Making the Final Choice on Katahdin
Paul beat his hands against his legs incessantly for two hours; when he tried to stand it felt as if he had two wooden legs. He could not see except for a blur of white. He found 30 feet of rope, tied it to Tom’s waist, and unhooked him from the anchoring pins. He heaved on the rope to pull Tom up, but failed. Carefully he anchored Tom again to the mountain, and with the edge of his ice axe cut the rope that linked them. Groping his way upwards he forced Tom from his mind. Twice he fell, but the wind gusted so hard up the gully it held him in place until he could dig his crampons into the snow.
Without his sight Paul knew he had to keep facing into the biting wind, his only bearing to the southwest toward Dudley Trail and the way down. The one burning thought in his mind was that the minute he took his face from the wind he’d be off the other side of the mountain and helplessly lost.
As he crawled off the ridge he heard a helicopter and thought it was watching his descent. He groped for handholds, bumping into boulders, falling repeatedly into snow. The effort warmed him enough that his eyes began to thaw and Paul was certain he saw a shortcut; taking three steps he plunged 60 feet into a thick stand of spruce and deep snow. He lay dazed, and badly scratched, but otherwise unhurt. He thought, “That’s it. I’ve had it. I can’t go any farther. I’ll just lie here until they pick me up. I’m done.” But the sound of the helicopter faded, and disappeared. It was silent where he lay. “It was as if I was the only one on earth. I knew I had to keep moving.”
He crawled for several hours, periodically collapsing in the snow to catch his breath. It grew dark and he saw a candle a long way away. He headed for the candle, and crashed into the ranger’s cabin, whose window light he had been following, falling against the door at 7 P.M., four hours after leaving the ledge.
They carried him inside, and started cutting away his clothes. When they reached his favorite climbing britches, he roared, “Leave them alone,” and with his remaining strength he yanked his pants off, sparing them the knife; then he collapsed into unconsciousness.
Rescue teams arrived late that night. The temperatures were still below zero and the winds made climbing treacherous. An elite group of mountaineers attempted a rescue, for they knew that Tom’s slim hopes rested on them, but were forced to abandon the climb. They left at dawn, on Saturday, February 2. By 11:30 they had reached the ledge and found Tom, frozen, eight feet below the ledge, where the rope still protected him from falling farther.
Until the winds ceased, it would be too dangerous to carry his body up the mountain; and they did not cease until Wednesday, February 6, when Tom Keddy finally reached Pamela.
Bob Proudman, the least injured, was hospitalized five days for serious frost-bite. It would be several weeks before Mike, Doug, and Page could leave. Paul would be hospitalized for eight months, finally losing a thumb and both his feet.
Tom’s father put two pictures of Tom in his den, both showing Tom poised on an outcropping of rock in the White Mountains, with a burst of foliage behind him. At first Mrs. Keddy could not look at the pictures, but in time they became a part of her life, so that today she says, “When I walk past him now I tip my hat. He always said he felt so alive when he was climbing, and he had fun, he had so much fun!”
Paul operates a successful garage and from his doorstep views snowcapped mountains. He plans to ice climb again soon. He says the storm taught him humility, and he figures people won’t understand when he says in some ways it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Doug lives near Paul, working at a half dozen things at once, including building solar homes. Page went back to college, and in two years will be a veterinarian. Bob stopped climbing soon after the storm, his heart no longer in it; but he stayed active in the outdoors, continuing to work for the Appalachian Mountain Club. Michael lives in western Maine where he is an educator. He also leads outing club expeditions, where his goal among others is to show young people they can persevere, no matter what the circumstances.
They say there will always be traces of guilt in having left, yet they acknowledge there was nothing else they could have done. Bob Proudman looks his questioner in the face and asks, “What would you have done?”
They are the survivors of a night without heroes, though surviving that storm may be heroic enough; for the storm cut short all choices but the final one, between life and death – choices for which no rules exist, not for them, not for any of us on mountains of our own, in storms we cannot foresee, storms that catch us with no warning.
Yankee classic from February 1980