View Full Version : Strange Pattern to This Winter's Fatalities in the Whites

Peter Miller
03-23-2004, 09:21 PM
The four people who have died in the Whites this winter were experienced hikers, very physically fit, and moderately well equipped for survival. This departs from the historic fatality pattern described in "Not Without Peril".

I hope there will be a thoughtful follow up study of these deaths. Are there common threads? If so, what are they, and how can we better educate the hiking community regarding them?

In three of the deaths, there seems to have been an underestimation of the severity of impending conditions. But that can happen any winter in the Whites, and in past decades the more naive hikers were the ones that succombed. This year's deaths are an aberration.

Yes, northern New England has had many severe weather days this winter - I know because I've been out hiking almost every day. But that is not the principal explanation. There are other factors at work here. I believe inquiry can unearth them.

This is a tragic situation. "No man is an island" is not a cliche. Every deceased hiker leaves loved parents, spouses, children, siblings, friends, and colleagues behind, who will be burdened with the whys and what ifs for years afterward, likewise the grief. For the deceased hikers, there are no more trails to explore, no more summits to surmount, no more natural wonders to behold, no more mind/body exhilaration.

These four hikers most likely were caring individuals who looked forward to lots more hiking adventures. So what overruled sound judgement?

Peter Miller

03-23-2004, 10:02 PM
Originally posted by Peter Miller
So what overruled sound judgement?

Who is to say whether sound judgment was overruled? Will we ever know every decision made by the people in question?

I just hate Monday morning quarterbacking. You said yourself that you've been out there hiking all winter. What if it were you? Your family left behind? Would you want us assuming you had made some gross error in judgment?

Not to be judgmental myself here. Really. I truly wish we could all learn from these experiences, do it better, have one bit of good come from such tragic loss. You have many fine points, Pete. I'm all for sharing details and learning from experience, but I think we should leave the judgments to God. No offense intended. Just my humble opinion.

03-23-2004, 10:11 PM
Funny Peter, I was thinking that same thought myself today. The scientist in me wants to say that it is just a combination of weird weather this year and volume of people who have taken to winter hiking, though those that perished this year were probably up there last year and previously. But I think it must be mainly a combination of those. Perhaps the gear that people now have to keep them comfy makes them a bit more willing to push the envelope? Look forward to hearing more ideas. And I won't second-guess anybody- almost been there myself way too many times to do that.

03-24-2004, 05:58 AM
Dont forget this was a colder winter than average as well as being strange weather patterns. That could have played a major role as well.

03-24-2004, 06:29 AM
Gone are the days when people hiked for the sheer joy of it. Now it seems that everyone has a list. More people are accomplishing exploits like all 4ks in one winter (or one week), all the peaks in 3 days, hut to hut traverses, pemi traverses in winter, etc etc etc. This, I fear, will only get more extreme.

To accomplish these feats requires the envelope be pushed, sometimes a lot. The result can be death, but not necessarily for these super hikers. While those who accomplish remarkable feats usually are so fit they survive, some people who try to emulate them do not. And by emulate, I don't mean duplicate. Some people will try to bag more peaks than they can handle or hike a greater distance.

This is not to place any blame. I just think that it is human nature.

And just as an aside. I personally know one of these supermen, and greatly respect his accomplishments.

03-24-2004, 06:47 AM
Emotions probably are too raw, yet, to deal with this subject clinically. But Peter Miller’s question is an important one that needs to be broached and examined honestly at some point.

The hope is to learn what lessons we can so that repeats of this unhappy season may be avoided in the future. It would not honor the memory of those who died to simply dismiss them as victims of statistical probability resulting from increased hiker traffic in the mountains during winter, and of fluke weather patterns, or of "cultural" pressures.

In the meantime our hearts must go out to the friends and families of those who have perished in the hills during recent months.


03-24-2004, 06:56 AM
My .02: with more winter hikers, trails get packed out more frequently, allowing hikers to get further away from safety. As conditions deteriorate, it takes longer to get back, and there is a longer period for the conditions to worsen. The further away, the more distance to be covered, the more possibilities to take a wrong turn, the more serious the consequences. Being 1/2 mile off route is much more serious when you are 10 miles from the highway than when you are 2 miles. every step makes it worse.

One other thought. When I first started winter hiking many years ago (1978), I always kept to a 4 person team rule. As I've gotten more experience, I seem to have all but forgotten that personal rule. That may be a big mistake, and I think I need to rethink that, particularly when above treeline.

Each one of these tragedies has given me much food for thought. I am so saddened by the loss that our community has seen this winter. I can only hope that it will not continue.

03-24-2004, 06:59 AM
I don' t think we're being judgemental in wanting to know what went wrong. When I heard the story last night, that the Coxes had become disoriented, I immediately thought they must not have had a compass. Though I've never been in trouble, through caution, skill, or luck, I have to wonder: if I'd been with them, would I have seen trouble coming early enough, or would I have been able to get out of trouble when it hit.

This tragedy hits me even harder than Ken Holmes's, because it's a trip I'd be more apt to be doing, not hunkering down at Guyot on the coldest day of the year.

I hope Mr. Cox gets around to giving details. Mohamed's really got his work cut out for him with the next issue of Appalachia.

Peter Miller
03-24-2004, 07:15 AM
I do believe this fatality pattern deserves study. There is a book waiting to be written here by someone who has the talent and time to thoroughly research these deaths.

As a long-time hiker and hiking advocate, I am concerned by this winter's deaths in the Whites. I am concerned there are factors within contemporary "hiking culture" that obscure good decision making. I could hypothesize, but I'd prefer to wait until these deaths are researched more.

Yes, this winter has been more savage, on the whole, than the half dozen or so previous ones. But from a long term perspective, it has not been that unusual. I recall more brutal winters in the 1970's. The extreme conditions that caused this year's hypothermia-related fatalities (including, perhaps, the one in Huntington Ravine) were accurately forecasted in advance. There was no mystery as to what was coming down the pike.

My hiking mentors taught "respect nature's fury," "study weather patterns for several years before hiking above treeline in winter," "carry Everest-worthy gear," "assume the worst, and pack accordingly." "The mountain will still be there tomorrow. Live to hike another day."

I believe this timeless advice could have prevented this year's fatalities. I would like to better understand why and how it wasn't heeded by these individuals. I'm not interested in casting judgement. I'm concerned about trends in contemporary hiking culture that may be prompting excessive risk taking. I feel this matter deserves reflective discussion.

Peter Miller

03-24-2004, 07:47 AM
Most accidents have a chain of events, all contributing to the outcome. Throw in a little bad luck and things can get out of hand quickly.

With the huge number of winter hikers these days, the number of accidents is thankfully small.

It's easy to see a few things that may be factors in accidents.

1. Weather. While this winter wasn't particularly hard by historical standards, for a few weeks it was colder than many recent years. If you've only been winter hiking in the last decade it's possible you've not seen how bad the weather can be. A low snow year such as this winter also allows easier access to the backcountry. Also, many winter hikers seem to be day hikers only which could cause them to underestimate what's required to spend an unplanned night out.

2. Increased number of hikers. This allows most trails to be packed out most of the time allowing much quicker access to areas far from the road. This also allows small groups of 1,2,3 people to summit peaks they may not have if trail breaking was required. Also, this may give a false sense of security that other parties will be around to help in case of trouble.

3. Parties travelling with minimal gear. If you want to go fast, you generally need to travel light. This is a tough one to call as the more gear you carry to survive a bivy, the more likely you'll have to bivy. Speed certainly can be an element of safety. There was a time, where you saw many people carry stoves, sleeping bags, etc on a day hike just in case. This year not only did I often see people without snowshoes, but I've even passed a couple of folks hiking without a pack. It's a question of how much margin you want in case of trouble.

03-24-2004, 09:29 AM
I think this is a great topic to raise here, not to second guess those who lost their lives, but to remind the rest of us of the risks in winter hiking.

I have posted reports on this board about how, in winter, things can go from good to bad to worse very, very quickly. Conditions deteriorate, fatigue and hypothermia set in, and judgment becomes impaired. It’s potentially a rapid death spiral from there unless we get out quickly.

In warmer weather there is a lot more room for error. With easy access to the mountains and the promise from hi tech gear, I fear some may be lulled into a false sense of security with winter hiking. However, even the fittest, best equipped and most experienced hikers lost their lives to the elements this past winter.

Please, please let this be a lesson to all of us.

I have often looked to these boards as a source of education. I think potential and novice winter hikers come here to learn. Many experienced hikers here have shared knowledge and tips to make me a better winter hiker. For this reason, I really hate it when someone posts a trip report on how they did a 20-mile solo hike with just a day pack and no overnight gear, wearing only sandals. Readers respond with awe and admiration at such an accomplishment. I want to respond that this hiker is one very lucky SOB. One change in the weather or a turned ankle half way into the hike, and we could well have been reading on how they had to fly this hikers remains out by chopper. One can’t count on good luck as a prerequisite to surviving a hike. I’m afraid other less lucky readers will read trip reports such as these and be inspired to give it a go themselves. In winter, we need to give ourselves a much wider margin for error. I don’t admire, and certainly am not inspired by, someone who plays chicken with Nature and wins.

I will be the first to admit that I have not always been the smartest, most well-prepared hiker. I look back on early hikes and now realize how stupid or ill-prepared I was. I realize that I got lucky and survived, but the lesson I hope to pass on to others is to not be as foolish or brazen as I was. With the goals to “finish the list” or even just to make the summit, we are often faced with pushing beyond our limits and entering that zone where one small bad factor can literally push us over the brink.

I understand the thrill of taking some risks, but at what cost? Is it really more fulfilling to know that we dodged a bullet? Personally, when I look back and realize where my judgment was impaired or I just made some really stupid decision, I am not fulfilled by my accomplishment. I’m embarrassed by it. I know many thrill seekers will disagree with me on this. I fear that many posters don’t enjoy a hike unless they know they cheated death in some big or small way.

Until recently, I had never failed to complete a hike to an attempted summit. But when I finally did have to turn back, I got home and thought, “You know – it’s no big deal.” Perhaps we could have made it if we pushed on. Perhaps they would still be looking for our corpses. But at least I am still around to attempt the summit again this year.

03-24-2004, 11:08 AM
I think Sherpa hit the nail on the head when he mentioned the team rule. With the exception of the Coxes, I believe all these hikers were solo. I'm not trying to second guess their decision to do this, as I have done it myself many, many times. However, it gives me pause to think about how a simple mistake can be magnified when you there is no one else there to either give a second opinion or help out. That's one lesson I'll take away from this winter's tragedies.

