It is roughly 8 p.m. on New Year's Eve, and Clint Chase is not in a party mood. On the western face of New Hampshire's Mount Washington, under an ominous black sky, Chase and two companions have just slid down a frozen slope on their backsides and are trudging through a snow-filled drainage, hoping and praying to run across the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. They have been outside for more than five hours, dealing with some of the fiercest weather New England can offer. Temperatures are in the sub-zero range and dropping. Winds are near 60 miles per hour and rising. The wind chill factor is expected to reach a mind-numbing 100 degrees below zero. And the group is still more than two miles from help.
Behind Chase walks a weak but game Timothy Speicher. Speicher, a graduate student from Maryland, has spent the past two days and nights huddled underneath the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, 800 feet below the summit. That is where Chase and Dan Chesson, interns at the Mount Washington Observatory and now a volunteer rescue party, find him. Speicher, near hypothermia, is unable or unwilling to hike back above treeline to the observatory. The decision is made to bring him down along the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. Under a foot or more of new snow and obscured by sagging black spruce and balsam fir boughs, however, the trail is difficult to follow.
"We had a map, we knew what the trail did," says Chase. "We decided to follow a small drainage, knowing that eventually the trail crossed it. The footing is pretty good, and Timothy is doing fine. Dan took his pack. We found the trail, followed it down for a while, but lost it again. We ended up back in the drainage, and at this point it's more of a stream valley. Our footing is getting very tricky. It's dark know, completely dark. We're going by headlamps, and it's kind of tough to get a picture of the topography."
At a small pool in the stream bed, Chase and Speicher creep along the left bank. Chesson, ice ax in hand, opts to go along right side. As he's about to tell Chase he could use a hand, the crack of ice splits the still night air.
"I went straight in, up to my chest, about three inches below my armpit," says Chesson. "This was the coldest water I've ever been in. I knew it was bad, and I had to get out. I remember thinking, 'Damn, this (rescue) just got a whole lot more difficult.'"
Bracing his feet against the side of the pool, Chesson pushes his way out of the water, supporting himself on Speicher's pack. Chase finds him lying face up, the heavy steam of each frantic breath illuminated by the headlamps. Using a trekking pole, Chase helps him to more solid ground.
"It was a scary-as-hell moment," says Chase. "Our heart rates were out of this world"
As the pair inch their way back to Speicher, the ice below Chase breaks, plunging his boots into the frigid water underneath.
Mount Washington has always had a moth-to-the-firelight pull on Clint Chase. The harsh expanse is among the most unforgiving small mountains in the world. As the highest peak in the Northeast at 6,288 feet, however, it is also an unmistakable draw for alpinists. Chase counted himself among that number.
"I climbed Mount Washington. I knew there was something more to it that I hadn't quite grasped," says the 23-year-old Connecticut native. "The way to know it and understand the place is to live there. I wanted to become intimate with it. There's such an allure to it, so much more that I wanted to understand."
So Chase, while an Earth Sciences major at the University of New Hampshire, accepted an invitation to spend a few weeks at the Mount Washington Observatory. The task at hand was collecting data for the university's Climate Change Research Center. The CCRC initiated the Mount Washington program in 1996 to complement work sampling air, snow and ice chemistry being done in the extreme environments of Greenland, Antarctica and the Himalayas, says Associate Director Mark Twickler. The Mount Washington program also serves as a proving ground, providing students "an idea of what it's like to work in harsh conditions," says Twickler. "It's a way to give students a chance to experience something that they won't find in the classroom -- it's a real-life classroom."
The observatory crew was impressed with the level of interest and keen insights expressed by the tall, lanky Chase. And Chase was fascinated with the work, the combination of science and spirituality.
"The two came together very strongly for me up there," he says. "Walking out on the observatory deck, seeing some of the natural phenomena on an incredibly clear night, all the stars, seeing the glow of Boston, Portland, and Montreal. You can see the houses on Lake Winnipesaukee, and the glow off the rivers and ponds. When it happens, you remember it -- you feel a much deeper connection than just hiking up and down."
That connection was strengthened by the physical demands of summit work, such as de-icing weather equipment in winds that often exceed 120 miles per hour. "There were times I felt like the wind was ripping my parka off, and I was hanging on for dear life, asking myself 'What the hell am I doing up here?'" says Chase. "One night, about 11 p.m., I was doing observations, the temperatures were about negative 20-25, the winds were upwards of 100 mph, and I had to go out and de-ice. As I was banging the ice off the steel parapet, I had this weird sensation in my hands, and I saw blue sparks. I realized I was getting shocked. It was St. Elmo's Fire -- the static electricity created by the snow particles and ice blowing across the steel structure in really dry air -- and I got to see it firsthand."
