Eric Pinder

Eric Pinder

A weeklong electronic journal.
June 28 2000 9:00 PM

Eric Pinder

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Harry Hunter arrived from Pittsburgh and promptly died of exposure on Mount Washington in 1874. He was only the seventh victim of this mountain's savage climate, but his story is unusual because, after his death, his body was not found until six years later.

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In 1912, a team of surveyors including John Keenan traveled to the summit. It was Keenan's first day on the job--and, as it turns out, his last. He stepped into a churning fog, less than 100 feet away from safety. His colleagues hollered and yelled, but no answer came. He was never seen again.

We've had weather like that this morning: fog thick enough to swim in. If I reach out my hand, it starts to vanish in the mist. Two of the observatory's interns, Justin and Nate, took a short walk down the trail and could barely keep each other in sight. They were standing right next to each other. "I took a step," Nate tells me, "And when I looked back, suddenly there was no Justin. I could hear his voice coming out of the fog."

What reminds me of the John Keenan tragedy is the fact that a hiker has found some mysterious bones hidden among the boulders behind the Tip-Top building. She gathered them in a bag and carried them to the information desk. The fact that the bones were discovered in close proximity to an old boot raises a few eyebrows. It's reasonable--and a little chilling--to assume that the bones and boot both belonged to the same (deceased) owner. That certainly narrows down the species; you don't see much wildlife wearing boots. It's clear that the bones were buried intentionally under the rocks. The implications are grim. More than 100 people have perished on this mountain, mostly due to avalanches, falls, and hypothermia. But we've never heard of anyone being murdered … until now?

As I walk toward the end of the building to investigate, I hear our museum attendant, Laurie, talking on the phone. "We had a hiker drop off some, um, artifacts," she whispers. Three or four customers are browsing the bookshelves in the gift shop, within hearing distance. Until the authorities have learned more, we don't want the gossip to spread. Once the tourists leave, Laurie becomes less cryptic: "It looks like a boot and a hip bone with a socket, and maybe part of a skull, and some other pieces. I don't know what I'm supposed to do with it."

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The boot is of Victorian Era vintage: weathered and very old-fashioned. It's certainly not the kind of footwear you can buy at L. L. Bean.

The plot thickens. Speculation changes from a) a hoax to b) a century-old murder finally come to light to c) a long-lost hiker from the 1800s, buried by his companions and forgotten to d) a raven's food cache full of animal bones. The latter option is the least disturbing but fails to explain the presence of the boot. Further excavation uncovers 10 more bones, plus a leather strap and strips of old wallpaper. The first batch of bones has already been sent to the valley for analysis. If the artifacts turn out to be human, the state police will drive up to the summit.

Later, of course, it turns out that our cloak-and-dagger guesswork is wrong. Laurie receives a call telling her that the bones belong to … dum da dum dum … an unfortunate ex-moose. The poor animal must have been served for dinner at Tip-Top House sometime in the late 1800s, and its bones and carcass were discarded in a garbage pit. The boot and other relics date from around 1900. We've stumbled upon a long-forgotten Victorian dump … nothing more. So much for an Unsolved Mysteries special set on Mount Washington.

It was a weird day even before the bones showed up. Interaction with the public is one of the chief duties of the observatory crew, especially in the summer. It doesn't matter whether the public is finding bones or breaking bones (i.e., their own). In the mountains, you never know who you'll meet, or what crazy things they'll say.

Charlie, a 22-year-old meteorologist, took a walk around the summit earlier in the day. He encountered a middle-aged man and woman sitting at a picnic table. The couple grinned, seeming very friendly and quite pleased with themselves. Charlie soon learned why. They announced, without blushing, that they had climbed the mountain to (I'm phrasing this politely) "join the mile-high club." Actually, the man boasted that they had gazed up at the mountain and whimsically decided that the peak would be a really great place to "bonk."

When an unsuspecting park ranger asked the happy couple if they'd enjoyed their visit, probably no tourists have ever answered more sincerely: "It was a pleasure."

A few of the other sightseers were frowning, shivering, wishing they'd packed an extra sweater. But not these two. Certain visitors were unhappy because fog diminished the view. Others arrived thinking they were on Mount Rushmore, and left disappointed after learning they were thousands of miles off course. (Mount Washington is the highest peak in the Presidential Range, so perhaps that's an understandable mistake. Well, no, not really.) And quite a few people have arrived on the summit only to learn that they're terrified of heights. So the mountain experience definitely isn't for everyone. But we now know of at least two vacationers who left the mountain, um, fully satisfied.