Jim lombard
03-24-2004, 11:37 AM
The Team rule is a good idea as long as somebody in the group has good sense. I tend to want to push it beyond what conditions allow but fortunately I hike with somebody who always has the good sense to turn back. Twice this winter we've had to turn back just shy of summits in bad conditions (Lafayette and Monroe) both times it was his idea to call it a day.

03-24-2004, 11:45 AM
There is an axiom among roofers that the most experienced roofer is the most likely one to fall off. The theory is that they become so comfortable up on a roof they tend to forget that they are, in fact, on a roof. It's like when we drive the same road every day and don't notice the new stop sign that was put up, because we are so "familiar" with the route, we go on auto pilot.

I have no idea what happened in these tragedies, so I can not (nor would I) pass judgment on what the root cause was. However, there is, perhaps, a lesson to be learned for those of us who consider ourselves "experienced hikers". We must always be vigilant, no matter how many times we enter the wilderness, because some day that new stop sign will be put up, or one day we forget where we are and just "walk right off the roof".

Just my cent and a half.

Rob S
03-24-2004, 12:04 PM
There is an axiom among roofers that the most experienced roofer is the most likely one to fall off. The theory is that they become so comfortable up on a roof they tend to forget that they are, in fact, on a roof. It's like when we drive the same road every day and don't notice the new stop sign that was put up, because we are so "familiar" with the route, we go on auto pilot.

Very well stated, Silverback. I believe this is often true in all aspects of our lives. Thanks for your post, I know I will be paraphrasing your roofer axiom often.

Puma concolor
03-24-2004, 12:43 PM
In the last couple of years, the bar has definitely been raised in the "Can you top that?" department. From that perspective, it is hardly surprising that we have had a winter like this. Maine Guy alludes to this phenomenon in his post. Record-making and peakbagging have their place, but it has also lowered the guard of many folks who are perhaps somewhat less fit and less experienced than some of the more immensely-talented pace setters. If the White Mountain 48 can be climbed in x days under these conditions, then maybe they aren't so bad after all. Am I blaming Keizer, Seaver, Frodo and Stinky Feet? Heck no. I'm blaming anyone who has allowed their level of respect for the mountains to be diminished as a result of their exploits. That said, I didn't know any of the unfortunate souls who perished this winter and from that level have no idea if these observations are applicable to them. However, I think it is also pretty clear that some bad decisions were made this year by people who you would think should have known better.

03-24-2004, 01:19 PM
Someone may have already said this by the time I finish typing this but of the four hikers who died this year, two of the hikers were solo and the other two were in groups. So much for small samples of data. Not having read Not Without Peril, I'd be interested in knowing what percentage of those involved in accidents and/or deaths were solo. I'd venture to guess that a higher percentage were with groups. Just a hunch. I could be wrong though.

That being said, I fully agree that you increase your percentages of having help close at hand if you do not go solo. There are times when good judgement is needed that two heads are better than one. But now I'll contradict myself in saying that the solo hiker is more likely to be highly focused and is less likely to have a moment of inattention and come to harm from carelessness. Not that it's unlikely or impossible. It is just my belief that the solo hiker is less likely to be distracted since there are not others around them.

There is also the psychological belief that there is safety in numbers. While sometimes true, it is not always so. A leader of three newbies becomes incapacitated and now has to rely on the combined incompetence of the other three. That's not a recipe for automatic success. If you have a false sense of security but do not know it, you are less focused and more prone to making mistakes and bad judgements, relying on the false sense that there are others to back you up. When you are alone, the buck stops with you. There is no one else to rely on. Silverback made another very astute comparison when he talked about the experienced roofer. Indeed, familiarity can sometimes breed complacency. I've hiked this trail before and it was safe so it must be safe now.

When I hear that hikers are "experienced", I sometimes wonder how that determination is made. Experienced as compared to whom? Experienced by what standard? If they had indeed climbed Lafayette a couple times but it was in fine weather, I wonder how much experience that gives you in the conditions they encountered.

Someone earlier on HJ I think said it best. Sh** happens. It can happen to anyone, whether they are "experienced" or not. A small error in judgement, a momentary lapse of attention, bad luck, forces majeure. All can conspire to create a cascading series of events which you can become powerless to overcome once past that fickle point of no return.

I have read a ton of mountaineering books and I continue to be amazed at how easy it is for some people to die in the mountains and yet others seem to be cradled in the hands of other forces. Joe Simpson should have rightfully died at least four times in his climbing career and yet others who have more experience, more skills, more savvy have been taken to their deaths because of the slenderest of threads connecting them to a piece of bad fortune.

It's always a shame when someone dies in the mountains. I grow inwardly quiet and subdued whenever I hear this bad news. Especially yesterday when I had previously heard that they were found and rescued.

Hindsight is always 20/20 so it is usually easy to dissect their plight and figure out where they went wrong. Because, of course, something always went wrong or we would not be talking about them. There is always a point where you can say, right there is their point of no return. That is where they should have done so and so. That is where they made their mistake. It's a little like watching the World Series of Poker. It's so easy to make your bet when you know what the other guy has in his hand. Now try making a bet without knowing the other guy's cards. Now try making the hikers' decisions with them. Real time. At those moments of crisis, pressure and indecision. See how hard it is now?


03-24-2004, 01:25 PM
Sherpa mentioned "team rule" could I get some clarification on what it means? I just never heard that phrase while talking/reading on hiking. thanks

03-24-2004, 01:57 PM
First let me say that I feel for the family/friends of the deceased. Next, while reading my reply, please note I'm not saying that the deceased weren't properly prepared, or that I'd make better decisions. We must remember that to one degree or another, we all accept a certain amount of risk every time we hike in remote mountainous terrain... especially in winter.

Continuing on, I think you guys hit the nail on the head:

There was a time, where you saw many people carry stoves, sleeping bags, etc on a day hike just in case. I carry a sleeping bag and bivy sack on every winter hike... a tent if I'm going solo. You wouldn't believe the looks, and sometimes comments, I get on the trail... "Why are you carrying all that weight for a day hike?", etc. I really don't think my 4-lb sleeping bag, 0.5 pound bivy are really slowing me down that much (slowing me down to a much greater degree is the extra 20-lbs around my midsection). If something unexpected happens, at least I have the bare necessities for survival.

Gone are the days when people hiked for the sheer joy of it. Now it seems that everyone has a listBagging a peak is not important... its just an extra bonus halfway through a nice hike. I'm prouder of the times I've swallowed my ego and turned around than the peaks I've summitted... last weekend included (see Trip Reports - Iroquois Attempt).

#2- assault on a mtn, to me = disrespect for the mtn,as to attack it with a vengence Last year, a friend brought me to see Grace... I had no idea who she was at the time. One thing stuck in my head. She said that before each climb, she would first ask for the mountain's permission. Such a simple gesture, but it gets you in the right frame of mind.

Mark Driscoll
03-24-2004, 01:57 PM
Silverback hit the nail on the head. We need to keep in mind that safety is very important in all that we do. I know that sometimes you can do all the right things and still get into trouble but, hiking should not become so routine, that we forget the hazards. I know that there will be some people that say it is OK to put yourself at risk but we must remember the people that will be sent out to try and save us.

I like all the information that is given out to new winter hikers at this site. Lets us not forget what we tell them. I want to be writing to all of you for many years to come!!!


03-24-2004, 02:49 PM
I love what rico reported about Grace asking the mountain's permission before every climb. It's the right frame of mind. I couldn't agree more.

Thanks for letting me join your community.

Pete Hogan
03-24-2004, 02:53 PM
Share Your Knowledge.......

In Peter Miller's second response to this thread (which he started), he said,

There is a book waiting to be written here by someone who has the talent and time to thoroughly research these deaths.

I am amazed, thoroughly impressed and very grateful for the wisdom of experience that is shared on this website and, in particular, on this current topic. It would be wise for any potential author of such a book to note well the individual and collective wisdom of the members of this forum.

After nearly thirty years of mountain hiking and backpacking, I continue to learn and grow from personal experience (both positive and negative) and the knowledge shared by the hiking community involved in this remarkable site.

03-24-2004, 03:03 PM
I've felt the same sense of tense guardedness and heightened sense of all around me in the Whites in winter, on hiking trails, as I've felt a few pitches up on technical routes. It's a feeling of committment and seriousness that makes winter hiking every bit as intoxicating to me as climbing. And the fear can be similar - like the time the zipper on my bag came off in my hand in the middle of the Pemi while I was turning in and the temp was at -20F. Sometimes you can get complacent during the easier times, though, and you can find yourself thinking of what you're doing as "routine", which in these places, especially in winter, it never is.

03-24-2004, 04:16 PM
First off, thanks to Mr. Miller for tenderly approaching a very important topic. I have looked on in interest. I'm not sure I have anything enlightening to add, but 2 things were said that I think are important.

1) GRUMPY - brings out a good point that it may well be a little early to really properly dissect the events. Many of the wounds are much too raw for the people who will be needed for the information.

2) ROYSWKR - Points out that many of this year’s incidents seem to involve either very fit, athletic types or very knowledgeable winter hikers. Not the typical "Not without peril" victims.

Knowledgeable and high levels of fitness breed confidence in ones own ability. That's not a bad thing, but on occasion, when things get a little more difficult than expected, they could find themselves to far out on the edge of the envelope.

This strikes me as something that I've also commonly read about in some victims of high altitude mountaineering (like in the 8K or 7 summit range) accidents as well.

Anyhow, good post.

Mike P.
03-24-2004, 04:18 PM
Probably more group accidents than solo as greater percentage of people hiking in a group or at least not alone. John missed even a greater point, what is worse than a very experienced leader being at the mercy of his neophyte team is if one of teh newbies is injured, while the experienced person is caring for him, he is out longer than he would have been if solo. It's the law of large numbers (- Insurance logic , yikes).

One house (one hiker) has a very small chance of burning down (getting injured or worse while hiking) In a group of 50,000 houses, (hikers) one very likely will burn, (get injured). Who & why that person over someone else?

Some people get away with smoking in bed for years, some hikers get away being unprepared for years. If I don't burn my house down am I a very good smoker? If I get away with cheating the mountain for 3 years or ten years or 20 years, am I automatically considered experienced or lucky? Who makes that call? Maybe I'm just a chicken because when the first cloud is seen I run back to the car. (Many viewless days would seem to indicate I don't but someone may. If you are a summit or die person needing peaks on the last day of the season, you are probably at greater risk than a chicken.