Chase's commitment to his work and the lure of Mount Washington prompted his application and acceptance for an internship at the observatory following his graduation from UNH in the spring of 1997. It was a decision that nearly cost him his life. At the very least, it changed it forever.
On Monday afternoon, Dec. 28, 1997, two weary hikers came to the door of the observatory. The pair, Rama Sibley, 26, of Baltimore, and Robert Ault, 34, of Richmond, Va., was one member short of the trio of hikers that began a planned traverse of the Presidential Range. In the heavy fog, Sibley and Ault got separated from Speicher, a licensed mountain guide.
"This happens all the time," says Chase. "They just said 'we're missing our friend; we have no idea where he is.' I'm getting all the information, their itinerary. Basically, I wanted to know what their plan for the day was. If (Speicher) was smart, he would head for their rendezvous area. They did have a place to meet, and were planning on staying at Lakes of the Clouds. We suggested that they go on, and try to meet there. We gave them a radio to take, so they could stay in touch with us."
The visit by Sibley and Ault also triggered an ongoing discussion with the observatory staff and the state's Fish and Game Department, which oversees many of the search and rescue efforts in the White Mountain National Forest.
"As the night wore on, we were waiting to hear from them," says Chase. "They had not reached the hut, and had gone below treeline because the conditions were too severe."
The same scenario was repeated Tuesday, December 30, as Ault and Sibley were again rebuffed by the violent weather and poor visibility. Chase's thoughts turned to Speicher.
"He could still be at the hut, or in some shelter, or below treeline. I knew he didn't have a tent, only a sleeping bag. If he didn't have some shelter, he wouldn't be alive."
However, observatory meteorologist Jack Halpin, a 21-year Navy veteran who has spent stints in Antarctica, is more critical of the actions of Ault and Sibley. Halpin says the pair failed to keep officials adequately apprised of their whereabouts, and were too willing to leave the rescue efforts to others.
"They definitely weren't looking out for their friend, I'll tell you that," he says. "They shouldn't have even started the climb, with a northeaster in the forecast. And they were supposed to be experienced climbers."
When three men were seen walking out a trail Tuesday morning, "we presumed it was (Speicher, Sibley, and Ault)," said Fish and Game Lieutenant Eric Stohl in published reports. Instead, it was a case of mistaken identity. On Wednesday morning, Sibley and Ault, who spent Monday and Tuesday nights in their tent, walked off the mountain and finally notified Fish and Game officials that Speicher was still missing. Since the group's original plan was to make camp near the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, Halpin took advantage of a break in the overcast skies to spy on the hut from the observatory, but couldn't see any activity.
Meanwhile, shortly after noontime Wednesday, Fish and Game officials were trying to bring in a National Guard helicopter to search for Speicher "because we were running out of time on this guy," Stohl said. Those plans were abandoned when the weather continued to deteriorate.
"The clouds were coming up and over the hut on that ridge," says Halpin. "So Fish and Game asked me if we could initiate a search."
Ironically, Chase's shift was supposed to conclude Wednesday morning. But as a favor to a colleague, he agreed to stay on through New Year's Eve. Chesson, who had missed the shift change on Tuesday, arrived early Wednesday afternoon. Soon, they were both being recruited to conduct an exploratory search at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. It's a routine request, according to Peter Crane, the director of programs for the observatory and a veteran of numerous search and rescue missions.
"It's strictly on a volunteer basis -- we aren't in a position to make someone go out," says Crane, adding that the observatory staff works closely with Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service and the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation and volunteer organizations to provide rescue services. "The conditions on Mount Washington can be so brutal, and Fish and Game realize they don't have the personnel" to provide adequate coverage on the mountain.
Chase, a capable hiker who served as trip leader with the UNH Outing Club, was a solid candidate for the task.
"Usually, when we select folks for our internship program, we look for people with outdoor experience, especially in the winter," says Crane. "Most folks who are involved are enthusiastic about the outdoors, but some have more experience than others. Clint struck us as someone who was more experienced."
Case and Chesson knew about the possibility of rescue missions when they went to work at the observatory, and both were ready and eager to answer that call on Wednesday, December 31. Halpin said Chesson was the more enthusiastic of the two, if only because Chase had worked the night before.
"I didn't want one person going alone," says Halpin. "I knew the temperatures would be dropping and the winds would be picking up. If they went, they'd have to go together. It was basically exploratory. We assumed there wasn't anyone there, but we wanted to check and be sure."
The "dungeon" underneath the Lakes of the Clouds Hut is not for those with weak stomachs. It literally serves as a giant outhouse from Columbus Day to Memorial Day. The hut itself is boarded up tight as a drum, but the dungeon is left wide open to suffer the indignities of passing hikers. Most slights come in the form of human waste. For two days and two nights, this rank, dirty room served as a life-saving shelter for Timothy Speicher.
