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Book review: "Peak Experiences"

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The mountains of the northeast attract hikers to their rocky summits. What happens, though, when something goes wrong? Carol Stone White collected over 50 essays in her new book, Peak Experiences - Danger, Death, and Daring in the Mountains of the Northeast. Betsy Kepes as this review.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

White opens her collection with a series of essays about extreme conditions above timberline, especially on Mt. Washington.  Over 100 people have died as they hiked or skied near the highest peak in the northeast, a place where blizzards and driving winds can happen in every month of the year.

While all the stories have their own trajectory, many of the escapades in this book resulted from bad decision-making. As Ellen Ruggles says, after describing a near-disaster with a hiking group on Mt. Washington, “When are we reaching beyond our self-proclaimed boundaries to stretch ourselves, to find new horizons? …How do we know we are not engaged in stubbornly forcing a desired outcome?”

The authors of these essays are highly experienced mountaineers, driven to climb the highest Adirondack mountains in the winter or to stand on top of the northeast’s Highest One Hundred. That urge to get to the summit, to bag the next peak, can lead to a dangerous stubbornness. Laura Waterman writes of a three-day January trip when precipitation turned to heavy rain while her group climbed a remote rock face in the White Mountains. They’d left their raingear back at camp. She writes: “We continued up. It’s not possible to explain these things. No one wanted to turn around.” When they were thoroughly soaked they did head back to camp, fortunately without hypothermia as a companion. They hiked out that evening, a day early, because they didn’t have any dry gear.

The section on “Rescues in the Mountains” was particularly interesting to me. Many years ago I was a caretaker at a remote campsite in the White Mountains when a hiker came running in to announce that one of the boys in his camp group had fallen down a steep waterfall. With no radio, I had to hike out, get help, and come back up on a different trail in the dark with a rescue team. I’ll never forget how difficult it was to carry the injured boy down the steep, dark trail, the metal stretcher awkward and heavy. In White’s book the rescuers are always loud and jovial men who start big fires and feed hot jello to the stranded hikers.  

The writing in each piece varies, but Peak Experiences is well-edited and the subject matter makes for exciting reading, even in the essays that have flat prose. In 2003 Teddy “Cave Dog” Keizer tried to set a speed record for hiking the length of the Long Trail in Vermont. Near the end of his five-day marathon he missed a couple of resupplies and became dehydrated and out of fuel. He began to hallucinate. Keizer writes “My body had lots of energy but my mind was failing… I no longer needed water, food, or even air.” He writes well of the phantoms he saw as he staggered along the trail.

What is the net effect of reading story after story of narrow escapes in the woods? Disaster can happen to anyone. It takes but a moment to turn an ankle or trip on a rock. Don’t forget a flashlight, or even better, a headlamp, even on a mild day in June. You never know.

Diane Sawyer froze her eyeballs after hiking for ten hours at forty below. She writes: “The mountain will be there for a long time, but you might not, if you go unprepared and are too anxious to get to a summit.”

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