However some chickens fall into streams fleeing & drown while some summit or die people never get caught. Or think of an accident involving a drunk driver & a completely innocent mother. In the drunks case you you can say he had it coming he drove like that every Friday & Saturday Night for 15 years. (I never turn back & the weather has not caught me yet) The mother on teh other hand happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Changing her case to hiking, the drunk is the weather/mountain, how it raises up & strikes is random to her but every so often, it strikes at the closest target, it doesn't look for someone who deserves it, just whoever is closest.

A whole book, I don't know but as "Not Without Peril" grew out a long story (I believe) first written in Yankee Magazine about the 1996 deaths (Tinkham, the two NJ Ice Climbers & the accidents in Tucks) it seems this year may warrant a short sequel to NWP or another Yankee article. Heck Ski season in Tucks has not even hit the high point yet, has it? While winter is over, we still have a couple of months before snow, ice & cold weather mishaps are not possible.

03-24-2004, 07:47 PM
First, my prayers go out in the wind to those who grieve right now. In a way, we all do.
This winter was a special one because of the wind. I don't remember (of late) such a windy winter. In stiff winds, you can get cold very fast and loose your fighting power. Hypothermia will immobilize you rapidly. And if you climbed without goggles and face the task of backtracking without them, it is very very difficult. The wind might have been a factor. I still have a numb finger from February...

Jack Waldron
03-24-2004, 11:15 PM
I disagree with the contention that this winter's 4 fatalities form a strange or atypical pattern. I don't think that the experience levels, equipment/gear, or physical conditioning were critical issues. The critical issue is the decision making process. We all make lots of trivial decisions on the trail, whether to eat gorp or an energy bar, whether snowshoes or crampons are more comfortable for specific trail conditions. But the critical decisions are the go/no-go or turnaround decisions. Those times when we assess our skills, gear, experience, and fatigue levels against the immediate problems the mountains present to us. The difficulty that I experience when making those decisions is isolating my rational evaluation process from my emotional drives and desires.

A newbie hiker may walk off a mythical cliff because of ignorance. A more experienced hiker knows the cliff is there but is confident that he can walk right to the edge and then return. Problems arise when emotions distort our perception of exactly where that edge lies.

Based on public accounts the Mt Clay incident occurred when the 3 skiers were in the process of turning around because Pipeline Gully was too icy for skiing. Pipeline Gully typically has about a 40 degree slope according to guidebooks. One skier slipped and slid/fell about 1000 feet down Pipeline Gully. He was seriously injured. His two buddies responded to help him. One skier had crampons and an ice axe. He descended successfully. The other skier had crampons but no ice axe. He descended using crampons and a ski pole. I don't know if the ski pole contributed directly to his fall and subsequent death. But I would guess that if you had asked him 30 minutes earlier to hike down an icy, 40 degree slope with crampons and a ski pole he may very well have laughed at you. With a buddy hurt and needing help he either rationally decided that such a risk was worth taking or emotionally decided to just do it. My guess is that emotions played a prominent role in his decision process.

When we hike into the teeth of danger, occasionally it may be because of ignorance, but it's more likely that our emotions push us past the point of no return. Experienced hikers who have been to the edge and back are more susceptible to this behavior pattern than newbies. Accident reports provide valuable information to educate the hiking public. But when experienced hikers make serious or fatal mistakes it's more likely due to emotions distorting their perception of risk rather than a plain old dumb mistake that we can learn to avoid.

03-25-2004, 08:12 AM
Another article in local paper...


03-25-2004, 08:14 AM
I've been winter hiking for a very long time. This winter, for the first time, I soloed many peaks, giving me lots of time to introspect regarding my activities in the mountains. I was huddled on Mt. Flume Monday, looking across at the plume blowing off Lafayette, unaware that those poor souls were up there; I haven't slept well since.
What it's left me with is that there are a multitude of risks involved, risks that can't be negated with the best of judgement. What is most frequently lacking is hikers' ability to assess or even acknowledge those risks. The summer boots and 1300ci packs we increasingly see are probably evidence of this point. It is useful to microanalyze the specific decisions (turn around now?) that lead to tragedy but the truth is, by participating in this activity, we all avail ourselves to making serious mistakes. We're only humans, after all.
I believe I now appreciate these risks and, if someone finds me out there, feel free to question my judgement but understand that I knew these might be the consequences. We don't know that the Cox's shared this attitude. My heart goes out to them; I will never lose that image of Lafayette.
Let's just keep working, on the trails, here and everywhere else to help others understand the risks involved and let them determine how to deal with them. The risk won't go away, though.

03-25-2004, 08:24 AM
So we agree that there are risks. But risks involve probabilities. With an increase in people (trials, in stats terminology) comes an increase in accidnents (events). There has been an important increase in winter hiking lately, and that might be part of the explanation that Peter is looking for. All events are sad nonetheless...

03-25-2004, 11:49 AM
Originally posted by Mike P.
Probably more group accidents than solo as greater percentage of people hiking in a group or at least not alone. John missed even a greater point, what is worse than a very experienced leader being at the mercy of his neophyte team is if one of teh newbies is injured, while the experienced person is caring for him, he is out longer than he would have been if solo. It's the law of large numbers (- Insurance logic , yikes).

I would say that the more usual problem is that an experienced leader with proper equipment drags along less experienced friend with worse equipment they don't know how to use. Friend becomes overextended either physically or emotionally and hence is more likely to be injured even if they had everything they need. Examples might be the VT school group on Lafayette a few years ago where the leader was fine but some kids got frostbite, or the AMC ice climbing trip to Baxter many winters ago when at the last minute they invited a kid with less experience and equipment to even the ropes.

Group dynamics is the subject of much study. Some solo hikers are particularly careful because they know they are on their own and might be less careful in a group, but in a group the member who is best at whatever can raise issues that others might not notice. There is an old saw that once an injury occurs you are better to have been in a group, but that didn't work in the case of the guy on Clay who was killed trying to help his injured friend.

Tim Seaver
03-25-2004, 01:23 PM
The Cox's were doing what many people have done for the past 30 years: hiking the Falling Waters/Bridle path Loop with only day gear. It is hardly some "new and daring" phenomena spurred by a rash of radical winter hikes. To lay this tragedy at the feet of the speed hiking community is misguided and inaccurate.

Tim Seaver
03-25-2004, 02:13 PM
>>>I referred to a hypothetical posting, not any hike you did.

My apologies, Mark.

Somehow I thought that the part of your post that states:

"a trip report on how they did a solo hike from Carter Notch to Lonesome Lake with just a day pack and no overnight gear",

was referring to MY recent solo hike from Carter Notch to Lonesome Lake with just a day pack and no overnight gear.

I hope you understand that this statement, combined with the fact that you responded to my Hut To Hut Trip Report with similiar safety concerns, might cause me to think that somehow you were making a reference to me. Do you see how I might have made this connection, albeit in error?

Now that I know that your reference to this hypothetical hiker being a "lucky SOB" is simply part of your hypothetical hike scenario, and in no way based on actual recent events or people, I can breathe a sigh of relief. WHEW!

That must also be the case for the other "Hut to Hut" references in this thread.

My mistake. Please, don't change a thing.

03-25-2004, 02:36 PM
methinks the man doth protest too much

Tim Seaver
03-25-2004, 03:17 PM
I'm sorry if I come off a bit strong on this point, but the insinuation that the feats of speed hikers, hypothetical or not, somehow contributed to the deaths this winter is upsetting and inaccurate. That's all.

03-25-2004, 03:31 PM
I think in the end we are all responsible the consequences of our own behavior. Whether or not we are motivated by other's accomplishments makes no difference. If I hear about some other persons great or interesting feat and it inspires me to try something that results in my injury or untimely demise, in the end is my fault not the person I may be trying to emulate.

Puma concolor
03-25-2004, 10:27 PM
Deleting posts ... Man, that sucks. If you're going to say something in a public forum, at least be man enough to either stand by it or man enough to admit that maybe you were wrong. This is not directed at you, Mohamed, but the other Mark who apparently caused an uproar here today and then cut and ran. Given the content of my post on page 2 of this thread, it has put me in a position of having to clarify that I'm not the Mark who made an apparently inflamatory post.

But since I'm here and already riled up, I'm going to go ahead and expand on my original line of thinking. Before I do, I should identify myself as an avid peakbagger who likes to hike solo, fast and light. I'm no Tim Seaver, but who is? As I stated in my original post on page 2, you can no more blame speed hikers and record setters for this year's deaths than you can blame Evil Kneival if someone gets killed trying to jump over the Grand Canyon on a moped. But to claim that the shift in attitude towards our smallish Northeast mountains over the past couple of years hasn't caused people to take increased risks is completely naive. People have a natural tendency to want to keep up with the Joneses. Ultimately, we're all responsible for our own actions, but if anyone were to compare the overall tone and attitude of the posts on this board or the AMC board this winter as compared to three or four years ago, he or she would clearly see the increased level of risk that the average hiker is willing to embrace.

In my opinion, analyzing this years high fatality rate from a purely statistical point of view leads to only three possible logical conclusions:
A) It was a statistical blip
B) Increased winter hiker traffic has lead to increased accidents
C) A general shift in attitude away from heavy and safe to fast and light has caused more people to get in trouble.

I think a good case can be made for any of the above and perhaps there is a combination of all three going on. But I will stand by my original statement that there is a growing lack of respect for the dangers of our relatively insignificant mountains. This is not the fault of the speed hiking community though ... it is the fault of anyone who is not able to honestly analyze his or her own levels of fitness and experience. When you go fast, light and/or solo, you are putting all of your confidence in your own fitness, knowledge and ability. I hate the fact that four seemingly fine people lost their lives in the Whites this winter, but in order to avoid future winters like this one, we have to honestly assess what they did wrong. I'm not going to second guess anyone publically, but the facts (or at least portions of them) are out there for all of us to analyze individually.

03-25-2004, 10:31 PM
here (http://www.neclimbs.com/) .

03-26-2004, 02:20 AM
With all the amazing accomplishments people have been doing, it's only natural for the rest of us to think "It must not be all that hard. Maybe I can do it too."

I remember being pretty gung-ho about trying Winter hiking after reading the chapters on it in "Forest and Crag" — Gee! It sounds like a lot of fun! And easy! — but I haven't really done any after all. (My partner has asthma, so she can't breathe the cold air. That's it.)

Regarding the most recent tragedy, with the couple on Lafayette, it sounds as though there may have been a micro-climate situation there. A poster above mentions that he was on Flume at the time, and able to see the snow plume on Lafayette — a clear view where he was, a whiteout just a short distance away. Remember a few years ago, the couple that spent a night (it was the day after Thanksgiving, about 1998) in a snow cave on Lafayette after getting caught in a sudden snowsquall? My son and I (and dozens of other hikers) were on Welch and Dickey that day. It did not snow at all on Welch-Dickey. Again, a different condition just a short distance away. By coincidence that day, my son and I mistakenly got off the trail and spent more than a few anxious minutes trying to decide what we should do. If there had been a squall then and there, we would have been in deep trouble.

