The Epic of Dan McGinness… a True Story
The following is a story of self-rescue. A tale of being involuntarily stranded overnight; forced to bivouac. A situation resulting not from injury, but from an unrecoverable navigational challenge. The time and place is near-winter on the Presidential Range — which is like real-winter everywhere else. It’s a tale of preparation, sound thinking, and courage spelling the difference between life and death. After all, it doesn’t always end bad. Sometimes hikers save themselves. Some advice: Be like Dan.
Chapter 1: All According to Plan
Dan’s planned hike for the day was a “Classic” Presidential Traverse — north to south from Mt Madison to Mt Pierce — with an atypical and difficult detour, however, to Mt Isolation. He’d end up covering 26½ miles with 11,700-feet of elevation gain when all said and done. A little extreme, yes, but Dan was “Gridding,” meaning he was hiking all the 48 4000-footers in every month of the year for a total of 576 summits, so this sort of thing wasn’t uncommon for him. He could totally do this. He had a ton of practical experience, was super fit, and had completed similar, even tougher hikes in the past.
The date was Sunday, December 14th, 2014, and the forecast was calling for a good chance of awesomeness — a high temperature of 28°F and winds maxing out in the 40s. There was to be lot of cloud cover, a bit unsettled, but with decent visibility at ground level and a low chance of precipitation they gave the plan a green light. Beginning at the Appalachia trailhead on Route 2 in Randolph, NH, Dan met up with two friends, Jason and Andrew. They would accompany Dan for the first half of the traverse bailing as planned after Washington. After a quick gear check, the trio set off climbing toward the col between Mts Madison and Adams via Valley Way Trail at around 8:35 in the morning.
Everything went according to plan. Stripped down to t-shirts and feeling great they bagged Madison first, backtracked to the col, then hiked over to Adams to claim that mountain. As forecast the skies where littered with clouds making for some interesting scenics. They experienced a momentary “fogbow” on Adams as they become enshrouded by a cloud. It was surreal and Dan and his companions loved it. The wind was kicking up on this peak in particular but they hooted and hollered their pleasure. They had business to attend to, however, so they didn’t linger for long. The clouds obscured their way — plus the cairns on Adams are notoriously small — so they began heading south instead of west as they wanted to but quickly recovered from the error and got on track. This happens up there more than people realize. Soon, though, they were making their way westward across Edmand’s Col between Adams and Jefferson. The latter was to be their next mountain summit.
The weather was better on Jefferson. While they stumbled a bit on Adams, they made up for it on Jefferson and were treated to an undercast with clear, blue skies above them while the clouds remained below. By 2:30 in the afternoon the trio was taking a lazy break in Sphinx Col between Jefferson and Clay. The temperatures were so mild they were shirtless during this stop. This is uncommon in the Northern Presidentials in mid-December. Dan and his friends were loving it. Again, though, the demands of the journey didn’t vanish in their leisure so they quickly had to move on.
It was 4:00pm by the time the fellows reached the 6288-foot Mt Washington. The clouds shrouded the sun creating an unearthly orange glow. The temps were beginning to fall to the freezing mark again and rime formed on all surfaces. These conditions, while really cool looking, can make navigation difficult. The t-shirts went away and better layers were put on.
Chapter 2: Going it Alone
As planned, Jason and Andrew left Dan on the summit of Mt Washington. The two friends were going to make their way out by way of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail to the west. If this were a normal traverse for Dan they would have parted ways by the AMC’s Lakes of the Clouds Hut, but it wasn’t. Dan was off to bag Mt Isolation creating a significant detour. Dan would be entering an area with very few people compared the other sections they had traversed thus far. Dan was now on this own and heading southward down Davis Path toward Mt Isolation.
Unsurprisingly the “trail” was unbroken and as Dan lost elevation dipping into the boreal zone — Mt Isolation is barely over 4000 feet — it became more difficult to progress. Conifers that lined the snowed-in path were heavy with encrusted snow and bent over the trail blocking Dan’s way. He pushed through with his body, breaking trail. Driven, running on with dogged determination. Bear in mind, Dan wasn’t in over his head, nor was he out of his element. He was accustomed to this sort of difficulty in his adventures. And he often hiked at night aligning his time in the alpine with astronomical or calendar events.
Dan made the dark, cold summit in an hour and a half. He didn’t linger, instead promptly returning the way he came. It was slightly easier going back now that the trail was broken out a bit. He arrived at Boott Spur then made his way across the flats toward Mt Monroe via Camel Trail. He enjoyed a brief Geminids meteor shower during this crossing — as he had planned all along — and as luck had it the skies cleared overhead long enough to allow this before the clouds closed in again. He became wet during his detour to Isolation, what with the snowy trees and exertion, but Dan was okay. Warm enough and dry where he needed to be. He continued on through the evening accompanied by billions of stars feeling exquisite and confident that the tough stuff was behind him. The weather at the moment was in his favor. That would change.
Chapter 3: A Turn of Events
Reaching out to his family at around 10:00pm while trying to stand out of the ever-increasing wind near the Monroe summit, Dan used the last of his cell phone’s battery power. He expected to be done with his traverse by 1-2:00am and successfully communicated this before his phone went completely dead. It was time to move along to Mts Franklin then Eisenhower. The end was near… and this was good as Dan had to work in the morning. This was nuts, for sure, but for Dan the “Gridder” it was necessary and pretty normal.
