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[at-l] Fatal Attraction excerpt
(This excerpt focusses on the two hikers Jim and/or Ginny Owens referred
to. It seems appropriate to have this grim reminder as we head into real
Winter hiking & climbing. --RockDancer)
Fatal Attraction, by Nicholas Howe, from Yankee Magazine, February, 1995.
Tinkham and Haas
The first death of 1994 came on January 15, a Saturday. Joe Dodge's legacy
is a cluster of buildings at the AMC headquarters in Pinkham Notch and the
"pack room" is a popular spot, the place where climbers gather when
they're about to start on a climb or are just returning from one. Thursday
evening a young man was speaking at considerable length on his plans, a
four-day traverse along the skyline ridge of the Presidential Range.
Another hiker was forcibly struck by how easily he dominated the room and
the people there, and how his companion sat by, silent and enthralled.
The speaker was Jeremy Haas; his companion was Derek Tinkham, both college
students, Derek loved the mountains, he went climbing up here whenever he
could, he meant to go to work as a guide, and he'd gotten a job with the
rescue team at Yosemite for the coming summer. His long-time friend
Jennifer Taylor often drove him up to the mountains to start a trip and
picked him up when it was done.
Their route usually took them through North Conway, 20 miles south of
Mount Washington, and Derek would always stop at International Mountain
Equipment, a major source of serious gear, advice, and companionship.
Jennifer noticed that Derek would only let one person wait on him; no
matter how small the transaction or how many unoccupied people were behind
the counter, he always waited until a short, compact fellow was free.
Finally Jennifer asked her friend why he always waited for that person.
Derek explained that the person he waited for was Rick Wilcox, owner of
the store; that he was a great mountaineer, that he'd climbed Mount
Everest, Jennifer understood.
What they could learn from Rick Wilcox should also be understood, because
it's the key to everything that followed. Rick had started with the
neighborhood mountains of New England and worked his way up. Now he's made
five trips to the Himalayas, and he knows how very small are the margins
that determine not just whether a summit is reached, but whether a climber
returns at all.
A Himalayan summit day begins years earlier, when the leader applies for
permission to make the try. The planning, the money-raising, the risk to
business and family relations, the long trek to base camp, the push higher
and higher up the flanks, all increase the pressure to make those last few
hundred yards to the summit. That's what we're taught to do; our culture
is obsessed with success and climbers are our surrogates -- they're the
ones that keep pushing upward.
For Rick Wilcox, and his climbing mates, the weather had gone bad just a
few hundred yards below the summit of Makalu, fifth highest in the world.
They turned around without hesitation. Six days of dizzyingly steep snow
climbing protect the summit ridge of Cho Oyu, then there's a very long
knife edge, and just below the summit, a small rock wall with a drop of
10,000 feet at the climber's heels. Rick's partner, Mark Richey, let the
first move onto that wall and sensed the brittle quality of the rock. He
looked at Rick, and with hardly a word, they turned around. The summit was
right there, and they turned around and headed for home, half a world
On his fifth Himalayan expedition, the summit of Everest was so still that
Rick sat there for an hour. From the beginning, he'd had the feeling that
finally, on this trip, it was his turn. The clouds came in that afternoon,
and Rick's partner kept track of his own descent by noting the curious
markers at the top of the world. There are frozen bodies on the summit
patches of Everest, climbers who did not plan as well or who kept pushing
when the signs were bad. It's too difficult to take dead climbers down, so
they stay there forever and wiser climbers use them as guides.
The hike Jeremy had planned for himself and Derek began Friday afternoon,
but like a Himalayan expedition, the important decisions had been made
much earlier. Jennifer had urged Derek to take along a small
mountaineering tent, but Jeremy wanted to travel light, so they took
bivouac ("bivy"} bags instead, weather-resistant coverings for their
sleeping bags. Jeremy also left his over mitts at home, he wanted the
added dexterity of gloves.
Something else had already been established, probably years earlier;
Jeremy had a tendency to keep pushing. He'd led a climb for the University
of New Hampshire Outing Club, and when they returned, many of the group
complained that he'd kept charging ahead and was not sensitive to their
needs; he was told he could not be a trip leader anymore, and he resigned
from the club. He took Chris Rose on a Presidential Range traverse over
the Christmas break, and Chris got so cold that all his toes had to be
amputated. The trip Jeremy planned for himself and Derek was the same
route as the one that had claimed his friend's toes two years earlier.
The pack room at Pinkham Notch were Jeremy held forth was built many years
after we set out to rescue the failing hiker on Guinea Day, but other
elements have not changed. Detailed weather reports and predictions at
upper elevations are always posted at the AMC, and climbers check them as
a reflex before starting up. High winds and extreme cold were predicted
for that weekend. Jeremy and Derek started for the base of the Air Line
Trail, a popular route departing through the tiny town of Randolph and
rising to skyline on the northern end of the Presidential Range.