"It was a really fun hike; foggy, but not so bad that we couldn't see the cairns, about six degrees with 30 mile an hour winds," says Chase. "We headed down to the hut, and when we got there, lo and behold, there he was."
Speicher was dehydrated and malnourished, but fairly coherent when Chase and Chesson found him. He had lost his lighter, which prevented him from melting snow to drink.
"He just said 'Good to see you guys,'" Chase recalls. "On the first night, he had actually dug a snow shelter for protection. But during the night the snow shelter collapsed, and he had to dig himself out. He somehow found his way to the hut and spent the rest of the night there. He spent the whole day and next night there too."
Chesson says he felt a sense of relief that Speicher was now accounted for, and no one else would be put at risk looking for him. At the same time, "I'm thinking 'What are we going to do now?' It's just starting to get windier, the temperatures are dropping, visibility is dropping -- everything is screaming 'Get off the mountain,'" he says.
The first option for the rescuers, they say, was to bring Speicher back to the observatory, a hike that typically takes between 45 minutes and an hour. But Speicher was inflexible -- he wasn't going back above treeline.
After discussions with Fish and Game and observatory officials, a second option was agreed on -- the three would descend along the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, the "path of least resistance," says Chase. The 3-mile trail is the most direct route to the Base Road. It is a preferred route in bad weather, since it is protected by tree cover, though the trail also features steep, rocky sections that can exhaust the fittest hiker. But with evergreen branches buckling under the weight of fresh snow, the trail appeared more a mirage than an exit.
"We decided to follow the river, because there were no trees" says Chesson. "Here we were, going over frozen waterfalls. It was just beautiful out. If it wasn't so dangerous, we would have been having a blast."
Progress was slow. No one had snowshoes. Speicher's initial exuberance started to fade. Chase and Chesson began to worry about the alarming frequency with which the trail eluded them. Shortly after one sharp drop, Chase and Chesson punched through thin ice. In addition to fighting exhaustion and the elements, they were now wet. The cold attacked the damp clothes and boots with a shivering intensity. Chase and Speicher brooked the subject of preparing to bunk down for the night in a snow cave. Chesson wouldn't even entertain the thought.
"I said 'No way, no way am I going to spend the night. We have to get warm and dry as soon as possible,'" he recalls.
So he and Chase plotted what they thought was the most direct route back to the trail -- a 45-degree slope littered with scrub spruce -- and the three began the arduous task of clawing their way up the incline. "It felt like hours," says Chesson. "What kept me going? Not wanting to be on the death list. I said 'I'm not going to be Number 125.'"
Roughly an hour later, under clearing skies, the group burst out onto the trail above Gem Pool. "It was amazing, like a super highway -- wide, open, no trees," says Chesson. Chase says he could see the lights of Bretton Woods ski area.
"Finding the trail was very uplifting," says Chase. "I'll never forget the feeling of relief, knowing this won't be a disaster, we're going to get this guy out. Tim's energy level tripled, quadrupled. He was really psyched."
Chesson, however, gave his best effort to find the trail, and was starting to show signs of hypothermia, says Chase. "That was worrisome, but we kept him moving," says Chase. "We radioed the summit -- in the ravine we had been out of radio contact because of the topography -- and Jack Halpin, who had been glued to the radio this whole time, waiting for us to call, said he was glad to hear from us. Jack told us to expect to see Fish and Game personnel soon, and that was a relief. We saw them after another mile and a half. One guy, waiting, with supplies. We were completed zonked. Dan was not even running on fumes. My feet were completely numb, like they were completely asleep. We were just exhausted.
"At this point, it's was midnight. It was New Year's , and we could care less."
The three were rushed to Littleton Regional Hospital for treatment of hypothermia and exposure, primarily first and second degree frostbite. Chesson's core temperature had slipped to 95 degrees. Speicher suffered exhaustion and minor frostbite to his fingertips and toes, but was otherwise in good shape. Chase says he was fine "except for my feet."
Chase chuckles at the memory of nurses scrambling to find a bin big enough to accommodate his size 15 feet. The laughing ceased abruptly after his feet were submerged in the warm water, and the circulation began to return. "It hurt like hell -- I can't even describe the pain," he says. "But, in a way, it was reassuring, knowing it was going to help."
Dr. Richard Monroe also reassured Chase. The recovery would be painful, but he wouldn't lose any extremities. By the next evening, Chase's fiancee, Ellie Osborn, and his parents, Rose and Clint Chase Sr., arrived at the hospital. Rose Chase says she was not surprised her son was willing to risk his own safety for another, but she wasn't prepared for the outpouring of support from the New Hampshire climbing community.
"I was very grateful for that," she says. "It was the type of support we couldn't give him, because we had never been through that."
As with many traumatic experiences, the physical scars heal before the emotional ones. Chase spent eight days and seven nights in the hospital. In many ways, though, the real recovery began once he was discharged.
