After returning from hiking Adams, I was discussing with a friend poor decision making in the woods. She sent me the following news article about the region and a kid local to our area. The story doesn’t play out so well and should stand as a warning to never be stubborn or arrogant when making decisions in regards to nature. The mountains and weather can be like the sea, they can take what they want and you won’t win. I may be a little superstitious about the ocean and the wild but what it all comes down to is: be smart, be prepared, be flexible and remember to show a little humility in the face of Nature and all it’s power.
January 23, 1994, Sunday, ALL EDITIONS
NATURE’S FURY Takes a human toll atop N.H. mountains, one of Earth’s
coldest spots Disaster shatters dreams of two college hiking pals
BYLINE: GERALD M. CARBONE; Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer
SECTION: NEWS, Pg. 1A
LENGTH: 4413 words
The meteorologists stationed atop Mount Washington had just sat down to a Saturday night treat: a turkey dinner with all the fixings.
Outside the temperature was 32 degrees below zero and plummeting. The winds howled, then shrieked, with 84-mph gusts that rattled the weather station’s bulletproof windows, thick glass designed to deflect the blows of rime ice falling from the tower.
Thirteen people sat down in the warm glow of the observatory’s dining hall, a much bigger crowd than the usual staff of four; howling wind and the occasional thump of falling ice served as background noise for the dinner conversation.
The meteorologists were joined by two mountain climbers who had banged on their door for refuge, and by a group of journalists and scientists enrolled in a “cold weather school” to learn about the climate atop Mount Washington, one of the coldest spots on Earth. It was a good time – good food, good conversation – until Ken Rancourt shot up from his seat, stood ramrod straight, and announced: “Something isn’t right.”
Conversation stopped. Rancourt was the chief meteorologist atop Mount Washington on the night of Jan. 15, and if he wasn’t happy, no one could be happy.
Rancourt heard something strange, something besides the screeching winds and thumping rime. There were a dozen other pairs of ears present, and no one else heard anything odd. But Rancourt had spent parts of 13 winters atop this mountain, the highest in New England, and he trusted his instincts.
He turned to Ralph Patterson, one of the staff meteorologists, and told him to grab his gear: They were going out.
Rancourt and Patterson climbed up one level to the observatory roof. Rancourt peered out into the floodlit night, wondering: Could that rhythmic thump he was hearing be a loose antennae on the weather station’s 40-foot tower? Unlikely.
The knock sounded again, and Rancourt bellowed into the wind. A human voice answered.
“Oh my God,” thought Rancourt. “How could there be somebody out there?”
Rancourt and Patterson stepped back inside, leaving the door open behind them. They clanged down the metal, spiral staircase to ground level and stepped out into winds so cold that it would “flash freeze” exposed skin, turning a flexible finger into a stiff piece of ice within 30 seconds.
It took them 10 minutes to walk the 400-foot perimeter of the observatory. They found nothing out there but wind and ice, so they scrambled back in through the door they’d left ajar.
Rancourt said he would search the observation tower’s upper levels while Patterson went down, just in case the person had slipped inside while they were walking around the building. Patterson clanged down the staircase and there in a corner stood a man with a frostbitten face.
Rancourt came down to the unheated stairwell and began interrogating the man: “Where did you come from?” he asked, his breath steaming in the air. “Are you alone?”
The man was lethargic, obviously suffering from hypothermia. A lot of his answers didn’t make sense, but the answers that Rancourt could understand were disturbing:
“I left my partner on the trail,” the man said, and Rancourt knew there was bigger trouble. The man repeatedly mumbled directions about where to find his friend, as if he had been rehearsing them while climbing the summit through inhuman conditions:
“Five cairns up the Jefferson Loop Trail,” he said. “Five cairns up.”
A cairn is a slender pile of boulders stacked every 50 feet to mark trails above the treeline, where there is no place to hang a marker. If Rancourt correctly understood, this lethargic, frostbitten young man had left his partner five cairns up Jefferson Loop, just below the summit of Mount Jefferson more than 4 miles away – an impossible distance to cover now, at night, in some of the coldest weather that had ever been recorded in one of the coldest spots on Earth.
