Yesterday, while thunderstorms were rumbling across New England, two hikers got stuck on the summit overnight. Apparently they were so eager to reach the peak that they didn't bother to listen when their brains (and probably their leg muscles) started screaming, "Stop!"
People often forget that the pinnacle of a mountain is only the halfway point of any journey, not the final destination. When the wind starts to mutter and growl, and fog suddenly blinds your eyes like gauze, you're supposed to turn back, not keep climbing to higher elevations where the conditions get even worse. As mountaineer Ed Viesturs once said, "Getting to the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory."
The two men trapped on the peak last night were running late and probably shouldn't have been hiking in such weather in the first place. They're lucky that Mount Washington actually has shelter at the top. Most mountains don't come equipped with roofs, walls, and softhearted park rangers who grudgingly take pity on bedraggled, windblown hikers. During the night, I forgot they were here in the building; I barged into the storage room where they were sleeping on the floor and accidentally let the door slam behind me. Oops.
Their original plan had been to hike to a nearby Appalachian Mountain Club hut called Lakes of the Clouds. That itinerary changed as soon as the first lightning bolt struck. A 12-million-ton cumulonimbus cloud, billowing up into the stratosphere, blasted the alpine tundra with a brief but dangerous pyrotechnic display. The Lakes of the Clouds are located 1.4 miles down the trail from the peak. That's only a half-hour hike in good weather, but nobody wants to risk a trip across the exposed terrain when lightning is frying the landscape.
To make matters worse, the National Weather Service had just issued a tornado watch for Coos County, with a chance of strong winds and 1-inch hail. Here at the observatory our Lexan windows are effectively bulletproof. That protects the glass from shattering when a hurricane-force wind hurls golf-ball-size hailstones at the windows. But hikers' parkas are not bulletproof, and with a forecast like that one, it's best not to be outdoors at all, period. Hiking on mountainous cliffs in foul weather qualifies as sheer recklessness. Anyone can have an unlucky break: a slip, a fall, a sprained ankle. Too often, though, people get themselves into trouble just by ignoring the warning signs in the sky. By being unprepared. Another quote by Ed Viesturs seems appropriate at this point: "Mountains don't kill people, they just sit there."
I'm reminded of the time a different pair of hikers got lost in the Great Gulf Wilderness, at the foot of Mount Washington. They brought no map, no compass, no directions, and no common sense. Instead, they carried a cell phone, a hand-held Global Positioning System unit, and an unjustified confidence in their ability to survive. With all these wonders of modern technology at their disposal, they didn't panic. They called for help. "We're completely lost, we don't know where we are. Well, wait, actually we do know where we are, sort of," and at this point they read off a long string of numbers that sounded like gibberish—it was actually their exact latitude and longitude in degrees, minutes, and seconds—from the display on their GPS unit. "So, um, where is that exactly?"
On the summit, each of us is required to be many things at once: weather observer, computer worker, tour guide, janitor, repairman, accountant, researcher, clerk, proofreader, chef, radio announcer, educator, technician, snow shoveler, and, at times, medic. Today the observatory crew is taking a refresher course in wilderness first aid. Right now, Anna is practicing her skills at measuring blood pressure. I'm the guinea pig. She thinks she's found an artery in my arm, but there's a problem. She wraps my arm in a sphygmomanometer or "BP cuff," then squeezes until my forearm loses all circulation and nearly falls off. So far that's normal. The problem is that after going through the whole process, she can't hear my pulse. The stethoscope must be in the wrong place. It's only off by a millimeter or two, but that's enough. Unable to detect the pulse point in my arm on a second attempt, Anna starts to get frustrated. Then she gets an idea. "There it is! Don't move," she instructs. Before I can so much as protest, "Hey! Wait a minute! What do you think you're ...?" Anna has snatched a Magic Marker off the desk and poked me in the arm. There's now a little black smudge of permanent ink located precisely over the pulse point on my right arm. It'll probably be there for weeks. But the third attempt to determine my blood pressure works perfectly. The results: 115 over 70.
Bryan, an emergency medical technician from the valley, is up on the summit to instruct us in CPR and other lifesaving techniques. In the mountains, we never know when we'll need to use these skills. Just a couple of days ago a hiker collapsed and died of a heart attack at nearby Franconia Notch. CPR was administered on the spot. Unfortunately, the trailhead (and the nearest road) was over a mile away, and before the rescue team could carry him the full distance over the rocky trail to the waiting ambulance, it was too late. That serves as a reminder that, in the back country, not all rescues have happy endings.