churns wind into white water.

During summer, millions of people swarm into the White Mountains when the weather is fine—solid New England fare with cool nights and warm days. Perhaps some rain. Occasionally, hail. The mountains resemble anthills then, with crowds streaming up their steep trails. Others ride a small cog railway to the summit or take the winding eight-mile road. At the top of Washington there is a parking lot, often humming with motorcycles. There is also a snack bar, a museum, a weather observatory, and a large observation deck.

Winter strips away the crowds. Another Mount Washington appears, blasted by weather as fierce as almost anywhere on the planet. "Stop," the signboards warn. They are hammered into the earth by the trails leading up into the alpine zone that crowns the mountain. "The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad." Temperatures may drop to minus 30°F or lower, and wind screams over the rock. In April 1934 the world's wind-speed record was set here at 231 miles an hour. During winter, only a handful of meteorologists and others remain on the summit, bunkered inside the concrete observatory.

The combination of notorious storms and easy accessibility makes it one of the continent's deadliest peaks, and this has fixed it in regional folklore, shaping thought and action around the mountain the way the mountain shapes weather. It is a regular star in television forecasts, a coffee shop conversation starter, a murderer.

Of course, for some, all this is just a lure.

My brother Jon is a professional mountaineer out West, a guide on glaciered peaks where the air is thin enough to kill. But on this late January morning we are two and a half hours north of Boston, headed for the mountain that taught us to climb. The gray farms blur past, wrapped in whispers of snow. Volunteer firehouses, ice-clotted rivers. Ahead, the White Mountains stretch beneath clouds the color of bathwater. Everything still in the long pause of winter.

Jon and I hadn't seen much of each other for a long time. At our last meeting, more than a year before, an argument over old grievances had spun out of control, and we had nearly come to punches. Now we planned to spend a few days hiking across the range and climbing Mount Washington.

"Where you guys from?" asks the driver we've hired to drop us at the trailhead.

I tell him I live in Virginia now. He laughs.

"Sure you know what you're gettin' into?"

A reasonable question. For Jon and me, Washington was always the Everest of the East Coast, its ferocious potential irresistible. My three brothers and I grew up south of Boston, and we learned the basics of mountaineering on Washington. We competed there, against each other and our peers, stacking up ascents in ridiculous conditions, trying to distinguish ourselves in the way of brothers everywhere. I was a teenager, the oldest of us, when I began climbing it alone in winter; Jon, the youngest, pestered to tag along. I was annoyed, even angry. Few relationships match the intense closeness of brotherhood, and I didn't want to cede territory. Back then it had already begun: We were more rivals than friends, our tempers driving us apart. The mountain was one more wedge in the crack.

Jon was 12 when we climbed the mountain together for the first time, 15 years ago. It was a perfect January day. At the summit we stood in the cold and took a couple of photos. I didn't notice that Jon hadn't eaten enough and was having trouble staying alert. He was too stubborn, or too cold, to say anything. On the way down, clouds and fog flooded in, a white-out, and we got lost for nearly an hour on an ice-covered ridge. We stumbled up to the lip of a ravine, lucky not to slide in, and eventually followed it back to the trail. At the bottom, Jon nearly lost consciousness. I remember thinking of it as a charmed escape, something lucky that would gild tall tales. Jon remembers it as a beginning, an adventure that helped him choose a path. Both of us look back now and shake our heads at the errors—we should have talked more, turned around earlier. I had more experience; the mistakes were mostly mine.

After college I spent a year living and working at the base of Mount Washington, teaching people to snowshoe, camp, ski. But eventually I moved on to other things. For Jon the alpine attraction only grew sharper; he headed for larger peaks and more technical challenges. He now leads—sometimes drags—clients up mountains in Washington State, Alaska, and Nepal. So when I was asked to write about Mount Washington, I wanted him to join me. We could revisit old battlegrounds, try once more for the summit. "I guess it's fitting," he wrote back. "Kind of like returning to the scene of the crime."

On the second day of our traverse we wake to bad weather above tree line, howling wind and snow. Temperatures far below zero. Washington is several miles away across exposed ridges, and we'd chosen to approach it along a route we've never taken together, looking for something fresh in a familiar landscape. In the colorless dawn we stamp like horses and weigh our options. I'd forgotten the fearsome power of cold. Each breath stings as it slides down. Silently we consider the option of retreat but decide aloud to go on.

The balaclavas covering our faces freeze stiff as wood. Visibility drops and the sky darkens, iron clouds shuttling overhead. The cold forces us to shelter in the lees of stones, behind mounds of snow, and add layers of clothing. By noon the snow stops and the sky brightens, and we reach a place where the wind falls away.

