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Dangerous Separation

Being involved with mountain search and rescue, we have noted some common ground of many misadventures in the White Mountain National Forest. Based purely on our own observations, it seems that those who get lost, become hypothermic, even those who perish, often found themselves in their predicament and unable to help themselves as a result of either being separated from their group or by simply going it alone. This work of fiction exemplifies this as it tells its tale from two, even three separate perspectives at one point.

Scene 1: Togetherness

The Eye in the Sky

From up here we look down and see a team of twelve. Two leaders, Rick and Joel, guiding ten underclassmen up Mt Washington in the midwinter. The leaders have done this for a few years now and are thought to be quite expert at their university. And they are, compared to most of their school’s population. The rest of the team is pretty new to winter hiking but thanks to the hand-me-downs offered by their athletic department, the team is reasonably geared up. Some of the stuff looks old and may be a bit mismatched, but it should hold up and do the job.

Let’s zoom in now and see how they’re doing.

Down on the Ground

8:23 AM — Amazingly we are on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and already moving. There are twelve of us today. We are hiking up Mt Washington via the Lion Head Winter route. I’m with one other leader, my best friend Joel. My name is Rick, by the way. We are seniors from The Ivyman College.

9:58 AM — We make it to the Lion Head Trail junction and are headed up some steep stuff before long. We stopped for one break along the way to eat, then another so we could put our crampons on. We are doing well. We went over this stuff with the guys ahead of time so that helped.

11:19 AM — “Wow, you made that look hard.” That’s what one guy told us as he sailed by our group. Joel heard him say it and told me. I had to agree with the guy. We laughed. It was hard. So much for making good time.

11:43 AM — Lion Head. Made it. We geared up at treeline for this portion of our ascent and made our way this far. The weather is pretty stable at the moment, but it is slowly clouding up. There is supposed to be a snowstorm coming in tonight.

Scene 2: Decisions

The Eye in the Sky

Like ants the team inches forward. We watch them from our bird’s eye vantage. It’s been a fairly dull hike. Watching them climb the steep sections of the trail was like watching paint dry. Otherwise, they are doing okay.

The guys seem to be handling everything all right. They need to stay ahead of the storm but should be fine at the rate they are going. They stop at Lion Head to take in the view, eat, drink, and check their layers. We approve. Soon they are on the move again. We watch.

Down on the Ground

12:15 PM — Standing at Split Rock now; we were cruising, making up time for our sluggish ascent of the steeps. Well, most of us are cruising. Tom, a Sophmore in the group, is complaining about leg cramps. And a couple of the Freshmen, Daryl and Benny, are starting to feel the cold even though it’s relatively “warm” in the twenties, and the wind is very light. Joel and I stop to confer.

12:18 PM — After careful consideration we decide Tom, even though he’s inexperienced, should start down with the two Freshmen. He’s all for it, and Daryl and Benny look relieved. We say go. We will catch up with them before treeline, if not, we instruct them to wait there.

12:19 PM — Without further consideration three hikers split from the main group. Aside from their “plan” they have no map, no compass, no clue. They do manage to successfully reverse their direction and start down the snow fields. Tom looks back, suddenly unsure, but the others are already a ways away.

Scene 3: Mistakes

The Eye in the Sky

No, no, no! Don’t do that! We want to shout from high above, but we know they can’t hear us. We are mearely observers in this trial. We watch helplessly as the boys split up. The two “leaders” go on ahead with seven other boys and three unwary lads make their way down the mountain.

The three move very slowly. Meanwhile the rest close in on the summit. And while all this is going on, not that anyone is noticing, the clouds are coming in. Visibility, which was just fine, is now dropping. The wind has stopped altogether, for the moment, and the temps are stable in the twenties. But we know this is the calm before the storm.

The summit team reach their goal just past 12:45 PM, take a bunch of photos, whoop it up a lot, then start heading down. It looks like Rick has noticed the clouds and dropping visibility and is pointing toward where Lion Head was to Joel. Is that surprise on their faces? We watch them continue downward.