I imagine that the man who froze to death near South Twin probably heard the weather forecast and just thought, "Eh. I've been cold before." I regularly used to ride my bicycle 15 miles to work (from four to five a.m.) when the temperature was about 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Sure it was painful at first, but once I'd warmed up, after a mile or so, it was bearable, and after I'd arrived and suitably impressed everyone (a co-worker once exclaimed "You rode your bike today?!? You must be— unusual.") I'd wonder how low I could go. "Well, I made it at minus two, maybe it'll be three below tomorrow." I once went jogging at -19; by the time I got back home (three miles later), it was -22. Hiking in the mountains, rather than jogging in one's neighborhood, could easily put one beyond the point of no return. You think it can't possibly get any worse, and it does.

03-26-2004, 06:54 AM
I would love to see research done on this topic. Real data that looks at experience, preparation, age, group size and relationships within the group as well as the environmental factors and studies of the decision making processes. I think that would be the only way to really say if there's a pattern or not. But that's statistically. There is no equation of gear, skill, style, fitness, luck, hazards and intent that will tell you the what's how's and why's on traveling safely for a day or weeks worth of walking or running of climbing or whatever it is we internally label what we do. With the environment being such a huge variable I don't know how useful it would be.

I'm sure single minded pursuit of a goal can be judgment affecting but I don't think it's always correct to point to a style or level of experience as the sole cause of a tragedy. Things can swing in many and varied ways, the extra weight of an overnight kit can hinder as it helps. We could get killed helping a group just as alone you could limp out using just improvised materials in a 60/40 jacket. We may lack the confidence to avoid panic and get in over your head, we may freak and get out long before the threat arrives. Certainly there's a base line that you could say is safe within reason, but sports are full of tales of woe and triumph that occur when you test the current notion of limits and try something that someone says is fool hardy. You could even say that's how mountain hiking started. We don't hear about the near misses or graceful recoveries as much as we hear of the fallout of a tragedy.

The pattern this winter for me is a bitter sweet one. A lot of people doing and exploring things for the first time, a lot of really incredible ideas being executed, perhaps a new style being born. Among this there have been deaths and injuries and near misses. To me it doesn't feel related, just sad and exciting at the same time.

As for self deletion of posts, I too am uncomfortable with this. It could be argued that it reduces noise, but if you don't obliterate all traces of tangent in a thread you still have a noisy thread and often one that is difficult to understand, sometimes more so. In real life you can't and don't undo what you've said, you apologize, clarify or defend, attempting to reach a balance, interpersonal and community bonds often are built around such moments. Mark S brings up yet another problem in the deletion of posts. Anyway, as long as we have the ability to delete our posts it's a forum members right to do so.

03-26-2004, 07:39 AM
BrianW: MY group rule when I started winter hiking was this: always 4 or more, with me the least experienced. That's just MY personal rule. Nothing formal.

03-26-2004, 08:11 AM
First, I did not delete my original post. It's still there on page 1. The only posts I deleted were responses to other deleted posts which no longer made any sense.

Second, I don't have any problem per se with speed hiking. My original post dealt with preparedness, not how fast one hikes. Speed hiking does not necessarily mean one is not well prepared.

Peter Miller
03-26-2004, 09:31 AM
I can't accept the statistical blip concept. I have been following the hiking scene since moving to the southern fringe of the Whites in '73. I can't recall a single winter that compares with this one in terms of number of deaths, their locations in the Whites, and the experience level of the hikers. Reference to "Not Without Peril" is meaningful. '94 and '96 were high fatality winters on the Rockpile. But most of those who died were far less experienced than Ken Holmes, Jaytrek, or Ms. Cox. Case in point, Monroe Couper and Erik Lattey, New Jerseyites and novices to the Whites, who died of hypothermia climbing in Pinnacle Gully in '94.

More winter hikers, trails packed down more, technological advances (GPS, cell phones, gear) - All of these seem relevant but not sufficient to explain this winter's pattern. If these were the most important factors, I would expect novices to die much more frequently than seasoned, experienced hikers.

This winter's sustained winds - The high pressure system that stalled over Labrador did produce high wind for an unusual succession of days this January, beginning before Ken Holmes' death and more or less continuing beyond Jaytrek's demise. I don't recall many days when high pressure systems parked over the Whites, which usually produces the safest hiking weather. This winter necessitated more patience than usual. Unfortunately, some chose not to wait out the wind.

Winter lists, bulletin boards, changing motivational patterns among hikers - These are some of the things research could shed more light on.

03-26-2004, 11:56 AM

I’m not sure that I see any pattern at all with this year’s deaths. Let’s look at each one individually:
1) Solo hiker who fell somewhere in the Huntington Ravine area.
2) Solo hiker succumbed to elements near summit of South Twin.
3) Hiker falls to death in a steep icy ravine while trying to rescue another of his group.
4) Hiker dies while trapped by weather on top of Mt Lafayette.

#1 is a simple accident, #2 is either a person who was overextended or a victim of a freak weather anomaly, #3 is a result of an accident while trying to rescue an injury victim, and #4 is as a result of a normal winter weather occurrence in the White Mts. Where is there any pattern?

I don’t see anyone who ventured to any specific area and seemed to rely on technology (GPS, phone, etc) to bail them out. Except for Ken Holmes, I don’t see anyone succumbing to unusual winter weather. Brenda Cox died on a well traveled trail.

What pattern are you seeing that I don’t?

I don’t think you can say one way or the other whether this year’s fatalities are a statistical blip. You won’t know that until you see the next set of data points. This year’s blip could be next year’s beginning of a new trend.


Peter Miller
03-26-2004, 02:51 PM

Here are a few of the things that stand out for me.

Those who have died in the Whites this year come from a different population than those who typically have died. At least 3 of the 4 were elite athletes. All were accomplished hikers at least moderately familiar with the Whites. None were strangers to winter conditions.

The list of those who died in the past, or who would have died had they not been rescued, is dominated by the less fit, the less experienced, the less knowledgeable. In many cases, their unpreparedness was ludicrous. The prime example, in my mind, is that of the Maine physician who was rescued off the Rockpile some years back. Longtime respondents to these boards will surely recall his case. He was either one of the first to be charged for rescue or was the case the triggered fee for rescues. What astonished many of us was that the man seemed as arrogant after rescue as he had been before.

Another thing that stands out for me is that, excluding the skier's death, weather forecasts were ignored or not attended to by the hikers who have died so far this year. In Ken Holmes' case, his companion showed him a print out of the impending weather, and Ken went up Bondcliff nonetheless. The exceptionally dire wind-chills that killed Ken had been forecasted all across NH at least two days in advance of his outing. With Jaytrek, again it was known in advance that conditions above treeline were going to be brutal. Jaytrek hadn't originally planned to be on the Rockpile that day in the first place. I suppose we'll never know what led him there or what his itinerary was. I suspect hypothermia was a factor in his death, that his attempt to get out of the wind led to his fall. With the Coxes, the forecast was for deteriorating conditions this past Sunday. At this time of year, that generally means only one thing in the Whites.

I imagine Jaytrek knew of Ken Holmes' death. I imagine the Coxes knew of both Holmes' and Jaytrek's. What more dire warnings can there be?

The combination of hiking expertise and disregard for forecasts has me wondering about the motivational wellsprings of these hikers. When emotions have settled and grief mostly subsided, I hope someone will interview people who knew these hikers well to try to discover common threads that may have led to their deaths. I would prefer not to speculate about what they might be.

My heart goes out to Mr. Cox. It's hard to picture a more brutal sequence of events. When he is ready to, I hope he will share his story with us. We will be the wiser for it.

03-27-2004, 11:38 PM
Originally posted by Raymond

Regarding the most recent tragedy, with the couple on Lafayette, it sounds as though there may have been a micro-climate situation there. A poster above mentions that he was on Flume at the time, and able to see the snow plume on Lafayette — a clear view where he was, a whiteout just a short distance away.

Remember a few years ago, the couple that spent a night (it was the day after Thanksgiving, about 1998) in a snow cave on Lafayette after getting caught in a sudden snowsquall? My son and I (and dozens of other hikers) were on Welch and Dickey that day. It did not snow at all on Welch-Dickey. Again, a different condition just a short distance away.
I am surprised that nobody else has commented on this, so I will. It is not in the least unusual for the "microclimate" to be far different (and usually worse) on the higher summits such as Lafayette and the Presidentials.

Did I read something about a new selectman in Meredith?

Jack Waldron
03-31-2004, 09:48 PM
This is a story from the Littleton Courier about SAR and some of the folks involved in it. There are some interesting facts and observations.

Rescuers Urge Sense of Hazard (http://www.courier-littletonnh.com/033104hike.html)

Peter Miller
03-31-2004, 10:13 PM
Thanks for posting this, Jack.

04-01-2004, 03:22 PM
To use a phrase from radio, I'm a long-time listener and first-time caller. Credit goes to this thread for spurring me to finally register. I'll offer a few thoughts.

First, my agreement with those who stress the old Be Prepared motto. Much of what I carry on any trip is there just in case. On a warm, sunny dayhike up Mt. Greylock last week I carried an overly heavy first aid/survival kit, a bivy sack, headlamp, wool hat and some other stuff. Didn't use any of it, but that's okay. Every so often I think I'll leave the survival kit behind: it's bulky and heavy and all I've ever used from it has been a few bandaids and some paracord. But I envision an accident report stating, "He usually carries an emergency kit but left it at home this time," and the kit goes into the pack. My mantra: You never know.

Here's another angle on this thread. All those who died were from out of state. Getting to the White Mountains required a certain amount of effort in planning, scheduling and even driving a few hours to get to the trailhead. With that kind of personal investment, there's a tendency to feel a bit of an obligation to push on a bit further. Perhaps that wasn't a factor for the four individuals we're considering. All seemed to be frequent, active hikers and maybe getting out wasn't such a big deal. For me, family & job obligations make getting time to go hiking a major undertaking. And that's just the solo hikes. Trips with my far-flung group of hiking buddies - each with their own set of obligations - are rare and precious. By the time I'm setting foot on a trail I've got a fair amount of motivation to do something with the time I've carved out. It gets worse if I've mentioned my plans to coworkers and other non-hikers. "You're going winter camping! Wow!" That said, I have no problem at all with changing my plans on the fly if something comes up. Taking a different route, turning an overnight into a day trip, etc. The single most important piece of survival gear is your brain. Know when to turn around. Besides, coming up with a Plan B on the fly has its own rewards. As several others have said, the mountains will still be there for your next visit.