The trees grew smaller and more dense as they neared timberline. There are
openings here, certified as overnight campsites by years of native wisdom.
The two climbers stopped in one and settled into their bivy bags. As they
slept, the weather above timberline, severe enough when they began, grew
The summit observatory recorded -6F at midnight and -23F at 0800; the wind
moved into the west and was steady in the 40-mile-per-hour range, not high
by local standards, but a west wind rakes straight across the 6.5 mile
ridge Jeremy and Derek would traverse. They climbed to the top of Madison,
then Adams, the second-highest peak in the Northeast. It was close to noon
now, and they'd been making quite good time. This section of the trail
leads down to Edmands Col, a mile of easy going. Derek was going slower
and slower, a sign that betrays the onset of hypothermia. Edmands Col lies
between Adams and Jefferson, and the mild descent took many times what it
would in summer.
Hypothermia is not just cold hands and feet; it comes when the cold has
bitten right through, and the body's core temperature begins to drop. The
body circles up the metabolic wagons to make one last stand against death,
blood is concentrated in the viscera, the mind becomes sluggish and limbs
At this point, there were three refuges nearby, all below timberline: The
Perch is a three- sided shelter, Crag Camp just had a complete rebuild,
and Gray Knob had also been rebuilt and had a caretaker, heat, lights, and
radio contact with the valley. The two hikers discussed a retreat to one
of them, but decided to continue upward toward the summit of Jefferson.
Jeremy's original plan was to go on to Sphinx Col, a mile and a half up
Jefferson and down the other side; he remembered an ice cave there during
his previous trip, and his idea was to use it as shelter for the second
night of this trip.
In the prevailing weather conditions, it had become a plan of breathtaking
stupidity. Ice caves are ephemeral. What Jeremy had seen two years earlier
might not be there at all this year.
Even if it was, Sphinx Col would be a furious torrent of Arctic wind and
an ice cave was not what they needed. As bad as it was in Edmands Col, it
could only be worse in Sphinx Col, higher and nearer the Mount Washington
weather vortex. The climbers were getting weaker, the storm was getting
Afterward, Jeremy said the decision to push on was a mutual one. But
experienced climbers agree that at this point it was Jeremy's job, as the
more experienced climber, to get Derek down to shelter, any shelter. As
Rick Wilcox puts it, "When you climb solo, you only have to worry about
yourself, but when you climb with another person, it's your responsibility
to look out for him."
In fairness to Jeremy, he was suffering from the same extreme conditions,
and that might have affected his judgement.
When they got to the summit of Jefferson, Derek collapsed. Having left a
tent at home, Jeremy tried to get him into a sleeping bag, then left for
the summit of Mount Washington, more than three miles away. It was 4:30
p.m., darkness would soon overtake him, the summit temperature had dropped
to -27 F, and the wind was in the 80s with a peak gust of 96 miles per
hour. Jeremy lost his gloves, and having left his heavy overmitts at home,
his hands were too cold to let him get at the food and the flashlight he
had in his pockets. He kept his hands under his armpits as he staggered
and crawled along the ridge.
Conditions like this do not match normal experience. One year I went up to
the summit for Thanksgiving dinner with the observatory crew; the weather
was moderate and the climb enjoyable, but the day after the feast, the
wind rose to 150; the day after that the recording pen went off the chart
at 162. In lulls, the observers would climb the inside of the tower to the
instrument deck to clear ice from the sensors. I'd go and help and found a
curious situation: Facing the wind made it difficult to exhale, back to
the wind made it difficult to get a breath in. Strictly speaking, it was
physics, but it felt like I was drowning of an ocean of air. Purposive
effort hardly worked at all, and years later when I saw news footage of
people getting hit by police water cannons, I thought of that storm on
Supper in the observatory on the Saturday of Jeremy and Derek's trip was a
noisy meal. There was the hammer of an 80-mph wind and cracking sounds
from the building itself. The concrete and the embedded steel reinforcing
rods contract at different rates. Ken Rancourt and Ralph Patterson were on
duty, and they were used to this, but now Ken suddenly looked intent, he'd
heard a different, more rhythmic banging in the midst of the uproar. He
and Ralph traced the sound to a door on the north side of the building:
Someone was out there.
A few minutes later, Jeremey was inside. He was barely able to talk, but
as Ralph checked for the most obvious signs of damage, he asked Jeremy if
he was alone. Jeremy indicated that he'd left his partner near the summit
of Jefferson. The wind peaked at 103 that night, and between midnight and
0400 the temperature held steady at -40 f.
