The mountain is small, comparatively speaking, but it’s weather patterns rival those of the harshest in the world making it one of the United States’ most dangerous mountains.
I was aware of this and many other facts about Mount Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I was aware that in 1934, the weather station built atop the mountain captured the highest wind velocity ever recorded. An astounding 231 mph. I knew that there have been nearly 150 deaths recorded since 1849 and about 25 reported injuries on the mountain each year. I was aware of all of these statistics when my friend and I pulled into the Appalachian Mountain Club Lodge parking lot late that autumn.
Once inside, we walked around the display room, checking weather patterns, trail conditions and eaves dropping on a conversation between a ranger and two guys who appeared to have been on the trail for months.
“We had to send out a rescue team just yesterday. A young guy slipped and fell 100 ft down the mountain. Unfortunately,he didn’t make it,” stated the ranger behind the counter. She had long, unkempt hair and piercing eyes.
“Be careful.” She proclaimed. “One wrong step, one rogue cloud, one gust of wind, and everything changes. The mountain’s in charge up there.”
The morning before we were to summit Mount Washington, the forecast was projecting 70 mph winds and inclement weather. My intuition kicked in immediately. Fear. I turned to the small female park ranger behind the desk.
“Do you think I can stand-up in 70 mph winds?”
Her piercing eyes looked me up and down.
“I can’t,” she proclaimed, holding eye contact. “If I can’t, you will struggle. The last time I was on the mountain above 65 mph gusts, my team had to hang onto my backpack so I didn’t blow right off. The road to the top is closed today, as well. They’re expecting snow and ice.”
I didn’t say anything, but I know she watched my eyes grow wide.
I repeated over and over again in my mind as we walked out into the crisp morning air. Dread filled my body with each step as we began the upward journey.
As we reached higher altitudes, the trees became sparse and icicles formed underneath rocks and boulders. Our hiking conditions became more and more exposed with each step. The more exposed I became on the mountain, the more my senses heightened with fear.
With the first gust of wind that took my balance, my stomach lurched and my will buckled.
“I’m done. I can’t do it.”
“We’re less than a mile from the top!”, called my friend, trying to no avail to convince me to push forward.
“I’m not doing it!” I called over my shoulder, already heading slowly down the mountainside.
At the next fork in the trail, he spoke up. “I still want to summit. There are enough daylight hours left and I’m almost to the top already. Do you want to wait for me here, or back down at the base?”
It was a classic psychology move. He gave me two options, neither were what I actually wanted.
“I’ll wait here, but hurry up.” I was eyeing a group of dark clouds rolling in from the north. I perched myself on a large bolder and watched him hike up the bowl. My eyes followed his movement until he disappeared out of sight. Even then, I stared at the mountain, hoping to catch one more glimpse of his safety and well-being. My stomach was still entangled in knots of dread.
As I waited, watching the dark clouds expand over head, I nodded to other hikers forging up the incline. The sight of them brought me a shallow sense of comfort. My friend was not the only soul on the mountain that afternoon.
First, was a french couple clad in matching red mountaineering garb.
They had just faded out of sight when a young man with walking sticks hiked through.
Lastly, was a man in blue jeans and a packaged bottle of water. Yikes. I thought to myself and said a silent prayer for the seemingly ignorant looking man. At least he had the gall to attempt conquering the mountain. I, on the other hand, remained seated on the boulder and waited.
I waited and waited and waited.
The dark clouds inched closer, and the earth around me faded darker. My anxieties grew steadily stronger.
The first hiker to make his way back down the bowl was the man in blue jeans. No way! He mustn’t have gone the whole way to the top. I thought to myself. I watched him pass, involuntary skepticism radiated through my judging eyes.
He was followed closely behind by the french couple.
Wait! Why? My friend should have been back by now.
“Hello, hi! Did you guys make it to the top?”
“Top? Oui! Yes, nice hike.” They replied.
“Oh, okay. Good. Thank you.”
Not good. Worry began to immediately boil through my body. I jumped down from my perch on the boulder. The dark clouds were now covering the sun, and temperatures were dropping quickly. The sweat on my clothing had begun to chill. I needed to move to avoid hypothermia, which as I dramatically recalled in that moment, was the number one cause of death on Mount Washington.
I walked slowly down the trail, stopping every 500 yards to look and listen for signs of my friend. When I reached another fork in the trail, I sat down and waited once more. Maybe, for some reason, he needed to take a different trail down the mountain. I sat, rubbing my hands together for warmth and comfort.
“Where are you?” I proclaimed out loud. No voice rose to meet my question.
After awhile, I heard feet scuffling through the leaves. My head snapped in the direction of the footsteps. My heart fluttered and I waited, holding my breath, but it wasn’t him. The young man with the walking sticks rounded the bend.
“Hey, did you make it to the top?”
“Yeah, weather’s setting in. It’s getting pretty gnarly up there.”
“Did you happen see a young guy with brown curly hair?”
“Nah, I don’t think so, sorry.”
I watched as he hiked away from me. I was stunned; unable to move.
He’s fine. I’m sure he’s fine. He’s a wilderness professional! Of course he’s fine.
But what if he’s not?
My mind began to reel. What was he wearing? How much food and water did he have today? What supplies did he have in his day pack? Which map did he possess? He had a compass, right? Rangers will need all the information I can remember for a search party. A search party? What if they need a search party? What will I tell his mother?
My mind flashed back to the ranger’s station this morning.
“We had to send a team out yesterday. Young guy slipped and fell 100 feet. He didn’t make it.”
I urged my boots to continue to walk slowly back down towards the base of the mountain, turning with quick anticipation with each break of a twig and crunch of a leaf.
Each time in vain. Still no sign.
I returned to the Lodge. Should I tell a ranger? No. Not yet. He’s a wilderness professional. He has layers and food and water and his phone.
I wandered through the lodge until I found a bar of service near a pair of large windows in the cafeteria. I dialed. His phone was on, but there was no answer. I texted. Are you alright? I waited. I called again. No answer. I waited. It was 4:30 pm. The sun would be setting in a little over an hour. Sunset. I decided to wait until sunset to tell the rangers of my friend’s disappearance.
I should not have allowed him to summit. I should have thrown a temper tantrum and demanded that he return to the lodge with me.
One more call. No answer.
I sat, staring pleadingly out of the window, going over once more everything he had in his possession when he left me on that boulder four hours earlier.
Tears filled my eyes instantaneously. I knew that voice. There he was, rosy cheeked and tired, standing at the doorway. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. Tears streamed down my face.
“What took you so long!”
“I got turned around a bit at the top. The climb took longer than I expected.”
I felt my body relaxed for the first time all day.
“Let’s get out of here.”
As we drove away from the White Mountains, he recalled his side of the day’s events. I shook my head in disbelief and countered with my own tales of negative cyclical thoughts and anxieties. As we talked, my phone buzzed in my hand. The screen showed one new text.
I’m alright. Got turned around. Heading down now.
“Thanks for letting me know,” I proclaimed holding up the phone.
I look back on this event, and my soul fills with regret. I regret turning back, allowing my fear to once again control my experiences. I regret spending all day wallowing in a turmoil of worry. I regret allowing my friend to go on alone. One day, we will return to the mountain. My knowledge and abilities will out way my fear, and I will conquer one of the most dangerous mountains in the United States. Until then, I will cherish the precious moments of life and love because you never know what will happen. When you’re out there, the mountain is in control.