And finally, by my count the mountains claimed seven lives this season. The other three fall into a different category though. Patric McCarthy was just a young boy who got lost near Lincoln Woods, though he managed to bushwack a fair distance up Whaleback Mountain before succumbing to the mid-October cold. A week later Bryan Richards hiked as far as Franconia Falls on the Wilderness Trail but drowned trying to save his dog. And Lawrence Faulkingham, an apparently fit, experienced hiker and athlete, died far too young of a heart attack while climbing up Mt. Whiteface in mid-December. All from out of state, by the way. A lot of tragedies for one season.

Tim Seaver
04-02-2004, 04:49 PM
Frank Carus has a tip for the growing numbers of fit individuals who are pushing the envelope on extreme hiking. “Just because you can run fast,” says the search and rescue volunteer, “doesn’t mean you can outrun death.”

“Everybody’s an extremist,” agreed Twin Mountain resident Guy Jubinvile, an Appalachian Mountain Club employee who volunteers with Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue in Randolph. “They look at the weather report and say, ‘it could still work!’”

Most of the endurance atheletes I know that frequent the peaks don't embrace that philosophy. They have a profound respect for the power of the mountains, observe the weather with a near-religious reverence, and would bail the moment they felt conditions were becoming unsafe.

I suppose these are the kinds of comment that make for an interesting angle on the story ( NEWSFLASH: Rescuers Say New Breed of Nutcase Speed Hikers on the LOOSE) , but I feel the implication that endurance hikers are reckless by definition is irresponsible.

04-02-2004, 08:44 PM
I had been wondering about something else: the role of caloric (e.g., FAT) reserves in extreme situations. Perhaps a "triathelete" equivalent, with minimal body fat, might be more vulnerable to catastrophic hypothermia in certain situations than a less "fit" person with some fat (supply, not insulation) might be [In other words, a fighter jet drops out of the sky faster than a Cessna]. Biology is my spottiest science, so I'd leave that to somebody who knows more, analytically, about human metabolism.. My 2cents.

04-03-2004, 10:33 AM

Good post. Got me thinking.

All from out of state, by the way.
I just don’t see the relevance. Particularly in some incidents where the people were there (in the area) the day before. Driving to the trailhead, yeah, you can make the argument about fatigue, but a person who got a full nights sleep the night before, drove 3 hours, are they in less of a position (safety wise) then a person who got less sleep but drove a shorter distance? I don’t know, a bit of a stretch IMHO.

I would surmise that the majority of SARs on Denali/Rainier (insert mountain/wilderness area here) are for people who are out of state…why….well to be simplistic….that’s where the mountains/wilderness are...but a large segment of the population isn't.

You right….I think no matter what state you are from, people may have “summit fever” b/c of their perceived ideas of time commitments, planning, it's relative importance, “won’t get back here for a long time”…etc.

04-03-2004, 02:07 PM
There is being well trained. There is being well equipped. But there is also the willingness to turn around. I was on a hike up Monadnock today with some students. Some were wearing jeans, worn sneakers, etc. Still they probably would have been fine. At 2500' we hit the cloud ceiling and then we ran into about 3 inches of snow. Even so, they probably could have made it to the top. We were within shouting distance of the top, but I made the decision to turn around.

How often do we do that? Do we turn around when this is the only weekend we have off this month? When we only need this one last peak to complete the 48? When... when whatever.

The guy I really admire is Ed Viesturs. I admire him not because he has climbed all the 8000 meter peaks except Annapurna, without oxygen, but because he has twice come within spitting distance of the summit of Annapurna and turned around because he thought the snow looked unsafe.

I really admire that.

- MonadnockVol

04-05-2004, 10:57 AM
Hello, I am another one who oftens reads this forum but had not registered or posted(except trail conditions) until now. In looking at the fatalaties of this winter, we all want some reassurance it won't happen to us.

I am more in the light/fast school of thought , within reason, but it seems to me the biggest issue may be willingness to turn around. The Coxes, for example, apparently had received warnings as low as the Greenleaf Hut , and they were not prepared for severe conditinos; they must have known that.

That is the part I keep wrestling with. These were regular hikers out for a day hike on a route they had done before.
The other referenced fatalaties involved pushing limits and bad forecasts too, but they occurred on more remote o r technical terrain, where an accident may have occurred or turning back was not a realistic option.

04-05-2004, 12:48 PM
Jaytrek57 -

Your mention of "summit fever" was the point I was trying to make, not fatigue from the drive. I'm thinking of the case where you're standing at the trailhead with your buddies because you've juggled your schedules to find a day/weekend when you're all available, you've found a route everyone agrees to, you've all pitched in on supplies, you've promised your spouse you'll get to that big project next weekend and you've just driven 3 hours to get there. If something comes up now you're probably not going to say, "Nah, let's go back home." And you're right...coming from out-of-state may not be relevant. Folks who live with the trails in their backyards have the same issues with schedules and planning. The long drive just adds a little more fuel to the "Go for it!" fire.

Again, I don't know if this applies at all to these hikers. I tend to agree more with the Master Roofer explanation. The amount of experience these folks had may have meant they weren't watching their steps as carefully.

Peter Miller
04-05-2004, 12:52 PM
Good to hear from first-time respondents Monadnockvol and Lamerunner. We're going to need lots of different perspectives to comprehend this winter's tragedies.

Regarding turning around: We may yet hear more from Russell Cox as to why he and Brenda chose to continue ascending.

Regarding hiking into a "bomb": Beginning about 3 days before Ken Holmes died, the forecasters spoke about the blast of arctic air that was coming. Quite often in central and northern NH, severe drops in temps are accompanied by diminishing winds. But this time, because the high was centered over Labrador, the winds would increase as temps plummeted. Easy to extrapolate what that meant for the high peaks. Holmes chose to hike to one of the most exposed locations in the Whites at the start of one of the most bitter wind-chill episodes to hit the mountains in a long, long time. Did he truly not grasp how severe it can get above treeline?

That high over Labrador seemed stuck in place indefinitely. No snow, bright sunshine, steady 20+ mph winds in the valleys. Again, easy to extrapolate the conditions higher up. Jaytrek was supposed to have been skiing the day he climbed high on Washington. Did he truly not grasp what awaited him up there? If he discussed his change in plans with anyone before setting out, perhaps that person will eventually share this communication with the hiking community.

04-05-2004, 04:25 PM
While I'm not sure if it applies in these particular cases, I think Hikeritz makes a great point.

As someone that lives 5.5 hours away from my personal playground (ADK's) and always struggles to get up there as much as I'd like, I can somewhat relate. I've done enough foul weather (clouded, rainy, nasty, but never dangerous) hikes on days I would never have considered hiking if I lived in the area and my pick of weather days to hike. I prefer the summer too. (i.e greater margin of error)

Couple that with the mentality of many endurance based athletes/climbers that are (often times justifiably) confident in their own abilities/training to handle whatever obstacles are in front of them, and I can see a recipe for trouble developing.

One of the very best Ironman triathletes described the run portion of the Ironman as "20 miles of hope and 6 miles of reality". To be successful in that arena, there is a very real need for a certain mental toughness to be able to override the natural instincts to fold. The ability to OVERCOME difficulties is crutial to sucess in endurance based sports.

I can certainly see a situation where someone that makes larger sacrifices (like driving in from afar), or has that "I can overcome" mindset, might have a higher threshold for "pushing on", "not turning back" or "not even starting" than with others not in that mindset. It the risk/reward theory.

It doesn't make them bad people; it just has the potential to put them out in a situation that they are not FULLY prepared for.

Someone mentioned Ed Viesturs, There are a great many other mountaineers that had his skills and abilities (but not his judgement) that never made it off the mountain.

04-05-2004, 04:48 PM
There are two "patterns" that I see that relate to the Homes and Cox tragedies. Both are worth discussion but I don't think they are unique to this season or these events.

First, in each instance there were what hindsight suggests as lapses in judgement. The first lapse was to press on in the earlier stages of the tragedy in the making. The second was in respect to decisions made during what might have been conditions of distress, even hypothermia. On this latter point I refer to Holmes heading for the Twinway versus Zealand Hut and the Cox's hunkering down when they might have followed a trail (they had reached a junction; even though it was a long way to the road, it was certainly a better place to look for shelter than anything in the vicinity of the ridge).

Second, in each instance the victim was knowledgeable and extraordinarily fit, perhaps contributing to the first lapse in judgement. I continue to wonder, as moonrock points out, if the low body fat is a disadvantage in the loss of insulation and energy reserve as well as with respect to differences in pulse, respiratory and metabolism rates that could work against the body. Anyone with group experiences have anything anecdotal to relate to this?

04-06-2004, 07:55 AM
I agree with moonrock and Stan that body fat reserves are a factor in cold survival.

Here's an anecdote from a context similar to winter hiking. I am a year-round surfer in Maine. Ocean temps are about 36 F right now at my local break; they almost never get above 55 F. The water's higher heat capacity (iirc) means that it drains body heat faster than air can; believe me, that water is cold! My wife avoids waveriding in winter, but she's in the water with me from April through November. Her larger body fat reserves allow her to either (1) stay in longer if neither of us is wearing a wetsuit layer or (2) comfortably wear just a swimsuit even when I am shivering in a polypro layer, or wear a polypro while I'm grooving in a 5mm spring suit. On early May evenings (before we got spring suits), she'd be in the water without a wetsuit for over an hour, while I'd be shivering and finding it hard to speak properly in polypro.

I would suggest, however, that body fat is only one of many relevant factors. I have a higher metabolic rate than my wife. I eat more food but am smaller. In our sleep, she gets colder than I do. Mental states or preferences also come into play; I prefer to stay longer in a rushing mountain stream than she does, even in the height of summer. I don't really mind being cold, especially when it is relatively safe.

Furthermore, my experiences with cold water immersion are parallel to, but different from, winter hiking. Hopefully one is never immersed in frigid water while winter hiking. My favorite Maine surf breaks are less than 0.5 miles offshore -- a shorter distance than most mountain dangers, but when wind or currents conspire against you, it is a bear and a half to paddle in, especially when you're already cold. Still, hopefully this fits into Stan's requested anecdote type.

04-06-2004, 08:58 AM
I think there are some really good points in here. Truly, we will never know what happened and why, but it makes sense to discuss the causes and possible alternatives.

I have hesitated to bring this up, especially because I am somewhat new here and lack the experience in the backcountry that many of you have. In the spirit of this thread, I will simply plunge in and say it and hope it doesnt offend anyone.