Rancourt managed to get the man’s name: Jeremy Haas, age 20; his partner was Derek Tinkham, also 20. Rancourt telephoned down to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s rescue headquarters in Pinkham Notch at the base of the mountain. Word spread through the network of telephone lines stretched over the mountains and through the valleys: Get your gear together. We’re going on a rescue in the worst conditions that you have ever seen.
‘Worst . . .
Friends say that Derek Tinkham of Narragansett and Jeremy Haas of Ithica, N.Y., had been planning this trek since October. They wanted to complete a winter traverse of the Presidential Range, always a difficult hike. Weather usually turns back even the most experienced hikers.
In his book, “The Worst Weather on Earth,” William Lowell Putnam wrote: “There may be worse weather, from time to time, at some forbidden place on Planet Earth, but it has yet to be reliably recorded.”
As far as mountain ranges go, New England’s White Mountains don’t look like much. The tallest peak, Mount Washington, stands 6,288 feet, a
dwarf compared to Everest at 29,028, or North America’s largest, Denali (Mount McKinley) at 20,320.
But climbers who scale those bigger peaks often train on the Presidential Range of the White Mountains because the Presidentials consistently kick up weather as bad as anything they may face anywhere. The highest wind gust ever recorded on Earth, 231 mph, whipped across Mount Washington on Aug. 12, 1934.
The wind speed soars because mountains take up space between the ground and the upper atmosphere, so winds that blow over free space above the ocean or the plains run out of room when they hit mountains.
The same volume of air must squeeze through a smaller space, and it does this by blowing through faster, much as a gentle spray from a garden hose becomes a stinging stream when the hose is constricted.
More often than not, one of three weather systems is trying to squeeze across the White Mountains no matter what the season. And the higher you go, the colder the air mass gets – about 5.5 degrees colder for each 1,000 feet.
So on a 90-degree day in Providence, the temperature atop Mount Washington is likely to be about 60 degrees, with fog and high winds. New Englanders often find it difficult to grasp that even a sunny day promising perfect hiking can be deadly atop the mountain. These mountains claimed 110 lives between 1849 and the day Haas and Tinkham set out on their trek.
Haas and Tinkham fit the average profile of people who have died in the White Mountains: males, younger than 25, hiking in bad weather. But they differed from the statistics in this: Most victims of the
White Mountains died in summer.
Preparing for the rescue
The phone rang at Paul Cormier’s house in the tiny town of Twin Mountain; before he even picked it up, he knew.
Mike Pelchat, president of the Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue outlined the scenario: A man had come into the observatory on his hands and knees and there was still one person out there on the mountain.
As he packed his gear, Cormier, a veteran climber, held out some hope for the stranded climber’s survival. He knew that the climber’s partner had wrapped him in a sleeping bag and a bivouac sack, and there was a slim chance he might make it.
Cormier met Pelchat at snow-covered Jefferson Notch Road at 6 a.m. last Sunday, where Fish & Game workers on snowmobiles ferried the pair to the head of Caps Ridge Trail.
Cormier knew that it was foolhardy to climb Caps Ridge Trail. The temperature had plummeted to 41.9 degrees below zero after midnight, a record for the date, with winds gusting above 100 mph. Sunrise added just 3 more degrees and did nothing to slow the wind. But Cormier pressed on, recalling a mission two years ago, when rescuers found two lost hikers in Great Gulf ravine, holed up and healthy in a snow cave.
He joked to Pelchat: “Boy, it would be just like us to meet this guy coming down the trail.”
Cormier arrived at the trailhead wearing some of his gear: two pairs of socks, one polypropylene and one wool; long underpants; wool pants; polypropylene undershirt; turtleneck wool sweater; wool shirt; a one-piece expedition suit (like a snowmobile suit); a thin pair of polypropylene gloves; and a wool hat.
In his pack he carried wool mittens with leather liners; down mittens; a big down jacket; a facemask; and overboots to cover the double insulated plastic moutaineering boots he was wearing.