Some newspaper reports described Jeremy's fierce traverse as "heroic."
Others had worked out a different calculus of risk, and they did not share
that view. Prominent in the latter group are the ones who tried to rescue
By 2100 the observatory crew had called the valley to report the
emergency, and the message reached the Mountain Rescue Service. Joe Letini
answered, then and co-leader Nick Yardley put the "A Team" on standby. The
first decision had already been made: The combination of darkness and
brutal conditions made a rescue attempt that night impossible. It's a
difficult but accepted calculation; at a certain point, many lives cannot
be risked in a try to save one. At 0500 the team left for the base of Caps
Ridge Trail, the shortest route up Jefferson.
Conditions were extraordinarily bitter as the 11 team members started up.
Joe Lentini was keeping a sharp eye out for signs of frostbite or falter
among his crew. Caps Ridge takes its name from a series of rock outbursts
heaping up above timberline like the bony spires on the back of some
prehistoric monster. Summertime hikers have to hold on up there, and in
winter it's immeasurably tougher. The caps are clad in ice, with
wind-blown snow in the sheltered parts of the jagged skyline. The dwarf
spruce under drifts is impossible to see, and when the climbers stepped in
the wrong place, they'd fall up to their ribs.
Up past the last cap, Tiger Burns advised Joe that his feet were getting
cold. Knowing that it would only get worse and that a disabled team member
higher up would vastly increase their problems, he descended to a
sheltered place to wait for the others to return. He was still above
timberline, but he was ready.
Tiger's outfit was typical of MRS team that day. He had many layers of
specialized clothing under his waterproof outer shell. He had insulated
bin-pants and parka with a heat-reflective Mylar lining, a balaclava, a
pile lined Gore-tex hat under the hood, and a scarf snuggling up the
spaces around his face. He had polypropoylene liner gloves,
expedition-weight wool gloves, extra-heavy expedition mitts with
overshells, and chemical heaters for hands and feet. In his pack, Tiger
had two sets of backups for his gloves and mitts, two more hats, another
scarf, extra chemical heat packs, and a bivy bag. Unlike most of the
climbers, he was not wearing goggles. Instead, as his balaclava froze, he
pinched it into narrow slits over his eyes.
Up above, the trail led onto an alpine zone of ice and rough broken rock,
with the 1,000 foot summit pyramid of Jefferson rising above it. It was
just here that the wind hit the rescue team, a blast so severe that they
could communicate only by putting their heads together and yelling. At
1000, Al Comeau spotted a bit of color up near the peak of the mountain.
It was Derek's bivy bag. It was just below the summit, and Derek was lying
there half out of his sleeping bag. He was wearing a medium-weight parka,
and it was only partly zipped; his other clothes were barely sufficient
for a good-weather winter climb, and his hands were up at his face as if
trying to keep away the calamity that fell on him at dusk the day before.
There were two packs with sleeping bags nearby, on top of an insulated
sleeping pad. Troubled things had happened here, but there was no time for
As the team started down, the wind hit them straight in the face. It was
-32 f , the wind was peaking in the high eighties, and they were keeping
ahead of it in clothing like the outfit Rick Wilcox had on the top of
Everest. In conditions like this, you don't go where you want to go, you
go where the wind and the terrain let you go. Suddenly Maury McKinney
broke through the crust and the whole of his weight drove his heel down,
injuring his calf. The Andy Orsini's eye froze shut. Bob Parrot helped
Andy cover up completely and Maury leaned against his other side, partly
to guide him, partly to relieve his own bad leg. The battered troika made
its way down through the ice and rock for several hundred yards until
Maury was able to reach in through Andy's wrappings and rub the melting
ice out of his eyes.
When the team reached Tiger Burns, they took their first rest in eight
hours of continuous maximum effort. Several times they'd considered
leaving the body behind and saving themselves, but then they thought of
Derek's family and how they'd feel if their son was still up there, alone
with the storm, and they kept going. Once in the woods, they talked among
themselves about what had happened. "Bottom line," said Joe Letini, "I
would never ditch a partner like that."
Later there was time for reflection. Like many members of the recovery
groups, Andy Orsini had instinctively shut out the emotional aspects of
the job in order to get on with it. By Tuesday this insulation had turned
to anger. He had the newspaper account and read that if he had any
regrets, Jeremy had said "Yes, I wish I'd brought mittens instead of
gloves." Andy was so appalled that he called the newspaper to verify the
remark. "It's something I have to live with," said Al Comeau, "seeing
Derek there. He was a victim of Jeremy's state of mind and over-
ambitiousness. That one really bothered me."