In this thread and others talking about these tragedies, there has been a fair bit of discussion of risks taken, mistakes debated, and alternatives ignored. In reading through them, I cannot help but feel that perhaps (so to speak) that these are the symptoms rather than the disease.

Some people have discussed the increased number of winter hikers, the increase of super fit hikers, and the prevalence of lists. Out of all of this, what really stood out to me was the quote by Mr Cox that his wife died doing what she loved and that he felt comforted by that. Given by the number of people who expressed such sentiments on here and on the amc forums, it seems fair to say that there is some element of or in the hiking community that in trying to make sense of tragic death in the mountains trys to bring an element of romance or karma or sense to the senseless.

The hikers who died this year left behind loved ones, financial obligations, responsibilities, etc. Their deaths dramatically affected their friends, families, and so on. These things dont happen in isolation. As someone who lost my dad when I was in highschool (to cancer), I am sensitive to how drastically, completely, and irrevocably a young adult, child, or (in my moms case) a spouses life changes. To me, someone who loves the outdoors, it makes no sense that people would let their love of the woods and mountains obscure their love and responsibility to family and loved ones.

In thinking about this, I really believe this is something that deserves to be kept in mind out on the trail. Whether its pushing a longer, tougher, solo hike or considering a potentially nasty weather report before heading out on the trail, it is perhaps necessary to place equal or greater weight on how much you have to lose versus how much you stand to gain by going on such a hike. The old saying about discretion and valor has a whole new meaning in such a light.

Its not just about evaluating environmental risks and making the right decision on turning around. Its actually far more about keeping a proper perspective about the relationship between a pasttime/lifestyle/hobby/addiction we enjoy and at times live for and the other things in life. Any time (on almost any activity or lifestyle) a person gets so into something that you disregard family, friends, responsibility and personal safety in a quest for exhilaration, risk, fun, etc etc it can lead to skewed decision making and so forth.

I am as guilty of this as anyone - my wife often gripes that I spend more of my time planning hikes, getting in better shape, and out on the trail than I do with her. I am not phenomenally fit. I do not take more than normal risks hiking - I turn around in bad weather quicker than most and despite a steady accumulation of gear to do so have not done much in the way of winter hiking - instead stickint to walking through the snow in the Blue Hills, local state parks and so forth.

I do not know the answer to any of this, but I have a feeling a decent part of it lies in both our conception of risk AND responsibility to others.

Hope I didnt irk anyone or come across as preachy. I just tried to explain my thoughts as clearly as I could.


04-06-2004, 10:18 AM
Holmes chose to hike to one of the most exposed locations in the Whites at the start of one of the most bitter wind-chill episodes to hit the mountains in a long, long time. - well said Peter.

I still remember that day. I met a fellow VFTT'r and went hiking in the woods near Syracuse. We chose this area for two reasons: 1) it was relatively protected from wind, and 2) though we hiked about 5 miles on well-trodden trails, the furthest we'd get from the parking lot was about 1 mile, allowing an easy bail-out if conditions warranted.

When I read about Ken, my heart sank, but I couldn't help but think "Why would he disregard such a weather report?" Maybe he took it as a challenge... don't know. I consider myself to be more "extreme" than the average hiker, but no way would I consider climbing a high peak that day.

Two tid-bits of info on that day that put the weather in perspective:

1) The daytime windchill on Mt. Washington (-94 F, 5am) and even in Syracuse (-30 F, afternoon) was lower than on Mt. Everest (-20 F, morning)
2) The actual high temperature on Mt. Washington (-23 F) and in Syracuse (-3 F) was colder than the surface of Mars at similar latitude (0 F)

04-06-2004, 10:32 AM
Well said, dundare. I've heard the argument in risk discussions that "it's my life and I can take whatever risk I choose." However, we are never really alone on the trails. The lives of our friends and family are there with us by proxy and will be affected by our decisions.

I've taken to carrying photographs of my children with me when I hike. I try to keep them right there next to my map and compass to remind me of why I have to get back home, even if it means an early turn around.

This season was a wake up call for me. I hiked just as much as I usually do, but with more caution and much more respect for the mountains. I cancelled more hikes than I went on, but this is not unusual for me. I think I'm a better hiker for what I learned this winter. My risk tolerance has not kept me from enjoying the winter woods and summits, and I'm not done yet.

Mark Driscoll
04-06-2004, 10:36 AM

Where were you hiking near Syracuse? Was it Highland?


04-06-2004, 12:50 PM
[QUOTE]Having said that, I personally don't think that the record-setting activity this winter has contributed to anyone's death.

This is of course true.

However, I believe that this record setting activity is just another manifestation of an underlying mindset which causes people to make some of these decisions.

Note: I make no judgement on this "underlying mindset", just an observation.

Jack Waldron
04-06-2004, 01:48 PM
Most accident analyses identify one or more "mistakes". Those obvious mistakes are then blamed for the accident. I think that this approach is too simplistic. Frequently an accident is due to a series of small decisions. None of these decisions are glaring mistakes, but when taken in totality they result in a serious accident. This is a hypothetical scenario loosely based on the recent events on Lafayette.

A couple plans to hike the Franconia Ridge loop. The weather forecast is not promising. They bring the gear they have used successfully on this and similar hikes in the past. At the trailhead they decide to hike to Greenleaf hut and then reassess their plans. At Greenleaf hut the weather is deteriorating and other hikers comment on how risky it would be to hike the ridge today. They decide to cancel their plans to hike the ridge but will hike as far as treeline. If the winds and visibility are reasonable at treeline they'll try to tag Lafayette and return. Just below treeline, a second group heading up passes them. That group is also planning to tag Lafayette; all agree that hiking the ridge is too risky. At treeline the conditions are marginal. It's possible to see two cairns. The second group is already out of sight, heading to the summit. The couple decides to continue up. While the conditions are harsh, they are also exhilarating. This is a real challenge but they can consistently see one or two cairns and follow the trail. They meet the second group who are now descending. They report that the weather up top is fierce but that they did succeed in tagging the summit. When asked, the second group says that they left the summit about 10 minutes ago. Conditions are bad, but there are only about 10 minutes to go. The other group managed to make it, they are confident that their conditioning and stamina can deal with another 10 minutes of ascent. They reach the summit area, winds are fierce and visibility poor. They wander momentarily searching for the summit cairn. They find the summit cairn and turn to descend. It's difficult to find the first cairn. They finally find the first cairn, and then the second. Visibility is miserable but they keep their heads knowing they must follow the cairns. At each cairn one searches for the next cairn while the other watches the first. Slowly they are making progress. Even in the whiteout conditions the trail doesn't seem like Greenleaf, it's possible they are following the Franconia Ridge trail. They are successfully finding and following the cairns so they continue. Finally they reach a trail junction. It must be Falling Waters. The junction is the Skookumchuck. Where the hell is the Skookumchuck? They've never been here before and aren't familiar with these trails. They've been above treeline for a long time. The cold and wind are taking their toll. They are not sure where they are but they know they can't stay exposed above treeline for much longer. They decide to build a snow shelter and wait for a break in the weather.

There are about 10 decisions in this scenario. It's possible to second-guess any of them but I don't think that there is one glaring mistake. This sequence of decisions did incrementally and inexorably increase the couple's risks until they found themselves trapped in a snow shelter hoping the weather would break before they did.

Jim lombard
04-06-2004, 02:34 PM
Jack, one thing to add to your text. The evidently didn't just tag the summit and descend. They took several pictures pictures first. I'm not going to second guess on anything they did. I've been on the summit several times and once in thick fog did the same thing they did.

04-06-2004, 04:48 PM
I recall reading a post that mentioned Ken Holmes had his sights set on climbing Everest in the future. I have since wondered if Ken might have wanted to climb in a remote area with arctic conditions to train for a summit bid on a higher, more challenging peak.
Climbers do train on the rockpile in winter to prepare themselves for attempts on Denali and in the Himalaya. Ken might not have shared this plan with anyone on that fatal weekend for fear that someone might try to convince him that it was unsafe. It appears that he was very determined to do this climb, to the point of hitchiking if he did not get a ride. I think most people with dreams like Ken are very driven to perform and take on serious challenges to prepare themselves for the higher summits.
We will never know the reasons why but we certainly have been left with much to ponder and a great sadness.

Mike P.
04-06-2004, 05:17 PM
To add to Kevin's thought on the Ultra fit, Very few people made it back from a horrific storm during K2's worse season back in the 80's. About the only survivor from the top, Kurt Diemberger, hardly the poster boy for even moderately fit. Curently only living person to have been on first ascent of two 8,000 peaks.

04-07-2004, 12:01 AM
This winter should be warning to ALL.

Even experianced, well equipped hikers can still run into situations they do not come back from alive! This being said I've promised my wife that I will no longer be hiking solo in winter conditions!

If anyone learns from these deaths please let it be to not be selfish. Most likely someone else out there depends and needs you. Don't risk your life alone to prove something to yourself. I agree completely with Sherpa's 4 man rule and I intend on following it from this point on!

04-07-2004, 06:25 AM
Originally posted by Kevin Rooney
dundare -

I frequently arrange group hikes, especially in winter, and have noticed that ultra-fit hikers seem to have a harder time staying warm when stopping for breaks, and often need to start again before the main group is quite ready to go.

I couldn't find information specifically on ultrafit adults and their susceptibility to hypothermia. However, it is known that small infants are much more at risk for hypothermia for several reasons, two of which are lack of subcutaneous fat (which insulates), and increased ratio of surface area to body mass due to their small size.

The ultrafit tend to have little subcutaneous fat, and may tend to have less body mass that those that are unfit, thus rendering them more susceptible to the cold.

04-07-2004, 07:22 AM
Originally posted by crazymama
The ultrafit tend to have little subcutaneous fat, and may tend to have less body mass that those that are unfit, thus rendering them more susceptible to the cold.
What's being suggested here in this whole discussion about the body fat question is that "fitness" may be a relative or qualified term. If that's the case, then the real question might be, "fit for what?"


04-07-2004, 07:45 AM
What's being suggested here in this whole discussion about the body fat question is that "fitness" may be a relative or qualified term. If that's the case, then the real question might be, "fit for what?"

Excellent point. I once worked with a Biochemist who explained to me how ultra-fit athletes sometimes have great difficulty at high altitudes. Something about their bodies processing CO2 so efficiently at low altitudes that it causes problems (partial pressures, daltons law and all that...) at high altitudes. This seems to jive with reports I have read of iron-man tri-athlete winners not summiting McKinley while in the same group a 75 year old made it.

Yeah, I know slightly off the subject, but I thought it somewhat pertinent to the "what is fit" question.