We cast our eyes back to the three boys who have reached the end of the snowfields and are winding their way through the krummholz. They are almost at the Alpine Garden Trail junction. So far, so good, but visibility has dropped to about a quarter mile. Let’s zoom in on them and see how they’re doing.

Down on the Ground

12:59 PM — Daryl and Benny look up to me even though I’m only one grade higher. For their benefit, I’ll play the role of leader. We reach a sign, must be for the Alpengarten Trail like Rick and Joel said. I can’t read the sign but I think this is it. “This way,” I tell them as confidently as I can.

1:24 PM — This is really flat and I remember that. I wish I could see The Lion’s Head the guys told me about, where that pile of rocks is, Karen or something they called… her? It should be close. It’s starting to snow and the wind is starting to blow. Just a little, but it’s making the snow swirl and it’s hard to see. Daryl and Benny look nervous.

And on another part of the mountain…

1:39 PM — “They should be waiting for us here,” Joel said. I nodded. “They must have gone down,” I offered. It’s not that cold out but they weren’t moving so it would have been to them, I reasoned to myself. I suggested we descend. Joel wanted to go back up to Lion Head but visibility was getting pretty bad so he didn’t. He did, however, wander around for another look.

1:47 PM — Joel came back shaking his head. Silently we headed below treeline, Joel leading the pack, me on sweep position. I hoped to hell we were doing the right thing. The instructions were clear, after all: Hit the Alpine Garden Trail Junction, keep going until you reach Lion Head, where the big cairn is, then keeping heading to treeline from there.

Scene 4: Consequences

The Eye in the Sky

If only we were there, really there, we could help these boys. Unfortunately all we can do is watch, helplessly. Three bad decisions: they split up; Tom and the two younger boys took a left onto the Alpine Garden Trail instead of staying on the Lion Head Trail; and Rick and Joel descended without their team.

We want to shout at these boys, and we do. They can’t hear us, we just wish they could, and if they actually could, the wind which is now picking up in intensity would have likely carried our voices away anyway.

We’re worried for Tom, for Darryl, and for Benny. Joel and Rick are also worried. Some of the other boys have also expressed their concerns. Let’s go see what has happened while we’ve had your attention.

Down on the Ground

2:58 PM — My leg cramps have slowed me down, but I’m trying to suck it up. Daryl is doing okay, still cold — and scared — but okay. Benny, on the other hand, is shivering. We stop.

3:05 PM — I may not be a mountaineer yet, but my friends sometimes call me Doc because I have medical-ambitions, and I know what shivering means. I have some chocolate and give it to Benny so he will keep moving. I wish I had one for myself and Daryl, but that’s it. We should be back in Dodge by now.

Meanwhile, back at the visitor center…

3:13 PM — The rest of the team is arriving. Joel ran off ahead to check for Tom and the pair, but nobody has seen them. He meets me at at the sign with a solemn look on his face.

3:15 PM — We tell the people at the desk at Pinkham Notch that three of our party are missing and don’t know what to do. The staff quickly check the logs, but they offer no clues. Because a snowstorm is starting, they get on the phone with the Fish and Game.

And once again, let’s see how Tom, Daryl, and Benny are doing…

3:42 PM — I see white. And Daryl and Benny, too, and rocks, and ice, and snow, but that’s about it. It’s still flat. I think I may have turned us around at our chocolate stop, but I turn us around again. I think. The wind has picked up (55 with gusts to 70 on the summit but the boys are sheltered), and the temperatures have dropped. It’s snowing hard now.

4:20 PM — Back at school 4:20 would start a party. Here, though, I shout to Daryl and Benny that we’re lost. Daryl looks scared and begins to sob but stops himself, thankfully. Benny doesn’t seem fazed by this news… and that is concerning. I see a large, ice-shrouded boulder in the fading daylight. There is space beneath it so I motion to the boys to duck into the tiny space.

