Crouched in a blinding sleet storm on Mount Adam’s summit, I was alone and numb all over. Stranded in howling mist and 50 mph winds, it was early afternoon on what was supposed to have been a normal tranquil June day in 1989. Any thoughts of a view south 3,000 feet above the Great Gulf to Mount Washington four miles away were gone. I could barely make out a weather-battered wooden sign a few feet away in a greenish-black maelstrom. Huddled back to the storm on a tiny summit, there were only a few boulders for shelter. I was elated to have climbed to the top and worried that no one else was there. Did every other hiker in the White Mountains know something I didn’t? Was this a serious miscalculation?
Worse, I had lost sight of a four-foot-high rock cairn a little below the summit. It was the only marker showing my way back down, since there was no trail of boot-prints in the rocks at this altitude. I needed to quell a growing sense of unease. If the rock cairn didn’t reappear soon, I was in deep trouble. Having climbed the White Mountains and the Appalachians many years, I was experienced and in good condition, but beginning to realize I might be in over my head.
Already tired from climbing all morning, the storm was sapping my energy. Even though the wind was blowing ice pellets, I badly needed water, food, and rest to make it back down safely. A sandwich and almost-empty canteen of water was of little help. Yes, I had gained the top, but the rock cairn was the first of many I would have to find while crawling down a massive boulder field in blinding weather. Wandering around Mount Adam’s summit in this storm was inviting death from exposure or a serious fall off a precipice.
Far below at the trail head, four hours before, the day had been promising with only clouds and spotty afternoon rain. Just an hour ago, I had decided to continue into the growing storm, to be able to say I had climbed Mount Adams rather than simply on it, a now seemingly small distinction. Caught up here, I was barely hanging on, trying to think clearly. How long should I wait for the rock cairn to reappear? I finished the soggy sandwich and took another gulp of water, my hands now too cold to hold the apple in my backpack. Prospects of finding shelter were bleak, but I couldn’t stay where I was.
A sheltering line of weather-beaten, stunted junipers lay a thousand feet below past the exposed Knife Edge on the Durand Ridge over a mile away. The junipers were gnarled and twisted from a lifetime of constant wind and weather; the last living things at this altitude beside lichen moss. I looked around and couldn’t see any lichen growing on the summit, a sobering thought. I had no way to call or signal for help. Even finding the ridge below would be an iffy proposition if hypothermia set in. The nearest Appalachian Mountain Club shelter was far below and east in a mountain Col of Mount Madison, and there would be little chance of finding it. Without Madison Hut as an alternative, I was left descending in a blinding storm along the Knife Edge.
With winds increasing, it was difficult seeing anything through my rain-fogged eyeglasses, so I couldn’t make out a compass reading even if I wanted. There was a distinct possibility of never finding my way down, instead laying down in exhaustion to die somewhere under a boulder. Thinking was fuzzier by the minute, disoriented as I was by Adam’s deceiving wind gusts, but an outline of a rock pile appeared a moment in the swirling mist. I scrambled toward it before it disappeared. The next quarter-mile descent would involve crossing a field of slippery boulders, trying to locate more cairns in growing black sleet. Never having been in a mountain storm before, I hadn’t realized rock cairns are silhouetted against lighter sky while climbing but otherwise disappear into a bare stormy mountainside.
How had I gotten myself into this and would I learn anything if I survived? My wife, Joan, found a Tee-shirt on a Maine vacation that said, “Hiking is Life! The Rest is Just Detail.” I was wearing the now-soaked shirt, but a detail like not risking my life had been forgotten. I was soaked from head to foot despite two supposedly waterproof wind-breakers, one over the other. Special hiking socks were squishy-wet, no longer insulating or protecting against abrasion. Waterproof hiking boots were soggy and chafing; special hiking trousers and underclothes sodden.
After what seemed like an hour of carefully feeling my way down through the summit’s boulder field, often losing sight of trail marker rock cairns, I finally found a path below approaching the Knife Edge. The welcoming field of stunted junipers finally appeared, meaning a little more shelter from the driving rain and slashing wind. I crouched out of the maelstrom to take stock, no longer lost but wet, shivering, and beginning to have difficulty walking.
I still had another three miles and a few thousand feet to descend, almost three hours to the trail head. There was no way to avoid losing my footing on occasion in the rain-swollen stream-bed that had been the rocky Airline trail that morning. Each step became slower, legs and feet afire; a beating they would feel for days. It took more than what I thought would be three hours, and I was dizzy, almost delirious, by the time I reached the trail head parking lot in late afternoon’s drizzling rain.
I sagged against the car, glancing up a last time. Mount Adam’s summit was now shrouded in a frightening storm, no longer visible. I began unzipping soaked clothes with fumbling fingers before setting the car’s heater to maximum, luxuriating in its warmth.
The adventure had been both rewarding and dangerous. But, where had I gone over the line; that it was too hazardous to continue? Perhaps it was time to stop solo-climbing, because it wasn’t clear when I should have turned back. I still don’t know how other climbers balance the risk and reward of summiting mountains, but many have died working it out. The question is, will I turn back next time?