04-07-2004, 08:02 AM
In 1961, on the Central Pillar of Freney in the Mont Blanc range (in France), Walter Bonatti was caught in a vicious storm that lasted many days. Many parties retreated on the glacier below and had to huddle (?) together for days. It ended up being the worst tragedy that ever happened in that area. People started dying, in the precise order of their age, starting with the youngest. If I recall, around 10 people died in that event.

04-07-2004, 10:10 AM

There's one thing you left out. I know it's been said before, but I think it bears repeating. Did they bring a compass with them? A quick check of direction on this $10 device in near zero visability conditions might have made the difference.

Let's all remember that.

04-07-2004, 12:10 PM
you'd need to take a bearing as you neared the summit so that you could be certain of the back-bearing. And, if you can't see the summit because of a whiteout ... You'd know if you were going north or south...

Jack Waldron
04-07-2004, 12:17 PM
I deliberately left out any mention of compass use when I created the hypothetical scenario. I wanted to create a "story" that could be discussed. I began with the publicly available information on the recent Lafayette tragedy. I embellished that information and connected the dots with a series of decision points.

Suggesting the use of a compass is a valid point. A change in behavior or decision-making at many points would have led to a different conclusion. In this tragedy and others involving "experienced" hikers, I think that the problems lay not so much in ignorance of appropriate gear or behavior but in the willingness to accept a small increase in risk by using less than recommended gear or behavior. We frequently call this behavior "pushing the envelope". "Pushing the envelope" is part of the learning process. Alternatively, a series of small, "pushing the envelope" decisions can create a very large and unanticipated risk exposure.

Assume that you had breakfast with the hypothetical couple before their hike and asked them whether they would hike to Lafayette in a whiteout carrying minimal gear and then follow the first cairn that they found assuming it must lead them to safety. The hypothetical couple would claim that experienced hikers, such as themselves, would never make such dumb decisions. They are right. They never made that dumb decision. But they did make a series of 10-15 small, "pushing the envelope" decisions that were equivalent to that same single dumb decision.

Fish and Game statements assigned blame for the Lafayette tragedy to both not carrying proper gear and failing to turn around in deteriorating weather. Superficially Fish and Game is correct. My question isn't what mistakes were made but why. What was the sequence of decisions that led to such an untenable situation? What was the motivation and reasoning behind each of those decisions? If the hiking community continues to focus on identifying what mistakes were made, but not investigating and understanding the decision making processes that lead to such high-risk situations then I don't think that we'll do much to prevent similar accidents in the future.

04-07-2004, 12:53 PM
Perhaps a thin case can be made with a small sample size that people with less body fat are more prone to chilling, hypothermia, body core cooling but that's thin ice to be sure. Take a look at this photo. (http://community.webshots.com/photo/132137690/132138269xLODDo) The thin old guy in the middle has been standing in the same cold temps (20's) as the rest of the group and yet he's the only one not bundled up. In fact I was not even chilled until we broke up to start hiking again, at least 30 minutes after our initial stop. Why is that? Genetics? Environment? Cold weather training? Human oddity?

In WWII, it was found that of the seamen who were forced to abandon ship and went into chilling waters, the higher percentage that perished were the younger ones. Not the thinner ones but the younger ones. Hmmm.

I recently read (maybe on this BB) that some ice climbers accustom their hands to the cold by continually dunking them into ice water. Their blood vessels adapt to this environmental extreme and they are able to handle colder temps than other climbers. Reinhold Messner used to take baths in ice cold water to accustom his body to the rigors of the cold.

Some of the best high altitude climbers who climb in extreme weather conditions are smaller than your average bear. Take a look at the photos of these guys in some of the climbing books; Steve Venables in Ed Webster's "Storm Years on Everest"; Chris Bonington after getting down off the Ogre in "The Everest Years; Joe Simpson is probably 5'6" 135# with a pocketful of change; Dr Tom Hornbein, Rick Ridgeway, Messner, Peter Habeler, John Roskelley, Jeff Long, and on and on and on. These are not big burly guys but they seem to not have a problem dying on the mountain because of the cold. Sure, small people die on Everest and K2 all the time but did their bodies give out on them or did they just push it a bit too far? The same can be said for women climbers as well. Slight of build, strong, high endurance, tough core, predominantly lean.

So what killed Ken Holmes and Brenda Cox? In the case of the former, an unfortunate assessment of the degree of the cruel conditions coupled with a rare weather anomaly. In the case of the latter, poor planning and poor decisions. Their brains failed them, not their bodies.


04-07-2004, 01:37 PM
Originally posted by Kevin Rooney

Not to put too fine a point on it, but for a compass to have been effective near the summit cairns, you'd need to take a bearing as you neared the summit so that you could be certain of the back-bearing. And, if you can't see the summit because of a whiteout ...

I don't think a visible siting is needed to get a back bearing. A little research with a map before hand will give you the bearing needed. Related, I think it best to choose the bearing based on knowledge of terrain features (traps to be avoided, handrails to be used) and in such a way that you have know, built in error so you know for a fact which way to go to find the trail once you hit treeline. For example, I've used this approach for retreats off of Adams. Using an easily determined compass bearing, you can move along and above King Ravine so that when you hit treeline, you know you are just east of the Spur trail (if you haven't hit the Spur trail directly by then). It would be relatively straight forward imo to set a similar dead reckoning course from Lafayette summit to the general Greenleaf area. Now, actually being physically able make that hike straight into the teeth is another story...

Related, I think it is critical to have your compass readily available and secured *before* heading above treeline. Also critical to used to using it on calm clear days. A white out is a lousy place to practice and learn about the quirks of the tool.

NOTE: these are general observations about compass use. Please don't apply this to any woulda-coulda-shoulda analysis of any of the recent tragedies.

04-07-2004, 02:29 PM
Jack, I don't think you/we will ever get an answer as to why these decisions were made.

What makes people exceed the appropriate safe speed during our winter storms? I see cars spun out all over the road, yet still get passed by drivers far exceeding the safe limit. What makes them do it??? Note, they're not all driving SUVs by the way.

Who knows?

People make stupid decisions all the time in all walks of life every second of the day. Some decisions are just more stupid than others and carry a large pricetag.

04-07-2004, 03:49 PM
rico makes a great point about the compass. In poor visibility it is so easy to become disoriented. Once on a summer bushwhack in low visibility I had to exercise great restraint not to deviate from the compass ... knowing that if I missed the road I'd probably be well on my way to Quebec. Be true to your compass.

John L has some persuasive anecdotes but I am not convinced that they lead to his conclusion. There is a stronger connection between the brain and than body than he credits.

04-07-2004, 03:54 PM
John L - Would that thin guy be you? If so, it's nice to meet a fellow human oddity. I'll often winter hike in short sleeve shirts and even shorts if there's no wind :) Although I do get cold in October/November, I continue to "dress down" and within a couple of weeks I've built up an "immunity". I think genetics (Irish/German descent) and body type (5'7", 200 lbs) helps too.

Mike P.
04-07-2004, 04:31 PM

Tim would have been wearing shorts & I'd be wishing I had packed a short sleeve shirt! :D

Point is well taken on how some of the high altitude masters are vertically challenged (short that is, they seem to love vertical places.) :D

-44 is more of an oddity for weather than 60 MPH wind & snow on Lafayette, those conditions happen probably 1/2 a dozen times a year, maybe some Monday Nights instead of Sunday afternoon.

Holmes was trying to escape but seemed not to know enough about the Twinway to Zelaand to make that choice & instead went the way he knew. The Coxes apparently did not descend Skookumchuck because they did not know how far above treeline it was & could not see the trees. (Are the new maps color coded to show what is in the trees & what is alpine zone?)

Did they fail to bring a map because they knew the trails? I sometimes forget to pack a map on very familiar trails - for me that would include F-Ridge, South Taconics, Holyoke's & a couple of trails up Monadnock. I try & remember them in winter but seldom if ever look at them until I get ready for my next trip & see if I have the right map or not.

04-14-2004, 11:04 AM
Originally posted by Kevin Rooney
I frequently arrange group hikes, especially in winter, and have noticed that ultra-fit hikers seem to have a harder time staying warm when stopping for breaks, and often need to start again before the main group is quite ready to go.
I noticed the same thing with a friend who was very fit, and never seemed to sweat like I did. Part of fitness (in summer) is gaining an ability to shed heat more readily. This may not be an advantage when you are not producing heat very fast.

04-14-2004, 11:21 AM
Originally posted by Jack Waldron
The junction is the Skookumchuck. Where the hell is the Skookumchuck? They've never been here before and aren't familiar with these trails.
They are not sure where they are but they know they can't stay exposed above treeline for much longer. They decide to build a snow shelter and wait for a break in the weather.

There are about 10 decisions in this scenario. It's possible to second-guess any of them but I don't think that there is one glaring mistake.
I would venture to state that if this hypothetical couple was carrying snowshoes, had they gone down Skookumchuck they would have lived through this scenario. Conditions would have got better very quickly, and even without the energy to hike all the way out it would have been a more sheltered place to camp in the snow. But treeline wasn't very far away on the Garfield Ridge Trail either. I think the decision to stay above treeline counts as a glaring mistake.

Even if the hypothetical couple had a map, it would not have been easy to read it at the junction, unlike the school group from Vermont who went down as far as Hellgate Brook and then back over Lafayette because they didn't know it was easier to continue. But if you have ever seen a map or seen the trailhead parking or even imagine that down to the L is better, it should have been a good choice.

Jack Waldron
04-16-2004, 10:29 AM
I agree that building a snow shelter above treeline rather than retreating below treeline via either Skookumchuck or Garfield Ridge is a glaring mistake. But, it's a glaring mistake only in the context of knowing how close you are to getting below treeline. If the hypothetical couple has been wandering above treeline for 2 hours, don't know where they are and aren't confident that they can retreat below treeline in a reasonable timeframe then building a snow shelter isn't an irresponsible decision. This begs the question of how they managed to get themselves so lost.

Most situations that require a SAR are the result of an interlocking cascade of events and decisions. Once such a cascade gathers momentum it can be very difficult to extricate yourself. There are two decisions that I would like to understand. The first is the decision at treeline to continue hiking above treeline toward the summit. This decision was made despite the fact that a forecast snowstorm was in progress. Shortly below treeline a second group, also attempting to tag the summit, passed the couple. Did the couple effectively piggyback their decision on the fact that the second group was confident that they could reach the summit in the storm? Did competitive juices flow? Did the behavior of the second group effectively challenge the couple to match them? What influenced the couple's decision to continue above treeline other than a straightforward evaluation of whether their own gear, skills, and experience were sufficient to deal with the risks the storm exposed them to?