He also carried chocolate; granola bars; gorp; a space blanket; a first-aid kit; matches; food; fire starter; a whistle; pencil and paper; a map; duct tape; a headlamp; a compass; and a canteen.
Lashed to his pack were crampons to give his boots the power to grip ice; an ice ax; a wide shovel; and snowshoes.
Cormier carried enough equipment it seems, to survive in outer space, but it was barely enough for that mountain this day.
Cormier is an accomplished mountain climber who can handle himself, yet when he speaks of the mountains and their power, he speaks softly.
“When you’re hiking in very cold temperatures, it’s a lot of work to stay alive,” he explained. “You have to move slowly, because you don’t want to sweat. If you sweat, you’re signing your own warrant.
“You have to move slowly, but you can’t stop. You’re always wiggling your toes and wiggling your fingers (so blood will circulate.) You have to pay attention.”
Step by frigid step
Step by step, Cormier and Pelchat climbed the Caps Ridge Trail.
“The caps” are three false summits, or ridges, on the trail. The last cap ends just below the timberline – the spot where the weather turns so harsh that trees will not grow, and so there is nothing to buffer the wind.
Cormier heard the wind howling above the caps as he approached the timberline and he knew that he was about to step into the worst conditions he had ever seen.
Cormier and Pelchat stopped for a snack behind the second cap. Cormier unzipped a vent in his expedition suit and wiggled his gloved fingers through layers of clothing until he reached his undershirt, where he’d stashed a bar of chocolate. The chocolate was frozen hard as brick, so he smashed it to bite-sized pieces with his ice ax.
He pulled his insulated canteen from deep in his pack, where it had nested inside his down coat, but the canteen was useless; his water was ice.
Crampons – spikes strapped to boots – replaced snowshoes as Cormier and Pelchat crested the treeline. The wind hit with the roar of freight trains, punctuated by howls. The only other sound was the deep gasp of their own breathing.
It was so cold that vapor clouds of breath froze instantly, building icicles on Cormier’s facemask. Communication was only possible through muffled shouts from inches away. Slowly, but steadily, Cormier and Pelchat stepped their way toward the ridge where Jeremy Haas said he had left Derek Tinkham at sunset the day before.
While Cormier and Pelchat struggled up the Caps Ridge Trail toward the cairn where Tinkham lay, Jeremy Haas ate an enormous breakfast of blueberry pancakes and sausage inside the observation tower.
Patterson, the meteorologist keeping nightwatch when Haas stumbled into the observatory on Saturday, checked Haas throughout the night. He slowly warmed Haas, first by wrapping him in blankets, then giving him mugs of hot chocolate, and hot orange Jell-O.
Dr. Jim Beattie, a pathologist, and his wife, Lyn, a registered nurse, volunteer their services to the nonprofit society that operates the Mount Washington observatory. They just happened to be on hand when Haas came knocking.
Beattie telephoned down to Littleton Hospital to get some tips from Dr. Harry McDade, a recognized authority on the treatment of frostbite. Cold destroys tissue by constricting the small blood vessels until blood can’t flow through them. The tissue, robbed of nutrients and warm blood, stiffens.
When he pulled Haas’s gloves off, Beattie saw fingers that were swollen, white and waxy. He followed McDade’s orders and heated water to 105 degrees; he bathed Haas’s hands in warm water and wrapped them in sterile guaze.
The job of bringing Haas back from hypothermia was trickier. Bill Aughton, the search coordinator, who lectures on hypothermia, said that cold kills people by sucking away heat faster than they can produce it.
First, the brain shuts down circulation to the feet and toes because it doesn’t want to pump warm blood down there and have it come back cold. Circulation to the legs and arms slows as the brain tells the heart to direct precious warmth to the core organs.
Walking becomes difficult; simple tasks, such as pulling a zipper, are impossible. After a while, muscles don’t even have the energy to shiver anymore. Blood pools, becoming acidic.
As the heartbeat slows, even the brain isn’t getting all the blood it requires, and clear thinking is impossible. A person becomes lethargic, apathetic, indifferent to his plight.
When Haas came knocking on the observatory door he was showing signs of confusion and lethargy. As Beattie and Patterson warmed him, they took care not to warm him too quickly, as a sudden rush of cold, acidic blood could have shocked his heart.
