“Death in the White Mountains;
Hiker Fatalities and How to Avoid Being One”
by Julie Boardman
191 pages, $17.95
As a member of the White Mountains 4,000-Footer Club and the New England 4,000-Footer Club, Julie Boardman of New London may well have written her book with vested interest in mind — “to find out why there has been such an appalling loss of life.”
Her purpose, she writes, “has not been to blame the victims but to find out what their stories can teach us. It is hoped that by discovering the fatal errors that led to these deaths, the number of mountain tragedies can be reduced.”
Boardman compiled multi-category lists of fatalities in the seductive White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Since 29-year-old hiker Frederick Strickland became the first recorded White Mountains fatality on Oct. 19, 1849, (he died of hypothermia on Mount Washington), 218 more hikers have died in these mountains. They died from falling while hiking and rock climbing, avalanches, ice-climbing, drowning, heatstroke, cardiac arrest, skiing, freak accidents and lightning.
The first known hikers injured by lightning were three men struck in 1895 on the Mount Adams summit in the Presidential Range. Without warning, a lightning bolt blasted the rocky summit near them. The right-foot shoes scorched two of the hikers, ripped their clothing to shreds and burned their skin. All three were stunned, unable to move, for an hour and a half.
“Mount Adams is a perilous place when an electrical storm approaches,” Boardman writes. “The summit cone is steep and rocky, which makes it hard to descend and find cover quickly. And the summit is completely open and treeless. A person on an open summit is a prime target for lightning, which is attracted to the high points on a landscape.”
Lightning usually comes on the leading edge of a storm, and, warns Boardman, “it literally can come out of the blue.”
In 1982, on the Franconia Ridge, Nancy Rockwell was leading an Outward Bound school group when she and her husband saw lightning flash in the west, followed by a distant rumble of thunder. Rockwell and her husband counted the number of seconds between the lightning and the thunder, a standard formula to calculate storm distance.
“Eight seconds had elapsed,” Boardman writes. “Dividing eight by the number five, they established that the storm was about a mile and a half away.”
Hikers who are caught on an open summit in an electrical storm should try to reduce their height. Nancy Rockwell did the opposite. By standing on a rock, she made herself the highest point on that part of the ridge. In effect, Boardman said, “she turned herself into a lightning rod.”
Some serious injuries and occasional deaths result from other hikers who accidentally dislodged rocks and boulders “that rolled downhill and hit someone,” Boardman writes. In summer 1978, a girl was seriously injured while climbing with friends on the side of Mount Eisenhower. Someone dislodged a boulder, which rolled over a girl, causing many fractures.
“Loose rock is an obvious risk on a slide,” Boardman says, referring to July 1965, “but steep slopes also present dangers. The group leader stepped on a large rock that was hidden under some leaves. The rock rolled down the gully and struck a member of the party, inflicting a bad scalp wound.”
Winter snow and ice in the dangerous bowl of notorious Tuckerman Ravine builds into cavernous ice headwalls.
As it melts in the spring, Boardman warns, “Some are as huge as automobiles and weigh many tons. To date, three skiers have been killed by these falling blocks of ice.”
However, Boardman specifies the death on October 2007, when a hiker couple sat on a very large log lying on a steep slope. Their weight caused the log to break and start rolling. Husband and wife were thrown forward downhill and the log struck the woman dead.
Should the couple have figured out that the log was unsafe to sit on? “Perhaps,” Boardman writes. “It was one of those ill-fated events that is completely unexpected.”
In other words, a freak accident. “A widow-maker.”
“Freak accidents are the only White Mountains accident category in which female victims outnumber the males,” Boardman writes, “The reason may be that rock falls, ice falls and breaking logs are random events that strike indiscriminately. Bad decisions usually aren’t a factor in their occurrence.”
She adds: “Women tend to be more cautious than men and are less likely to engage in risking-taking behavior, but this doesn’t protect them from an unforeseen and impossible-to-predict accident.”
Individual situations are multifaceted and taxing for the many decisions they may require. Boardman distills her real-life lessons from previous fatalities and advice into six key warnings:
Hike with a companion.
When in doubt, chicken out.
Don’t hurry and don’t push yourself.
Stay on the trail.
Never underestimate the mountains.
Boardman expands each of these into survival common sense.
When Brian Gagnon and two friends set out to hike the Franconia Ridge in January 2007, they made mistakes. “Even though they had checked a weather forecast and learned that they would be facing snow, wind and below-zero temperatures,” Boardman points out, “they didn’t alter their plans. That was their first mistake.”
Heavy snow and howling wind arrived. “They knew conditions would be worse above treeline, but they kept going. That was their second mistake.”
After reaching the Mount LaFayette summit and hiking into fog and snow a short distance, they came to their senses and turned around. Then they made mistake No. 3.
Gagnon hiked faster ahead into a snow whiteout. He missed the turnoff for the Greenleaf Hut trail and got completely lost in the Pemigewasset wilderness.
Adding to his troubles, he broke through the ice. When he took off his wet boots and socks, they froze; he couldn’t put them on again. This forced him to stay where he was and wait for rescuers to come to him. He was headed toward becoming another White Mountains fatality at the end of the book.
But he was well prepared to camp out in bitter cold. He was carrying a sleeping bag rated for minus-30 degrees, a foam pad, extra clothing, a cell phone, map and food.
Search teams hunted for him for two days and found him. Gagnon had been hit with mild hypothermia and some frostbite but remained in fairly good condition.
On the other hand, in March 2004, Brenda Cox and her husband lost their way in a snowstorm on Mount Lafayette, where they had to spend two nights above treeline. She was unprepared and died from severe cold.
A year later, Laurence Frederickson and James Osborne were caught in a storm on the ridge. Because they lacked proper gear for overnight in frigid weather, Frederickson died and Osborne lost part of a leg to frostbite.”
Fish and Game conservation officer Todd Bogardus maintains that people should stay together and change plans if severe weather is forecast. Good advice? Retreat sooner. Better yet? Postpone the trip altogether.
The three golden words of Julie Boardman’s absorbing book of wilderness fatalities are the three final ones in the title: How to Avoid Being One.