Dan descended the south side of Monroe toward Little Monroe, then hiked toward Franklin and whatever unnamed mound comes next then dropped steeply down toward the junction with Crawford Path, the Mt Eisenhower Trail, and points south. It was dark, the wind cranking noisily, and the clouds now settled in around him hampering his ability to see. Dan was in an ice fog. This was not a hospitable place. Moving inside of a cloud he tried to stay on trail but he struggled with this. Even in daylight, the area between Mts Franklin and Eisenhower and its odd junctions can be a confusing. He looked for the cairns or piles of rocks which marked the way but couldn’t find them. He took out his GPS unit hoping to find his precise location, but like his phone, that unit was dead and the screen never came to life. The wind raged. A shiver went down his spine. He never set eyes on the junction sign. Dan was temporarily lost.
He continued on the best he could, still descending where he shouldn’t have been and heading more northwest than southwest as needed. His compass safely stored in his pack. Instead of things getting easier, his way became more difficult. The stunted krummholz gave way to taller trees and deep, unbroken snow. Dan knew he was clearly off trail and was now pretty sure he descended more than he should have. He yearned for and sought the hard-packed trail but instead found himself barely floating among taller trees, wading through deep snow seeking firm footing, “like a plinko chip barely hanging on.” The forest poised to swallow him up and hide him until spring.
The route was exhausting him as he tried to continue, discouraged, deflated, blinded, and maybe even getting a bit nervous — though identifying with this was new to Dan. He was, after all, not one to be easily defeated. On this night, however, Dan recognized that he was wasting his time and energy struggling to reacquire the trail. He was blinded by the his own headlamp reflecting in the dense mist. If he continued he might get himself into serious trouble by getting too wet, too tired, or too cold… as if the situation wasn’t already serious enough. Right now, Dan still had one really important thing going for him: he was lucid, thinking clearly, and not hypothermic. After all, losing one’s ability to reason can be fatal. Also in his favor, Dan had most of the proper gear and knew how to use it. He wisely decided it was time to employ it — while he still could.
Dan made a nest in the trees first digging a narrow trench of sorts that he could slip further into out of the brisk wind and penetrating ice fog, then he pulled supporting spruce boughs down over the trench-bed he created from either side. On top of these he drew a tarp creating a fairly cozy home in the snow. These steps, coupled with his donning of the many upper body layers he carried, assured Dan was okay. Thankfully it wasn’t an extreme night. The temperature had barely fallen below the freezing mark. Still a recipe for hypothermia, but tonight freezing to death would be unlikely.
Unfortunately Dan didn’t have a sleeping bag or foam pad so he propped himself up on a hardshell jacket to get off the cold, snowy ground. This was fine for a bit but it didn’t work for long what with the snow melting underneath him. Down there Dan was wet and cold. He would never get comfortable, this much was true, but survival situations are generally more about survival than actual comfort. He spent the night sitting up, cross-legged in his makeshift shelter, boots removed, alternately rubbing his feet, shifting his butt, and trying to pass the long hours until dawn. Dan felt no fear, but he wasn’t a happy camper. He felt discouraged. He waited for the day. Alone with his thoughts, knowing his trial could be much worse.
Chapter 4: The Aftermath
Dan made it. Morning came. Intact were all his toes and fingers. Bruised was his spirit. He struggled to put his now frozen boots back on — this was one of the worst experiences that he was able to recall. Eventually he managed, then gathered the belongings that probably saved his life and stuffed them back into his pack. Back together, he hiked up toward the top of the ridge in the col just north of Mt Eisenhower (at the Mt Eisenhower/Crawford Path junction, roughly). The sun was out, and Dan was feeling okay. He decided to continue his traverse first taking on Eisenhower, finally, then going for Mt Pierce which marked the final peak for him.
After summiting Pierce he made his way back to Crawford Path then he descended the trail toward his waiting car. He reached out to his family as quickly as possible to let everyone know he was okay. They had been worried, but they also had faith in Dan, his perseverance, his ability, and his will to live. Dan is strong and those who know him know this truth. What might be too much for some, Dan can do — given enough gear and the experience and know-how to put it to use.
I hiked with Dan while researching this story. We hiked fast. Dan sweated and was breathing hard, but Dan also had a lot more to give whereas I had little speed left on the ascent (to my defense I had hiked in the morning). Dan could also continue this for a mind-boggling number of hours. Dan has done not only the Presidential Travese, you see, but has succeeded at this in both directions, back-to-back: Appalachia to the Highland Center, then back to Appalachia the way he came. And this represents only a small sliver of what he has done since 2010 when he embraced the sport. Dan has performed some amazing feats.
This summer Dan and I made our way to the very location where he spent that long night some four years ago. We couldn’t drop down far enough as we didn’t have the supporting snow underfoot. Dan did, however, find a spot as low as we could descend to show the approximate arrangement. Nestled in the krummholz, it would have been a miserable experience to be sure. Dan made mention of it at the time on Facebook. People responded in typical fashion, some alarmed, some echoing happy sentiments for his well-being, and no doubt there was some armchair quarterbacking, at least behind the comments.
Dan didn’t do everything right. He learned the hard way as we all do at one point or another. His compass was uselessly buried in his pack, for example. It should have been accessible after his electronics quit on him — only his Olympus camera made it through the night. He also failed to think about insulating himself from the cold ground as he didn’t bring a pad, sleeping bag, or many lower body layers. As a result his night was far more uncomfortable than it needed to be. The lack of rest might have, in fact, been too much for a lesser person. Dan also learned that once sweaty boots are exposed to freezing temperatures, getting them back on can be difficult if not impossible. And surely his risk assessment has been honed well since. As is the list of equipment he carries (PDF) in the winter and shoulder seasons — the link above points to his gear list that night with the item’s he’s added since at the end of the list.
Thank you for sharing your story, Dan, and for letting me re-tell it. Click here to learn more about Dan.
Mike Cherim, Sept 2018