Making the Final Choice on Katahdin
As it snowed, the sky rocked with thunder and lightning flashed. Through the snow and furious gusts they inched their way towards the ledge where Bob waited, his rope held taut. Two hours after the storm hit, the snow abated; stars shone painfully bright through the swirling snow and the winds intensified. In nearby Millinocket temperatures plummeted from 40 to zero in a few hours. First Doug, then Page, followed by Mike, Paul, and Tom, climbed to the ledge where they tied into anchoring pins placed by Bob. Bob was frightened, especially upon seeing Tom stumble onto the ledge after falling several times, while Paul quickly lapsed into dazed exhaustion. Options swirled in his mind: he knew their strength would never be greater than it was at this point. Soon they would face a wind chill of 80 degrees below zero, and if they did not keep warm and awake they would die.
But to leave now would mean climbing in the dark, in the raging wind with tangled ropes, onto unknown terrain, where if the leader fell he could pull ropemates with him. They opted to stay, and they huddled together, embracing each other for warmth.
At Chimney Pond, Baxter Park ranger Arthur York had come on duty. He was troubled, but not deeply worried to find the men had not returned. The rangers had all been impressed by the group’s knowledge of mountains, and had granted them blanket permission to camp out on the mountain so that they could climb some distant gullies. He called on his radio for other rangers to see if Proudman had mentioned to them about overnight plans, but failed to reach anyone. He decided he would give them until Friday morning.
There was no place to turn on the ledge. Packs and ropes crowded their legs. They struggled for 45 minutes to put Tom’s windbreaker on him; it became impossible in the wind to search for sweaters in the packs. Except to gulp food they could only crouch together, yelling their names over and over, making certain nobody dozed. They tried singing but the wind drove their voices away. With faces pressed close, they yelled “Endure!” a hundred times. But the wind and cold tore confidence from them, and as the night wore on, their shouts lessened, and enduring became each man’s private war with cold.
Mike pressed himself into a narrow crack in the ledge until he felt he was part of the rock. Concentrating on every part of his body, he willed himself to stay warm. He told himself he had been uncomfortable before, that the storm would pass, and he’d be needed to make decisions in the morning.
Paul was silent, appearing to the others as though he was drunk. In the middle of-the night he became aware that he no longer had feeling in his legs, but he didn’t care that much, only that they no longer felt cold. When the others tried to make him stand in the middle of the night he discovered he couldn’t unbend his legs. He knew then he could never climb off the ledge, that his only chance was rescue. Tom had slipped from an active leader of yells to a groggy state and Bob grew very frightened looking at them.
“I knew we couldn’t leave them,” he says, “We’d have to get them out. But I didn’t know how. We could slap them, tie ropes around them, carry them out. Whatever we tried I knew it would be dangerous for everyone.”
Daylight startled them. For the first time they could see the ridge, only 300 feet away. They would have to climb a steep snowfield, but if somehow they could untangle the frozen knot of ropes, the attempt would be reasonable. Page, his face ghostly white, said quietly, “I’ve got to leave. I’m freezing to death.” Bob looked at Page who obviously was suffering and warned, “If you fall there’s nothing to stop you.” Page, his hands immobilized and unable to help untangle ropes, climbed off the ledge.
Shocked by their condition that only now they could see, Bob and Mike worked desperately to free the ropes. With enough rope tied together, Bob could carry it to the ridge, loop it around a rock, and descend to the ledge. With the rope as a handline he was certain they could escape.
They were all now going blind from frostbitten eyes. With blurred vision Bob found a large, perpendicular boulder near the ridge, perfect for securing the rope. He rappelled swiftly down the cliff, exulting that they would all soon be out, when suddenly he was clutching the end of the rope, dangling over space; the knots had untied in the wind. He hung onto the rope for what seemed an eternity. He couldn’t see. He yelled for Mike but he knew it was futile. He wondered if he could even find the ledge; he knew it might be suicidal to climb down with blurred vision, with no rope anchoring him to the mountain. He decided to leave, hoping there was time for a rescue. “I wish I could have told them that it was probably, here on in, every man for himself,” he says.
Mike and Doug realized something had gone wrong. For the next three hours Mike concentrated on helping Paul while Doug refused to let Tom sleep, hugging and punching him, until he felt himself dangerously weak. He knew he wouldn’t survive another night. Mike was reaching the same conclusion. He tried to think through his options, but there were no data except that he was freezing and had no more warmth to give Paul. He told Paul he was going for help. He told himself that if he didn’t get off soon, there would be three men help- less on the ledge.
Mike and Doug climbed unroped and separated. On his way to the ridge, Doug’s glove blew away as he momentarily placed it under his arm. He screamed watching his hand shrivel in 60 seconds. Miraculously the glove blew past Mike, then when the wind slackened, slid back down. Using his teeth, Mike tugged the glove over Doug’s now useless hand. When he reached the ridge Doug walked around in circles until he came to his senses and started down Dudley Trail.
As he slid down the trail he couldn’t understand why he didn’t pass a rescue team. He crawled the last 100 yards through the snow to the ranger’s cabin and pounded on the door. When Arthur York opened the door it was 1:15 P.M., the first time anybody knew there was trouble on the mountain.
Ten minutes later Mike arrived. Shortly past 2 P.M. Page broke into the ranger’s cabin at Roaring Brook, 3.3 miles from Chimney Pond, and radioed for help; he was exhausted from bushwhacking through the woods after blindly wandering with Bob down the wrong trail. Soon a helicopter arrived to transport them to a hospital; already crack mountain rescue units from New Hampshire and Maine had started for Katahdin.
The body is resourceful; by cutting off blood to Paul’s feet and legs, more blood flowed to his brain and he started to think clearly. When he felt his hands also begin to freeze he became scared, and realized his hopes for a rescue were remote. He looked at Tom with dismay. Six months earlier Paul’s best friend had been killed falling off Cannon Mountain and Tom had become his new best friend. Tom could make a stone laugh, and was a tireless worker, volunteering to pack blankets with Paul into the AMC huts whenever he could. “It’s time to go!” he yelled to Tom. “We’re not going to stay here and die.” Everytime Tom would slip off the ledge where a rope held him in place, Paul would drag him up, cursing at his gray face, demanding he talk, get up, MOVE. But Tom had nothing left to give, except to murmur, “Tell my parents I was doing what I loved. ”