But soon the trail fades. In alpine zones all through the Whites, trails are marked by stacks of stones called cairns. Winter sheathes them in windblown ice; sometimes it buries them completely beneath snowdrifts. Beside a cloud-choked ravine, the cairns disappear and we are once again lost on a white blank, just as we were many years ago. We strip off our packs and fish out the map. Tendrils of cloud make it difficult to read the terrain, but we find we're near Mount Jefferson, a spot that is infamous for us, for many New Englanders.

Each year in the Whites at least a dozen climbers get lost, caught in storms, carrying inadequate equipment. Some don't know how to use their expensive new gear. An increasing number arrive equipped with cell phones instead of experience or even maps, thinking rescue is only a few buttons away. "They persist," says one expert, "in bad courses of action." One of the worst examples in recent memory unfolded not far from where Jon and I have stopped.

In January 1994 a young climber froze to death there, alone and delirious. His name was Derek Tinkham, and he died doing the same traverse, headed for the same summit. In terrible weather, night falling upon them, Tink­ham and his hiking partner, Jeremy Haas, kept going. The temperature plummeted, and the wind picked up, Tinkham growing weaker with each step. Eventually he could walk no farther. Haas tried to bundle Tinkham into his sleeping bag, then he left him to seek help. Winds reached hurricane speeds, forcing Haas to crawl; cold near 30° below zero began killing his exposed skin. After miserable hours he reached the observatory atop Washington, where the crew found him and brought him inside. He suffered severe frostbite, his hands eventually swelling into black stumps. But he lived.

Haas was the more experienced climber, and he was roundly blamed, first for continuing in weather that called for retreat, then for abandoning his friend, who was exhausted but did not protest out of stubbornness or simply because he was hypothermic and his brain was shutting down. A rescue team found Tinkham the next day, half inside his sleeping bag, his face a mask the men would remember for years.

Seated atop my pack, scanning the map, I remember the days after Tinkham died, when the newspapers and everyone I knew talked about weather and arrogance and death. The tragedy didn't keep Jon or me out of the mountains. We barely paused. We each thought, as all young climbers do, It will never happen to me.

Before us, several possible routes open across a snowfield sheathed with an ice crust. We choose one, Jon leading. He takes a few steps and then sinks to his hips in deep snow. He wrestles with his trekking poles and tries to push himself out of the hole, the heavy backpack fighting him. He takes another step, sinks again. Soon I'm postholing too, fir branches below the snow clawing at my legs. The process—step, sink, repeat—is exhausting, the price of an audience with Washington.

"I forgot about this," Jon says, thrashing in a hole. "This is one thing you don't worry about out West. I hate this."

We try three different paths, postholing for an hour, losing time and heat before we finally reach a nose of rock where the snow thins but the wind returns with violence. Jon is a dozen yards ahead when he suddenly falls hard, taken out by ice and wind. He stays down, a broken line of color in the whiteness. An injury would be very bad here, miles from help. Slowly he leans into his poles and stands.

As we move on in silence, I'm thinking of Tinkham, the wind shutting out conversation. More postholing, a fall or two. My mind settles into our rhythm, assessing and reassessing the numbness in my hands. Where the snow is loose and powdery, it squeaks beneath our crampons—Styrofoam snapping, or the complaint of fine sand. Ice is more musical. It splinters and tinkles, shards of it spinning away into the ravines, sharp as broken Christmas ornaments. Only once do we hear human noise—the rip of snow machines miles away.

Jon later admits that all day he is sizing me up, the guide in him recording my mistakes. It's been years since I hiked in winter, and it shows. He says nothing at the time. "How do you tell your brother he's doing it wrong?" he eventually says. "It wasn't a competition. It was about two brothers doing it." The kid who would've delighted in his brother's missteps is gone. Before we set out, a friend worried we would get too mired in competition, that old striving, to turn back if things went bad. Once, perhaps. But I sense that is mostly gone now too.

The trail arcs toward Washington, and the summit cone is washed in brilliant light. We wind around to a spot just below the summit, drop our packs, and climb over rocks and ice to the top. Cocooned in the observatory, a crew tracks the passage of the storm that hours ago nearly turned us back. But the sky is clear now, the horizon open to infinity. Far below us firs stand green and rigid like ranks of frozen soldiers. Ten minutes at the top is enough.

Later we lie in our sleeping bags, shivering while the night cold consolidates its dominion and relentlessly steals our heat. Frost forms on the walls of the tent and rains upon us each time we move. We chew slabs of cookie dough from a tube for the calories, to keep warm. Between mouthfuls Jon tells stories of his life I've never heard, and we laugh at memories we haven't shared in years. Outside, winter constellations swing slowly over the spine of the mountains and Washington gleams like marble in the moonlight, rising in the dreams of the East.