“It took him a good while to come around,” recalled Patterson. “He started shivering really bad, which was a good sign because he had the energy to shiver. It took a good hour to warm him up.”
At daybreak, Haas feasted on pancakes as clouds cleared from the summit revealing the peak of Mount Jefferson, where Derek Tinkham lay.
The summit of Jefferson “looked like it was so close you could spit on it,” recalled Royal Ford, a Boston Globe reporter who was on Mount Washington to write about the cold weather school.
Bad weather kept the group pinned in atop Mount Washington until Tuesday morning. During the next 48 hours, Ford, meteorologists, and the two stranded hikers learned enough of Haas’s trek to piece together an account of what went wrong.
Escape to the mountains
Derek Tinkham dreamed of becoming a surgeon, and those who knew him say that he was gifted with the intelligence, dexterity and drive to realize the dream. He was an honors student at Narragansett High School, a champion wrestler and a member of Narragansett’s elite surf-rescue team.
As part of his dream, Tinkham enrolled in the University of New Hampshire’s pre-med program, in which he studied biology. He blossomed in college, bulking up from the 145 pounds he weighed in high school to nearly 200 pounds while maintaining an athlete’s build.
Tinkham joined UNH’s Sigma Nu fraternity, where a lot of the members were into mountain climbing. “When he came here, he was into his bike-racing phase,” recalled Adam Doyle, who was Sigma Nu’s “rush chairman” when Tinkham joined. “He was a great bike racer.”
Tinkham turned his energy toward mountain climbing, and joined Sigma Nu members in building a climbing gym in a fraternity garage last fall. Tinkham helped hammer handholds into the garage’s walls, and laid down wrestling mats so he’d have a safe place to land if he fell while climbing the walls.
Tinkham and Doyle escaped to the White Mountains whenever time and money allowed. They didn’t own snowshoes but that didn’t stop them from taking a winter hike in the mountains last year – they brought a big dog to break trail.
It was almost inevitable that Tinkham and Haas would find each other on the UNH campus, where both were juniors. When they met this fall, they discovered a shared passion for hiking.
In his freshman year, Haas was a member of the UNH Outing Club for a while. But in February 1992 he quit the Outing Club, after its leaders placed him on probation for being too demanding on members during a hike.
A month after he quit, he and fellow UNH student Chris Rose launched a winter climb to Mount Washington’s summit. Rose lost all his toes to frostbite.
“Jeremy is definitely a prepared hiker, but he’s definitely gung-ho,” Outing Club President Susan Adams told the Associated Press. “He’s very much into himself and into achieving his goal. Unfortunately, that attitude gets people hurt.”
In October Haas and Tinkham told friends of their plans for a winter traverse of the Presidential Range.
Haas, who has declined interviews since he came down from the mountain, told Ford of the Boston Globe that he had warned Tinkham: “This is going to be the most difficult, the most painful thing you’ve ever experienced.
“I told Derek before we left that this is a life-or-death situation, that being up here in this kind of weather is such an individual effort that this is essentially a solo,” Haas told the Globe. “Derek said this is something he very much wanted to experience.”
‘I was concerned’
On Friday, Jan. 14, Tinkham’s girlfriend, Jennifer Taylor, drove Tinkham and Haas from Durham to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s lodge at Pinkham Notch, where the two hikers signed the log book before beginning their trek.
Under the heading “Trip Itinerary” Tinkham wrote: “Presidential Traverse, North South.” For “Group Leader” he signed “Jen Tinkham,” giving his girlfriend his last name, as if they were married.
When Tinkham signed the log, the temperature on Mount Washington was a balmy 13 degrees above zero, with winds at a mild 11 mph. But forecasters had been watching a polar air mass sweeping down from Alberta for the past week, and they were issuing severe forecasts for the next 48 hours – temperatures of 30 below, winds gusting to 80.
Chad Lewis, a 24-year-old worker at the lodge in Pinkham Notch, talked to Haas and Tinkham as they were signing the log. Lewis had planned to traverse the range with the pair. In fact, the initial plan was that Haas and Lewis would guide four less experienced hikers on a traverse of the range through its steepest ravines, using ice screws and ropes to scale frozen cliffs.
But one by one the other hikers dropped out; some couldn’t get a ride, or the money, or, in Lewis’s case, the time off from work.
“I gave them the forecast, and I emphasized it quite a bit,” recalled Lewis. “I’ve gone hiking with Jeremy (Haas) and I know that when Jeremy sets a plan, he likes to stick with the plan. He told me he wanted to do a four-day bivouac.”
A bivouac is tentless camping. Instead of using a tent, hikers wrap their sleeping bags in a bivouac sack and sleep beneath the stars. “It’s questionable as to how wise a choice bivouacing was, given their experience,” said Aughton, the search coordinator. “Bivouacing is a questionable way to do it. It’s not a good way to spend a night for most people. You can’t light a fire, you can’t change your socks.”
When Haas told Lewis his plans, Lewis asked him to leave a written day-by-day itinerary because, he said, “I was concerned.”
Below the treeline the White Mountains in winter are a vision of heaven. Deep snow gives them the texture of whipping cream. Boulders become soft pillows. Sounds are muted by the snow. Wind in the frosted pines is a whisper, a caress.
Haas and Tinkham walked into this dreamy world about 3 p.m. Friday, Jan. 14. They walked about 50 yards up the Airline Trail before a yellow sign warned in capital letters that this trail that looked like heaven often led to hell:
TRY THIS TRAIL ONLY IF YOU ARE IN TOP PHYSICAL CONDITION, WELL CLOTHED AND CARRYING EXTRA CLOTHING AND FOOD. MANY HAVE DIED ABOVE TIMBERLINE FROM EXPOSURE. TURN BACK AT FIRST SIGN OF BAD WEATHER.
Haas and Tinkham trudged past.
On Friday Haas and Tinkham hiked until sunset, pitching their bags – rated as safe for sleeping at minus 10 degrees – and bivouac sacks just below the timberline along Durand Ridge.
From all accounts they spent a good night, though temperatures fell dramatically as the front from Alberta crashed into the mountains. At midnight the temperature was minus 6 degrees; when they awoke for breakfast six hours later, temperatures had plummeted to minus 18.
Haas and Tinkham fired up a pack stove and ate a hot breakfast before heading along the ridge about 8 a.m. – when the temperature was minus 24 with 40-mph winds, what Aughton describes as “death weather.”
Despite the weather, Haas and Tinkham pushed on to the top of Mount Adams, the first mountain in the Presidential Range. They could have taken the Gulf Side Trail around the mountain, but they chose to go up and over it.
As they came down the mountain, they hiked straight into the Northwest wind, to a place called Thunderstorm Junction. Four trails intersect at the junction, including Lowe’s Path, which slopes 1,000 feet down to Gray Knob, where a winter caretaker keeps a fire burning in his cabin for cold hikers.
Peter Collins, a 29-year-old mountain climber from Quebec, sprained his ankle climbing Mount Washington on that frigid Saturday, and he limped into the observatory for emergency shelter. He was stranded atop the mountain with Haas for three days, and he and Haas spoke in depth.
Haas and Tinkham didn’t hike down to the cabin, Collins said, because they didn’t feel cold at that point. (“Impossible,” said Aughton. “Given the temperatures and the clothes they had on, we know they must have been mildly hypothermic at this point.”)
The two hikers decided to press on toward Sphinx Col, where they planned to bivouac for the night. A col is a flat spot between two ridges, and they’re notorious for high winds that funnel through them.
About one mile beyond Thunderstorm Junction the trail forked, forcing Tinkham and Haas to make a choice: Go right, down Israel Ridge Path toward the Gray Knob Trail and shelter, or go left along the Gulfside Trail toward Edmands Col. They chose to go to the col. The temperature at noon was minus 24 degrees with 55-mph winds.
“When you step out of Edmands Col you’re heading into the death zone,” said Aughton. “We know damned well that’s one hell of a place to be.”
