Tough Day On Mount Washington

Bryon Middlekauff Social Science

The White Mountains

Years ago I taught a class that focused upon the physical geography of the White Mountain Region.  The class took a number of field trips with me.  One of these was to the summit of Mount Washington, there to observe and study temperature variation, changes in climate with altitude and its impact upon vegetation, curious boulder deposits, and the glacial cirque, Tuckerman’s Ravine.  Students drove the vans so that I could pay attention to where we were, where we were headed, our schedule, and the stops that we would make.

We began the arduous climb up the mountain on the narrow, twisting, in many places one-lane road.  I planned to stop near the summit at Alpine Gardens to show the students landscapes above tree line as well as boulder deposits. We were to negotiate the steep slope from the parking area down to the trail and then proceed across a path through cairns, pools of mud, muck, and boulders.  At the ravine, after a one mile hike, we measured the slope of the headwall, examined the steepness of the drop off, and reviewed glacial processes responsible for its formation. The class members climbed over boulders, perched on outcrops, breathed in the day, and then ate their lunches.

When I determined that we needed to move on, I gathered them together, and asked that they count off: 1, 2, 3 …… 21.  (I wanted to make sure that we were all accounted for.)  There were 23 in the class, so I knew 21 to be incorrect. “Try it again!” 1, 2, 3  …… 22.  Still wrong!  “Come on, now do it right!” 1, 2, 3 ..… 20.  “I give up, let’s go.”  No one suggested that anyone was missing, so I felt confident that we were all ready to head back to the vans.

We completed the field trip after having visited the Observatory on the summit.  We returned to Plymouth State, dropped off the vans, and I went home.

After eating dinner, I flipped on WMUR for the 6 o’clock news. The lead story that evening was “Plymouth State student rescued from the summit of Mount Washington.”  I felt the blood drain from my face; my wife confirmed the ashen countenance. Then the newscaster went on to say that the student and her dog were rescued after she made a 911 call on her cell phone.  Dog?  We didn’t have any dogs.  At that moment I realized the student was not with our party.  The color returned to my face.