Confessions of a Reluctant Rescuer
Twice a year my phone will ring in the middle of the night. Usually its winter and I’m very warm and cozy sleeping next to my girlfriend. I’ll roll over (inadvertently elbowing Janet in the process) and try to pretend that the phone isn’t ringing before finally relenting and answering the damn thing.
It’s Rick or Maury, two of my bosses at IMCS, the local climbing school in North Conway. “Fred, what are you doing?,” they’ll ask. And this is an entirely redundant question because they know goddamn well what I’m doing at 11.45 on winter evening. “Can you go on a rescue?”
I sigh and close my eyes and watch as whatever I had planned for the next day flashes before me, and then I say “Sure…. What time do you want me?”
Everybody likes to think of them self as a hero. It doesn’t take much effort for any of us to close our eyes and picture the scenario – a nasty fall, helpless rope team, and you-know-who in just the right place at just the right time to come selflessly swinging to the aid of their brother climbers. Unfortunately, organized rescues rarely follow this perfectly scripted plot. For starters, rescues are rarely dramatic – once the call goes out, chances are the drama’s already happened. And they are slow – have you ever carried a litter down a talus slope? Than there’s the fact that organized rescues have to be, well, organized. And that mean you have to take orders for someone. If it’s a search, there’s a good chance you’ll spend six or twelve or eighteen hours walking around in the woods calling some stranger’s name at the top of your lungs and never come close to finding him or her.
The truth is, I find rescues to be tedious and stressful, vaguely ego-deflating and overwhelmingly boring, all at the same time. What they really remind me of is going to a high school dance. So this January, when my phone rang in the middle of the night, I had to take a moment before responding. And in that split second pause before I committed myself to another day of alpine tedium, Maury, with the verbal acumen of a used car salesman, made his pitch.
“You’ll get to ride in a helicopter”, he said.
“So what happened to this guy, anyways?” The speedometer on Bayard’s Elantra pushed passed sixty as we crested Crawford Notch and blasted towards Interstate 93. We were running a few minutes late, and who wants to be late for a helicopter ride? The guy in question was actually named Brian. He was a college student in nearby Plymouth who’d gone for a winter hike with a few friends up Mount Lafayette in Franconia Notch that Saturday. A strong weather system was moving to the west of New Hampshire, and producing some very sporty conditions. As they moved up the mountain the winds only increased. Brian’s friends turned back, but Brian, with the wind at his back, decided to keep going and try to tag the summit. By this time, the Mount Washington Observatory was recording gusts of over 100 miles an hour. Brian’s friends waited, but he never showed at the parking lot.
When Bayard and I rolled into the trailhead at 7.15 AM, the place looked like the parking lot at Gillette Stadium an hour before kick off. There were news trucks, reporters and photographers. There were forest service rangers, fish and game cops, and state police. A hundred other folks from three different volunteer teams milled around in bulky winter clothes, awkwardly talking and shuffling to stay warm: guides, ski patrollers, and experienced winter travelers. This, I suddenly realized, was a Big Deal. This was a black tie event, a full blown senior prom for every climber and mountain professional in New Hampshire.
By now, Brian had been out for two nights, and the New Hampshire Fish and Game was throwing all of their available resources at finding him. Everyone knew that after today, the odds didn’t look good for our hapless college man. And those resources included a New Hampshire Air National Guard Blackhawk helicopter. As I walked around the parking lot, chatting with the many familiar faces, I heard very little discussion of Brian. Certainly everyone there were good, caring people who had gladly volunteered their time to come to the aid of a fellow climber. But all everyone was talking about was the Blackhawk.
The plan called for nine different five man teams to be flown to the top of Mount Lafayette, and than conduct searches of predetermined sections of the mountain from the top-down. Yet the chaotic state of the universe there in the Old Bridal Path parking lot at 7.30 in the morning meant nobody was assigning teams. It was every man for himself. Which team would go first? What section of the mountain is your team searching? What team are you on? Nobody wants to go to senior prom with a slow team or a lame search assignment. Luckily, Bayard and I bumped into our friend Jim Shimberg.
“Hey guys,” he called. “There’s two more spots on our team, come here!”. As we mingled with Jim and the rest of newly formed team, Bayard noticed something in the snow.
“Hey, check it out,” Bayard said. He held up a decent pair of sunglasses he had just found lying in the snow bank. Nobody claimed the shades, and Bay happily added them to the collection on the dashboard of his car. I took it to be a good omen.
An hour later we trudged passed a crooked cairn and onto the summit of Lafayette. The Blackhawk had dropped us off in a slight saddle to the south of the summit. The flight from Route 93 to the ridge, my first ever helicopter ride, was (along with losing my virginity and standing on the summit of Cerro Torre) one of the greatest 4 minutes of my life. Words won’t do it justice, so I’ll move on to the man of the hour, our friend Brian.
We were assigned a search zone to the northeast of the summit, a steep, trail-less ravine that dropped into Pemigewasset Wilderness. If you were looking at a map of the White Mountains and asked to point to the most remote part of the range, you could very well pick the East side of Mount Lafayette. Not that it’s that remote (this is the northeast, after all), but any way you slice it is about twelve miles to 15 miles to a serviceable road.
I motored past the summit, heading towards on assigned search area. But Jim, the old White Mountain bloodhound, took his time, poking around some rocks a few feet off the trail. “I think I got something!” he called. A suspicious depression in the snow could have been a boot track. The group halted and began following Jim. A hundred yards below the summit we found a trekking pole, than a water bottle. A quick radio call confirmed the gear as similar to what Brian had been carrying. Jim was on the scent.
The farther we dropped off the summit, the easier it was following Brain’s trail. Bushwhacking through the White Mountains in winter is hard work, but once someone’s beaten through waist deep snow and thick krumholtz, following their path is a no brainer. We came to a glade with what appeared to be an impromptu bivy spot. We found discarded food rappers, a pair of hiking crampons, and – most disturbingly – a crumpled map. It was shredded and scorched. Had the poor lad tried to use his map to start a fire? A round hole was burned through the center of the paper, erasing the exact area where we now stood. Farther down, the trail dropped down a steep streambed, breaking through the ice into running water in several places.
This was getting weird. By now, I think everyone in the team was silently preparing themselves for the worst. Adding to the tension, the Blackhawk circled overhead and the radio crackled with communications from the command post and various teams. It felt like getting dumped on prom night, with your parents, friends, teachers, then entire universe, watching.
And then we heard screaming. Bayard and I started to run.
As we had followed his trail that morning, I had absently thought about what I’d say to Brian if we found him and he was alive. It had to be something catchy, something historic like H.M. Stanley’s quip in the heart of Africa, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”, or Conrad Kain’s crack to his clients on the summit of Mount Robson, “Gentleman, I can take you no further.”
Bay and I trashed through a final stand of spruce, rounded a turn in the stream – And there was Brian. He was sitting in a sleeping bag in the middle of the frozen stream, looking expectantly at us.
Knowing he was a good New England college guy, I cut right the chase. “I got bad news, Brian,” I said gravely. “The Patriots lost yesterday.”
The weekend gale had forced Brian to continue with the wind, dropping off the summit to the east. After breaking through the stream several times as he thrashed down, his boots were soaked. He took them off for the night, and they froze solid. With no way to dry them, he was immobile, and sat there for two days until we arrived. Nevertheless, he was in remarkably good shape, with only superficial frostbite and an empty stomach.
An hour after we found him, Brian was dangling underneath the Blackhawk as he was winched to safety. I lobbied on the radio for his rescuers to be airlifted out as well, but alas, no such luck. Instead, we made the long and ignoble slog out to the Kancamagus Highway on foot, arriving a little after dark. At least I succeeded in getting a few rounds of free beer at the brewpub in North Woodstock that evening – a tasty reward for a reluctant rescuer.
-Freddie Wilkinson, MRS Team Member