The Mystery on Mount Washington

Pam Bales’ solo hike in October 2010 turned into a daring rescue of a fellow hiker. But she was left with more questions than answers.
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two people hugging on snowy background

A feeling of peace washed over me as soon as my boots hit the dirt. At the base of Mt. Washington’s Jewell Trail, the October sun felt warm on my bare arms. But having grown up exploring New Hampshire’s White Mountains, I knew the conditions up high would be nothing like in the valley. In preparation for a late-season ascent of the 6,288-foot peak known as “home of the world’s worst weather,” I’d loaded my pack with extra layers and a pair of snow goggles.

I’d been volunteering with the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team for five years, and these mountains were both my playground and my office. I was heading out to train with a heavy pack, and to enjoy a few hours in my favorite area.

Mt. Washington, with its unpredictable climate, has claimed over 150 lives over the past 150 years, making it one of the deadliest mountains in the country. I felt strong that day, but could see thick clouds shrouding the top half of the peak. At 5,000 feet, about 3 miles in, the wind began to pick up around me. I stopped to add a layer.

Snow was blowing in my face as I continued upward, but I could follow this trail with my eyes closed. Above treeline, gusts raged and the temperature dropped. I told myself if the weather worsened further I’d turn back; returning to my car was more important than making the summit.

Around 5,500 feet, I reached the junction with the Gulfside Trail. That’s when I noticed fresh footprints in the snow that sent shivers up my spine.

It was clear that these tracks hadn’t been made by sturdy hiking boots, but by sneakers. Street shoes in this weather? I knew someone was in trouble.

I turned to follow the prints. A few steps later I saw him—a man slumped on the ground with his back against a boulder. A layer of snow covered his clothing. I called out and was answered only by silence.

Crouching beside the man, I looked at his thin jacket, T-shirt, and soaked pants. How could someone hike up here so unprepared? He was breathing, but his skin looked like porcelain and he wore a vacant expression. This was bad.

I grabbed my extra layers and changed the man out of his wet clothes. Then, I tucked hand warmers inside his shirt and fed him from my thermos of hot chocolate. He sat passive and slack, hardly acknowledging my presence. It felt strange to treat a patient without knowing his name, so I decided to call him John.

The wind was picking up, creating a swirl of blowing snow behind the boulder where we’d taken shelter. We needed to get moving. John had revived somewhat and could walk behind me on the hardpack. My tracks from the way up had disappeared, but I could just make out the depressions from my trekking poles, and I followed them like breadcrumbs.

We descended slowly. The footing was slippery and laden with precarious boulders; I worried about John’s flat sneakers. I sang ‘60s hits to remind him that I was there and to keep my own morale up. Periodically I’d ask a question, but at most John would only grunt. I couldn’t understand why he’d ventured up high on a day like today, dressed as he was. Once, he sat down in the snow, appearing to give up. “We’re in this together,” I scolded him.

After six hours of descending we reached the parking lot. It was dark, and later than I’d planned to be home. I warmed John’s clothes on my car’s heater, traded them for the layers I’d lent him and then, with hardly a word, he drove off. Bewildered, I stood in the parking lot, glancing back at the howling mountains. What had just happened?

At home, I wrote an email to my SAR teammates recounting the rescue. We debriefed, examining our protocols and speculating about the events that could have led John into such distress, but there were still so many questions. Answers wouldn’t come for a few days when a letter arrived at the SAR headquarters.

“I hope this reaches the right group of rescuers,” it read. “I was called John. On Sunday, October 17th I went up my favorite trail, Jewell, to end my life. Weather was to be bad.” I paused and started again. It took a few tries to get through the whole letter.

“Next thing I knew this lady was talking to me,” he wrote. “I said to leave me and get going but she wouldn’t.” He had considered running off but thought I might follow and didn’t want to harm anyone else.

“With all that has been going wrong in my life, I didn’t matter to me. But I did to Pam.” Inside he had tucked a small donation. “If she’s an example of your organization and professionalism, you must be the best group around . . . I have a new direction thanks to wonderful people like yourselves.” The letter was signed “John.”

I never found out exactly who I helped that day. But I like to think he is out there somewhere, enjoying his second chance.  

Skill School: Be a Helper

Prepare yourself to respond if you come across a hiker in danger with this advice from Lieutenant Chris Camejo of Pemigewasset Valley SAR.

Come prepared. Carrying the 10 Essentials (navigation tools, sun protection, layers, flashlight, shelter, first aid supplies, firestarter, knife, extra food and water) is the best way to be equipped to help someone in trouble and avoid getting in danger yourself.

Assess the situation. If it’s safe to leave to go find cell service, prep the victim with shelter, extra layers, food, and water to ensure comfort until help arrives. If the affliction is minor, or if you’re too far from cell reception to seek help for a time-sensitive injury, you may need to evacuate the hiker without help from SAR.

Prioritize your safety. “We have a saying in the SAR community,” Camejo says. “‘Don’t make somebody else’s emergency your emergency.’ If you jeopardize your own safety, it’s not good for you or the injured hiker.”