Yesterday, I hiked the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Two days earlier, a hiker died nearby.
Not long after we arrived here in early June, we visited Mount Washington. We drove up by car and explored the wind blasted summit for only a few minutes. A plaque posted there read about how the highest ever recorded wind speed had been clocked there at 231 miles per hour.
When we got back, I did a little Googling about seasonal conditions. I read how even in June, the infamous peak had received snowfall. Driving to the trailhead on Monday, I could see a dusting along the ravines and crevices on that same peak.
I realize that believing the guys who study climate and such isn’t en vogue, but I’d planned my hike around what they said. Saturday was miserable, even at the lower elevations where we’re camped. Temperatures in the fifties with a constant drizzle. At the higher elevations, winds raged up to 80 miles per hour and snow and ice blanketed the slopes.
(Meanwhile, elsewhere in the United States, people prepared for triple digit temperatures as a second heat dome settled over the south.)
Monday though? Glorious. The sunshine drew out a host of hikers. As I worked my way to higher elevations, the temperatures dropped from pleasant to chilly. Nothing uncomfortable or dangerous. But as I approached the summit of Mount Eisenhower, the wind began to howl.
The skies had cleared, the sun melting the snowfall, but the wind still scoured the ridgeline hard enough to batter my pack-laden frame.
While hiking that day, I passed many people wearing shorts and no sleeves. A few without gear aside from a single bottle of water. Jackets and coats were rare though. Like me, those with packs may have had theirs stowed. And there’s also a matter of acclimation as shorts made their appearance around town as soon as the thermometer hit about sixty degrees. But still.
I crossed paths with a determined group of preteens as well. Three boys. I never saw an adult. Looked like they had packs stuffed with gear at least.
At the Mitzpah Hut on the backside of Mount Pierce, I sat down my load, ignored the gnats, and got out my camp stove to brew a cup of tea. Late afternoon and the weather had warmed. Situated on the south face of the ridge, the wind blew gently too, the rocks warm and about as comfortable as a slab of granite can be.
A family approached the hut. The father had a bottle of water. The son? I couldn’t be certain. The mother carried her own but I saw no pack. They argued about the next trail they should take and set off toward the tent sites. There, a caretaker asked if he could be of help.
“Where’s the Dry River trail?” the father asked.
If they’d brought a map or made a plan it wasn’t clear. The closest Mitzpah Spring Hut is to a parking lot is about three and a half miles. Late afternoon though and looking for the Dry River trail, they were maybe seven miles from that trailhead. They had no obvious way to purify water along the way. I hoped they’d taken advantage of the spigot at the hut to refill.
The rescuers on Saturday had to carry the dying hiker over a mile in treacherous conditions. Just reaching the summit on the narrow, windy, icy, road had taken snow chains and extreme caution during the sudden storm. They did everything they could to revive him.
The man who died Saturday wasn’t the only hiker to call for an emergency rescue that day. More lives put at risk. The whole event a tragedy.
I don’t recount these events to belittle anyone, especially those kindred spirits who have lost their lives doing what I love most. I imagine with all the time I spend in the woods, I may one day need to make that same call. I often hike alone which is not ideal. Experience and the fact I generally carry all of my gear – food, shelter, ways to boil and purify water, first aid, survival gear, etc. – weighs the odds in my favor.
Get out there and explore, certainly. Just know that any National Forest or Wilderness is not a city park. Please, try to be prepared. Check the weather first. Have a map. Carry a pack with extra layers and/or rain gear. Plenty of water. Snacks. First Aid kit. The bare minimum at least.
And above all, know when you’re out of your depth. Know when to turn around. The magnificent scenery may lure you in deeper than you planned but it doesn’t have to end in tragedy.