"It really affected me a lot," he says. "It was my first true rescue experience; it was a successful experience, but not an ideal rescue experience. It was as close to death as I'd like to come."
To date, Speicher has never contacted Chase or Chesson, never offered a word of thanks. They don't expect him to. Quite the contrary, in several published reports, Speicher has denied he needed any help, and has intimated that the rescue team may have put him in further jeopardy. Speicher's behavior following the rescue, says Chase, is the most baffling aspect of the ordeal.
"Rescue work can be a thankless job, completely thankless," Chase says. "I thought there was a bond created that night, but I guess not. It was a hard lesson. I guess he was just in denial, It's hard to understand -- maybe he was embarrassed. I've talked to other guides, and they say it's not uncommon."
Chesson is less diplomatic. "Left to his own devices, (Speicher) would have been dead," he says. "Look at the decision-making process that got him in this place to begin with. This was one of the worst storms of the season. Those decisions almost killed him, and almost killed us. We did the best we could with what we had."
Chase echoes similar sentiments. "Hindsight is a beautiful thing. I keep asking myself 'Could we have prevented getting cold, getting wet, and still got out?' There are so many things that can happen up there that make good decisions look like poor decisions. There's always lots of chance involved. Sometimes you have to make the best decision you can, and then follow it through."
Asked if they would join another rescue mission, both young men say they'd go without hesitation. "You get a strong sense of community up there," says Chase. "You have to show commitment to maintaining that community. The idea is that we're all in this together. And if I was out there, I'd want someone to come get me."
Wayward hikers are fortunate that the spirit embodied by Chase and Chesson still thrives on the seductive but menacing slopes of Mount Washington.
Mount Washington's deadly attraction
Common sense dictates there are a handful of people and places you just don't want to cross, especially if the mood is foreboding -- the neighborhood bully, a state trooper, the Caribbean during hurricane season, and New Hampshire's Mount Washington.
The massive expanse of the 6,288-foot Mount Washington, with sharp, craggy ravines melting away from its broad summit, is deceptively inviting. The peak is well-traveled -- thousands visit annually, by car, by rail and by foot. In mild weather, from mid-May to early October, the summit buzzes with activity. The state Department of Parks and Recreation operates the Adams Building, with food service, a souvenir shop, and bathrooms. There is also a weather observatory, a mountain museum, and television and radio transmitters. Many visitors are drawn by the spectacular views. On clear, crisp days, the summit offers a sweeping panorama that includes Canada to the north, the Atlantic to the east, Massachusetts to the south and Vermont and New York's Adirondacks to the west.
Still, there is a sinister side to this behemoth. A four-mile hike from trailhead to summit covers a 4,000-foot elevation gain over rocky and often treacherous terrain. The average annual temperature at the summit is five degrees below freezing. This crown jewel of the Presidential Range is also smack-dab in the middle of several major storm patterns. Quick-strike squalls are common year round, but can be particularly devastating in the colder months. Gusts alone (the highest surface wind speed recorded ever recorded -- 231 miles per hour -- was charted on the summit on April 12, 1934) can drive the wind chill to mind-numbing depths in a heartbeat. And there is no public shelter above treeline between Columbus Day and Memorial Day.
It has been called the "Killer Mountain." It is as indiscriminate as it is ruthless. Daughters, sons, mothers and fathers -- the prepared and the uninitiated alike -- have all perished on the unpredictable slopes of Mount Washington, roughly 124 in all since Darby Field became the first white man to record his ascent of the peak in 1642.
The Appalachian Mountain Club's guide to the White Mountains doesn't mince words when it considers Mount Washington's fierce reputation: "Most of those who misjudge conditions and their own endurance get away with their mistakes, and thus many are lulled into carelessness. The mountain spares most fools, but now and then claims one or two without mercy."
Victims have been felled by a stunning variety of catastrophes -- ice and rock slides, avalanche, train wrecks, falls, heart attacks, exhaustion, exposure, plane crashes. Englishman Frederick Strickland, 29, started the macabre procession during an early fall storm in 1849. Shortly afterwards, the mountain claimed its first female victim, 23-year-old Lizzie R. Bourne of Kennebunk, Maine, in September, 1855.
In winter, rime ice can transformed posted trail signs into ghostly crosses that serve as figurative warnings to those who choose to test their mettle against the mountain's. Other trail markers, such as cairns and blazes, are easily obscured by snow and ice. Though hikers are admonished to stay on the trails at all times, especially above treeline, the routes can be increasingly hard to follow when buried under snowdrifts or hidden by dense fog.
The AMC levels a final and stern warning to hikers that is alarming in its brevity: "Turn back if the weather deteriorates -- it will not improve!" Unfortunately, too many have failed to heed those few choice words.
-- Brion O'Connor