4:56 PM — We are all shivering now, a little. The rock keeps the wind at bay a little and the we bury ourselves in our layers. We hope someone will find us. My focus is on Benny when Daryl remembers something his mom gave him: a personal locator beacon. “I forgot this, Tom,” he said. “Maybe we should use it?” I grabbed it from him and pushed the button. The light flashed in the darkness. We hunkered down and waited. The relief of hope washed over us, warming us some.

Scene 5: Salvation

The Eye in the Sky

Back at Pinkham Notch the Fish and Game personnel gathered considering the options. The boys could have headed south towards Oakes Gulf or Tuckerman Ravine, wandered into the Alpine Garden, into Huntington, or possibly into Raymond Cataract. Any possibility was likely and without a better idea, sending rescue personnel and volunteers into a building snowstorm wasn’t an option. We’re afraid it doesn’t look good for the three boys.

Thankfully we could see some willing to head up: some folks from the AMC, Rich from the Harvard Cabin with some volunteer climbers, a couple snow rangers, and a couple of local guides able to break away from their groups. They, too, suffered the same predicament, though. It’s a vast area to blindly search in a snowstorm and they don’t really know where to look. Folks head up to treeline and then to Lion Head. Man, we want to shout that the boys were under a rock just over seven-tenths of a mile from their position, but sadly we cannot. We watch, and hope the beacon thing works.

We divert our attention back to the Pinkham info desk and the Fish and Game when we hear a radio crackle to life at 6:01 PM. Apparently the Air Force called headquarters offering a possible location of a 19-year-old college freshman named Daryl in distress — confirmed by a now seriously worried mother. The Fish and Game forward the GPS coordinates given by the device immediately to the folks in the field as well as to an Androscoggin Valley Search And Rescue (AVSAR) hasty team that were headed up the Auto Road in the State Park’s snow cat with some folks from Mountain Rescue Service (MRS).

This gives us hope. Let’s go check on the boys.

Down on the Ground

6:03 PM — I’m shivering but still with it, mentally. I’m scared. I’m trying to be self-aware and it’s helping. I told Daryl to do the same but he’s struggling with it. Our hope in the device Daryl’s mom gave him is waning, even though the light is still flashing strong. Benny is unable to move. We’re really worried about him but we do our best to stay close to each other and stay covered.

6:22 PM — I have a tiny hole in our protection that I keep looking through. It is dark and snowing like crazy. Very noisy out with the wind. I think of it as my hope hole. I look through it hoping to see a light. To see our rescue. Nothing but darkness and snow.

6:43 PM — Daryl is worse and the grip on my self awareness is slipping. Hope is gone. The meaningless light still flashes, annoyingly. I’m fighting my own death and I know it. I see my hours ahead in Daryl and Benny. Poor Benny might be unconscious. I pray, looking out my hope hole one last time. I see several headlamps sweeping the area but I dismiss them as an illusion.

7:16 PM — They are wrapping up Benny and putting him in a sled, they are rewarming Daryl and myself, and slowly we are actually being rescued. My prayers worked. That thing worked. Something worked. I begin to sob quietly to myself. Honestly, I was never more scared.

8:10 PM From up above, just as we escape into the cabin of the snow cat, the wind lets out a strangely joyous whooping sound… or that’s what it sounded like. I shrug and step inside the warm cab as Daryl sits down. Benny opens his eyes. We all go home.

Strange that winter mountain weather.

Author’s Note: “This is a work of fiction, but it should be noted, for authenticity, ‘Rich’ as referred to in the story is a real person, Rich Palatino, who would likely participate in a manner consistent with that which was told in the story. He and his wife, Marcia Steger, really are caretakers at a real “Harvard Cabin” (owned and operated in the winter months by the Harvard Mountaineetig Club). Also, the other parties mentioned – the snow rangers, the Fish and Game, the Air Force, the AMC, AVSAR, and MRS — are all real players and might act in the capacity described. They do save lives! Learn more about NH SAR activities.” —Mike Cherim

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