When they came through Edmands Col, Haas stopped to put on his heaviest coat. Tinkham chose not to, Haas told Collins, because Tinkham’s coat was down and he feared it would make him sweat.
After Edmans Col the trail forked again: This time they could have stayed on Gulfside Trail, which runs along the lee side of Mount Jefferson, or climbed Mount Jefferson via Jefferson Loop. They chose to climb the mountain.
Haas first recognized trouble near Jefferson’s summit. The wind, gusting near 60 mph, frequently knocked Tinkham down. He’d get up, stumble and fall. Get up, stumble and fall. Haas told Tinkham to slip into his down coat, but he mumbled one-word answers to questions and refused to put on the coat.
When they reached the summit, Tinkham told Haas he thought he’d do better now, going down the mountain. But he didn’t.
Five cairns from the South side of the Jefferson Loop Trail, Tinkham leaned close to Haas’s ear and spoke a complete sentence above the roar of the w Haas nodded. He led Tinkham to a flat spot on the lee side of a boulder. Then he slipped off his outer pair of gloves to help an unresponsive Tinkham slide into his bag. He struggled with Tinkham and his bag until sunset, when the temperature hit minus 26 and the wind hit 86 mph. Then Haas shed all of his gear – his pack, sleeping bag, bivouac sack – and began a desparate nighttime climb for the summit of Mount Washington.
Stumbling for help
Haas couldn’t put his outer gloves back on because his hands were so stiff from trying to cover Tinkham. He crossed his arms over his chest and cradled his hands in his armpits.
Blowing snow and the onset of night cut Haas’s visibility to 50 feet, just enough so he could see one cairn from the other. For three and a half hours, he focused on getting to the next cairn.
As he struck out from one cairn to the next, the wind frequently knocked him down. He’d stand, with his arms still wrapped around his chest, and stumble to the next cairn. He could only look up for brief snatches, for fear blowing snow would freeze his eyelids shut. He’d snatch a glance, stumble and fall. In this way, Jeremy Haas passed 400 cairns, remembering that he’d left his partner five cairns up the Jefferson Loop Trail.
Haas lost the Gulfside Trail near the summit, but he wandered onto the snow-covered tracks of the Cog Railway and followed them to the observatory. He circled the building pounding on doors and windows with his frozen hands. When he peered through a window he saw Jasper, the observatory cat, curled up snug on a bed while the winds shrieked in his ears.
Nine rescuers from the Mountain Rescue Service caught up to Cormier and Pelchat about 11 a.m. Sunday, as they crested timberline on Caps Ridge Trail. The MRS climbers had planned to climb Mount Washington and retrace Haas’s hike toward the Jefferson summit, but they abandoned that plan as suicidal.
The 11 rescuers gathered at the base of the Jefferson Loop Trail before heading up the trail side by side, where they hoped to find Derek Tinkham alive. As they climbed, a 90-mph gust knocked Pelchat off his feet and, in Cormier’s words, “rolled him like a tumbleweed.”
About 300 feet from the Jefferson summit, rescuers spotted a corner of Tinkham’s red-and-black bivouac sack snapping in the wind. When they reached him, rescuers found Tinkham lying on his stomach with the sleeping bag covering just his legs. It was obvious that he’d been dead awhile.
“I think after Jeremy left him he just rolled over and never moved again, which is a blessing because I don’t think he suffered,” Aughton said.
When they knew he was dead, some members of the rescue team shouted that they should bail out, leave the body there and get back safely. But someone else yelled: “We’re up here, we have the manpower, so let’s go for it and see what happens.”
In the end, Cormier said, it was “a reverence for the dead” that drove the rescue team to carry Tinkham’s body down Caps Ridge Trail into the teeth of a freezing wind. Blowing snow packed onto the eyelids of rescuer Andy Orsini and built up there like rime frost, freezing his eyelids shut. Team members led a blinded Orsini down to the timberline while hauling Tinkham’s body on a sled.
When the team reached the shelter of the second cap they gathered for chocolate and a hot drink. MRS volunteer Joe Lentini, who has climbed Mount McKinley, looked at the assembled group and said, “Be truthful, anybody been in worse conditions?” Not one hand went up.