White Mountain Guide, Rescuer, Photographer
If you’re lost or injured in a winter storm in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, you want Joe Lentini searching for you.
He knows what he’s doing when it’s 40 below and blowing so hard you can’t speak … when lowering a litter down a rock face at night can be catastrophic if there’s a mishap.
For 30 years Joe was the director of Eastern Mountain Sports’ climbing school. Today he’s an independent guide and vice-president of Mountain Rescue Service, an elite group of climbers who volunteer to risk their lives when called upon to save another. “Climbers have always taken care of climbers,” he says.
Joe has made more than 400 winter ascents of Mount Washington, in the Presidential Range, where at an altitude of 6,288 feet, wind-chill extremes can plummet to 100 below, as dangerous a place to be outside as anywhere you could possibly find yourself. In a place where the weather is uncertain from minute to minute, there’s always one certainty throughout the White Mountains in winter: Emergencies happen. Whiteouts can be so disorienting that even the most experienced climbers get lost. Avalanches can sweep you away. Slopes become so treacherous that a slip can lead to death in a mountain range where more than 140 lives have already been lost.
And yet, all winter long people want to get up there, in all that wind and cold. Joe Lentini understands why. He has taken thousands of photographs, in all conditions–clear, foggy, storm-swept, calm. He has carried too many people off the mountain to be romantic about the scenery, but “what I see still makes my jaw drop,” he says. He knows that once people see a deep-blue sky at Lion’s Head, or the snow-filled bowl at Tuckerman Ravine, or the stark beauty of rime ice clinging to the observatory like otherworldly sculpture, they’ll remember it forever. And, he’s quick to point out, winter is when the air is driest, so you get the highest visibility.
Still, you don’t come here in winter to picnic on the rocks and see views to tomorrow. Sometimes fog covers the mountain for days on end. But Joe’s been enveloped in clouds one moment, only to see them suddenly drop below where he was standing, as what he calls “Jesus light” flashed through the air. He’s watched countless sunrises from the observatory tower, yet when the air is clear and the light glints off the sea in Portland, he still gets as excited as a child.
Joe’s lifelong adventure began, he says, on a December outing in 1969. He was in high school in Wellesley, Massachusetts. A friend brought him to Mount Adams, in the shadow of Mount Washington. “I thought I’d gone to the Arctic,” Joe remembers. He wore crude crampons and carried a long-handled wooden ice axe. “In 30 years of guiding,” he says, “I’ve never had anyone more afraid of heights than me that day.”
But something stayed with him. He kept going back, and then the mountains became his life–and sometimes, nearly his death. At age 19, he was caught in an avalanche in Vermont. Later, he was one of the rescuers searching for two missing climbers on Mount Washington on January 25, 1982, when one of his best friends, Albert Dow, was killed in an avalanche.
Fifteen years ago this January, Joe was “as scared as I’ve ever been,” when rescuers tried against all odds to save 20-year-old Derek Tinkham on Mount Jefferson. “We were so on the edge,” Joe says. “It was 40 below, and we were walking into the teeth of an 80-mile-per-hour wind.” Joe was with the team that found Tinkham, frozen solid. “I’ve climbed all over the world,” Joe says, “but never in worse conditions than here.”
All winter Joe guides people to the summit and snowfields of Mount Washington. He never tires of it, because it’s never the same: “I say, if you live in New England and don’t want to see Mount Washington in winter, move to Florida. That’s why they have Florida.”