The other decision occurs when the hypothetical couple met the second group returning from the summit. The second group told the couple that the weather on the summit was very bad. Despite this information the couple continued toward the summit. This is the type of behavior where the NH Reckless Hiking law could easily be invoked. But the second group also provided the couple with a positive piece of information; the second group had summitted about 10 minutes ago. This introduces the same set of questions. Was the couple's decision to continue toward the summit based on a realistic evaluation of their own capabilities to successfully cope with extreme weather conditions? Or, did competitive emotions and confidence that their physical conditioning could easily cope with another 10 minutes of ascent drive their decision? When the second group was on the summit either the visibility was better, their navigational skills were better, their familiarity with the summit terrain was better or all of the above. Once the couple continued past this point they don't seem to be capable of coping with the weather conditions. Following cairns in a whiteout or digging a snow shelter above treeline are not dumb decisions. Under a different set of circumstances those decisions might have averted a tragedy. But in the context of a whiteout on Franconia Ridge those decisions contributed to a cascade of events that left the couple trapped above treeline and at the mercy of extreme winter weather.

Tim Seaver
04-16-2004, 11:05 AM
The second group told the couple that the weather on the summit was very bad. Despite this information the couple continued toward the summit. This is the type of behavior where the NH Reckless Hiking law could easily be invoked.

Although I would probably agree that the Cox's should have turned around, it should also be noted that people's perception of what "danger" is varies significantly, frequently in direct proportion to their own level of experience and/or fears.

One afternoon a few winters ago, a friend and I were approaching the summit of Mount Washington, and met a party of two coming down at the point where the trail leaves the auto road and starts descending the cone. We had started around noon, and it was approaching 3 pm.

The people we met, who I would not describe as seasoned winter hikers, told us point blank that "there wasn't time to get to the summit" and that we should turn around now so that we didn't get "caught in the dark, or worse". Visibility was not and issue, and the temperatures and wind were reasonable, given the location.

Being intimately familiar with the distance to the summit and the descent time, we attempted to politely tell them that we appreciated their concern, but were going to tag the summit anyway ( seeing as though we are about 5 minutes away!) Disgusted with our "reckless" attitude, they stormed down the trail in a huff.

About 20 minutes later, we passed them, glissading down the lower summit cone while they clunked down over the rocks and snow with crampons. We tried to soften the blow by joking, suggesting that they leave a bit earlier next time so they don't get "caught out", but for some reason the humor was lost upon them.

Perception, like experience and ability, all vary.

04-16-2004, 11:33 AM
Originally posted by Tim Seaver
. . . Perception, like experience and ability, all vary.
Tim, that is an interesting story, closed with an interesting observation. I'd suggest, also, that result or outcome (that can be measured objectively) is perhaps the sternest and most realistic test of whether or not a particular decision/action could or should be regarded as "reckless."


Tim Seaver
04-16-2004, 11:49 AM
My favorite story from the "Darwin Awards" website:

.....Larry's boyhood dream was to fly. But fates conspired to keep him from his dream. He joined the Air Force, but his poor eyesight disqualified him from the job of pilot. After he was discharged from the military, he sat in his backyard watching jets fly overhead.

He hatched his weather balloon scheme while sitting outside in his "extremely comfortable" Sears lawnchair. He purchased 45 weather balloons from an Army-Navy surplus store, tied them to his tethered lawnchair dubbed the Inspiration I, and filled the 4' diameter balloons with helium. Then he strapped himself into his lawnchair with some sandwiches, Miller Lite, and a pellet gun. He figured he would pop a few of the many balloons when it was time to descend.

Larry's plan was to sever the anchor and lazily float up to a height of about 30 feet above his back yard, where he would enjoy a few hours of flight before coming back down. But things didn't work out quite as Larry planned.

When his friends cut the cord anchoring the lawnchair to his Jeep, he did not float lazily up to 30 feet. Instead, he streaked into the LA sky as if shot from a cannon, pulled by the lift of 42 helium balloons holding 33 cubic feet of helium each. He didn't level off at 100 feet, nor did he level off at 1000 feet. After climbing and climbing, he leveled off at 16,000 feet.

At that height he felt he couldn't risk shooting any of the balloons, lest he unbalance the load and really find himself in trouble. So he stayed there, drifting cold and frightened with his beer and sandwiches, for more than 14 hours. He crossed the primary approach corridor of LAX, where Trans World Airlines and Delta Airlines pilots radioed in reports of the strange sight.

Eventually he gathered the nerve to shoot a few balloons, and slowly descended. The hanging tethers tangled and caught in a power line, blacking out a Long Beach neighborhood for 20 minutes. Larry climbed to safety, where he was arrested by waiting members of the LAPD. As he was led away in handcuffs, a reporter dispatched to cover the daring rescue asked him why he had done it. Larry replied nonchalantly, "A man can't just sit around."


Larry came out of his adventure without a scratch. Was he reckless, based on the outcome?

04-16-2004, 12:23 PM
Originally posted by Tim Seaver
My favorite story from the "Darwin Awards" website . . .

Larry came out of his adventure without a scratch. Was he reckless, based on the outcome? :)
Certainly, you are not making a case to the effect that your hero, Larry, was acting prudently in taking his cobbled together homemade flying machine for a ride, are you? ;)

It is true that dunces and reckless fools sometimes survive their adventures. We call such instances "miraculous."

It also is true that prudently cautious folks sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by what is, for lack of any better thing to call it, just "bad luck."

But for the most part, true recklessness eventually seems to beget outcomes that are consistent with the behaviors.


Tim Seaver
04-16-2004, 12:53 PM
It is true that dunces and reckless fools sometimes survive their adventures. We call such instances "miraculous."

That certainly applies to Larry :)

I guess I was just trying to make the point that outcome is not necessarily the best measuring stick, given the "dumb luck" that can seemingly reward foolhardy behavior as easily as it can punish those who are seemingly well prepared. But you beat me to it. Coincidence and luck may play a larger role in our life than we are comfortable accepting.:confused:

04-16-2004, 01:16 PM
"There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots."

04-16-2004, 01:17 PM

While I certainly do not disagree with your premise on recklessness, I have always been amazed by those people who, for one reason or another, have an inordinate amount of bad luck or those others who seem to defy their reckless behavior to keep doing what they are doing. Examples that come to mind are Joe Simpson (he’s survived more debacles than the Touching The Void incident), Evil Knievel, snake handlers who are bitten numerous times by poisonous snakes, the forest ranger who has been hit by lightning four times, Len Bias dies and Keith Richards lives, a daredevil goes over Niagara Falls and lives and Dr Atkins falls on an urban sidewalk and dies, and on and on.

What is it that appears to create an immunity around some people and not others? Are some people more predisposed to succumbing to the same event than others? Do some people’s souls have more of a survival instinct than others? Do some people have more luck than others?

A recent Spanish movie called "Intacto" with Max von Sydow and subtitles tackles this curiosity with the premise that you can steal other people's luck by challenging and beating them in various types of dangerous contests and that you can also increase your own luck by surviving these pursuits.


David Metsky
04-16-2004, 01:28 PM
Followup to Larry's story:

Larry's efforts won him a $1,500 FAA fine, a prize from the Bonehead Club of Dallas, the altitude record for gas-filled clustered balloons, and a Darwin Awards Honorable Mention. He gave his aluminum lawnchair to admiring neighborhood children, abandoned his truck-driving job, and went on the lecture circuit. He enjoyed intermittent demand as a motivational speaker, but said he never made much money from his innovative flight. He never married and had no children. Larry hiked into the forest and shot himself in the heart on October 6, 1993. He died at the age of 44.


04-16-2004, 01:34 PM
Whaddaya mean, no old bold pilots?

Original Mercury Astronauts

Scott Carpenter, 78 years old

L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., 76 years old

John H. Glenn, Jr., 82 years old

Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, died in a NASA accident at age 41

Walter M. Schirra, Jr., 81 years old

Alan B. Shepard, Jr., died at the age of 74

Donald K. "Deke" Slayton. died of cancer at age 69


04-16-2004, 03:30 PM
They aren't bold pilots now.

04-19-2004, 06:57 AM
I have always been amazed by those people who, for one reason or another, have an inordinate amount of bad luck or those others who seem to defy their reckless behavior to keep doing what they are doing
Perhaps this explains much in regard to why some people make it and others don'tYou guys gotta watch the movie "Unbreakable" with Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson: www.areyouunbreakable.com

04-19-2004, 09:01 PM
Ive been following this thread, and hope ive figured out what mistakes were made!
"They went to the mountains in very iffy weather and died!"
They made no real mistakes, it was fate! ( their time)! No different than getting in your car and getting killed on the way to the supermarket.
We can discuss these incidents forever, and its not gonna change anything or anyone. For a short time some will be very carful about the weather reports, but that wont last. Some will carry extra ..stuff.. for awhile, but that wont last either!
What most of us do, even in the middle of the summer, climbing down the most minimal rock face, is put ourselfs at risk!! And hope we will be ok.
Look at Pedex, just minding his own business, in his own house and a life changing thing happened.
Enjoy what you do and know that your putting your ass on the line eveytime you get out of bed! Lets not beat this thing forever.
Its not gonna save you when your time comes!!

04-19-2004, 09:26 PM
Since many people die in their beds, it would seem that you put your, uh, ass on the line every time you get into bed, too.

I've never been on a winter or summer trip where I didn't take a glance at the weather, and I generally carry a thing or two along, even on sunny days.

If I do get run over by a bus downtown, it might very well be in part because I was cautious enough to not die in the mountains the weekend before. Meanwhile, I'll look both ways before crossing the street and put out my cigarette before pumping gas.

People do stupid things and die all the time, and there is often a link -- sometimes a whole chain. Learning from my mistakes and from others' beats the heck out of a fatalistic "oh, well." And being stupid in the mountains almost always risks more lives than your own.

But other than that, I agree with almost everthing you said ;-)

04-19-2004, 10:11 PM
My point was (i think) that we can prepare and be carful and so on, but... Things go wrong, and we can only be ready for just so much.
As i sit at this computer, i can hear the wind picking up. There is no way to know if this severe thunderstorm warning wont turn into something more after i go to bed and a branch crashes through the window and gets me, Thats fate!! As many have said prepare for tomorro, but dont get lost in worrying if its gonna be!
(Stinking Bruins!!!)

04-20-2004, 04:00 AM
Originally posted by mushroomman
My point was (i think) that we can prepare and be carful and so on, but... Things go wrong, and we can only be ready for just so much.

...and (my point) in winter and early spring, especially in the higher peaks of the White Mountains, preparing for cold -- even extreme cold, is not an outrageously over-cautious over-preparation.

Looking like a good year for the Flyers so far.