Yankee Classic: Nightmare on Mount Washington
When Roger reached the scene, he was drained from exertion. It was so dark he could barely see the three men. He looked in disbelief at a stoic Jamie sitting in the snow and shivering from shock and exposure.
Shortly, the first rangers, Chris Joosen and Ted Dettmar, arrived. They had just finished evacuating another injured climber from Huntington Ravine when Roger’s call came in. They brought two sleeping bags and a thermos of hot Tang. The rangers were concerned not only about the climbers’ injuries, but about the falling snow; their position at the bottom of the gully exposed them all to further avalanches.
An hour later, additional rescuers arrived with a portable sled. Jamie watched their headlamps bob in the steady snow and heard bursts of static and voices on their radios. Jack wrapped his arms around Jamie from behind, trying to keep him still and warm. Through his daze, Jamie overheard a ranger say one of the climbers "was gone," but he refused to believe Tom had died.
Finally, they strapped Jamie into a sled and lowered him to a waiting U.S. Forest Service Thiokol snow vehicle that took him down the mountain. At 9:20 P.M., more than six hours after his fall, an ambulance rushed Jamie to Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin, New Hampshire. Doctors diagnosed a smashed pubic bone, several deep puncture wounds from his spare ice ax, and bruises so numerous that he looked like a human punching bag. It was clearly a miracle that he had fallen so far and lived. Tom had not been so lucky.
Jamie spent five days in the hospital, kept company by his wife and young son. His body turned the colors of the rainbow, and his mind incessantly turned over the events of that day. Why had his friend become the 106th victim of Mount Washington? Why — and how — had he cheated the mountain? The fall had demolished his backpack, ripped off his watch, mittens, and crampons, and had littered the ravine with his belongings. Two peanut butter, raisin, and honey sandwiches in the pack were reduced to crumbs. "I guess it’s just one of those mysteries that you say, for lack of anything else, is an act of God," Jamie says.
What happened to the climbers in Huntington Ravine that day may have been a freak convergence of several factors. Though only 2.5 inches of snow were recorded atop the peak on Sunday, the Mount Washington Weather Observatory clocked wind gusts of 139 miles per hour the day before and 74 miles per hour on Sunday. Those winds may have scoured snow off the peak and piled it all above Odell Gully. The added snowfall that day, or perhaps the wind, may have been all it took to trigger the avalanche cascading on the two climbers.
Long after Jamie’s body healed, he continued to feel emotional scars from the accident. Even though rescue crews determined that no one was to blame and the climbers had done everything right, months later Jamie still struggled with feelings of guilt.
In May of 1991, having recovered sufficiently to hike again, Jamie made a somber and solitary pilgrimage back to Huntington Ravine to remember his friend, search for some of their belongings, and try to lay things to rest. In the ravine beneath Odell Gully, he found strewn across the rocks, scattered like the snapshots of two lives, his crampons, his driver’s license, and parts of his wallet. He also found Tom’s goggles and climbing rope. He brought Tom’s gear home and put it away in a box.
"At first, I didn’t do anything with them," Jamie says. But one day, his young son, Tucker, found the rope and goggles and began playing with them. Jamie realized he felt better having them out of the box, being used.
"It’s something I get to see a lot," he says. "Every time I see them, I think of him."