Mount Washington from Intervale, NH
Credit: Peabody & Smith

It’s Not Just Bad Weather That Can Make A Hike A Disaster.

[Editor Note: This article first appeared in the Boston Globe, August 16, 2017, and was reported and written by Martin Finucane. Click here to see the original version in the Globe.]

For years, hikers have shouldered their packs, inhaled the crisp air, and set out for adventures in the White Mountains. And for years, a small number have not made it back alive.

Sometimes it’s been a lack of proper gear. Other times it’s been a decision not to turn back when the skies were darkening. Still other times it’s been a simple slip while trying to get a look at a waterfall.

Julie Boardman has studied the fates of the unlucky ones, researching 219 deaths in the mountains, going back into the 19th century.

Boardman, author of “Death in the White Mountains: Hiker Fatalities and How to Avoid Being One’’ (Bondcliff Books, 2017), said the main reason people die in the mountains, which are just a few hours’ drive from Boston, is lack of preparation.

“People need to be educated about the dangers. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of the dangers that they’re getting themselves into,’’ she said.

She studied deaths that happened from 1849 until July (three more people died just recently). Her study focused on hikers, rock and ice climbers, and back-country skiers.

The leading causes of death were falls (74), natural causes such as heart attacks (57), hypothermia (46), and avalanches (14).

(Boardman’s book didn’t focus on rescues, which are the more common and happier outcomes of mountain emergencies. Those were up this year, New Hampshire Fish and Game officials told the Globe in May, blaming the need for rescues on a lack of preparation.)

How tricky can the White Mountains be?

One finding that surprised Boardman was that 21 of the hypothermia deaths occurred between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, a period during which you wouldn’t expect to die of the cold.

“It’s because people go out in the summer and they don’t have the gear they need, and then they run into bad weather and they get themselves into trouble,’’ she said.

The worst month for fatalities, because of the surprises provided by the weather and perhaps because of the higher volume of visitors, is August, she said.

Here are some of Boardman’s tips to stay safe in those beautiful mountains.

■ Study the weather forecast so you know what to expect.

■ Wear the proper clothing for the weather.

■ Bring enough gear. On winter hikes, bring a sleeping bag and enough equipment so if you get caught out overnight you can survive.

■ Know your route so you don’t get lost — and so you know what hazards you will face along the way.

■ Leave your plans with someone so they can alert authorities if you’ve gotten into trouble.

■ Hike with a companion. Two heads are better than one, she said, particularly because people with hypothermia can become confused. A second person can also help someone having problems with manual dexterity because of the cold or when someone is injured — in a fall, for example.

■ When in doubt, chicken out. Boardman says there’s plenty of wisdom in this saying, which she attributed to American mountaineer Miriam O’Brien Underhill. In a number of hypothermia cases, Boardman found, people had run into bad weather — and made the deadly decision to just keep going.

■ Stay on the trail. Boardman found that of 22 people who died of falls in the summers, 21 were off the trail. “A lot of them had gone off the trail to look at a waterfall,’’ she said.

■ In winter, go up and down the same trail so you’re familiar with what you’re facing on the way back. In six of 16 winter falling deaths, hikers were going down a different way than they had come up, she said.

■ Don’t hurry, and don’t push yourself. Hurrying can lead to rash decisions — and make you more prone to a fall. Pace yourself while hiking, and take breaks to avoid overexertion.

“They’re small mountains, but they can be very dangerous,’’ said Boardman, a veteran hiker.

Even experienced hikers can find themselves in trouble, she said.

“Don’t let down your guard. Don’t underestimate the mountains at all,’’ she warned.


One Comment

  1. Great article! In his screenplay for the movie “The Edge” David Mamet says that when lost in the wilderness most people die of “shame”.

    For further reading, I suggest “Not without Peril” about deaths and rescues on Mt Washington dating back to the early 1800’s.

    Read also, Sept. 2017 Outside Magazine’s article about the famous 1982 rescue of Hugh Herr and Jeff Batzer. Herr lost both legs below the knee, designed his own Prosthetic limbs and has ever since worked at MIT designing more advanced limbs for amputees.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *