فصل 17

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فصل 17

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Of all the catastrophic fates that can befall you in the out-of-doors, perhaps none is more eerily unpredictable than hypothermia. There is scarcely an instance of hypothermic death that isn’t in some measure mysterious and improbable. Consider a small story related by David Quammen in his book Natural Acts.

In the late summer of 1982, four youths and two men were on a canoeing holiday in Banff National Park when they failed to return to their base camp at the end of the day.

The next morning, a search party went out looking for them. They found the missing canoeists floating dead in their life jackets in a lake. All were faceup and composed.

Nothing about them indicated distress or panic. One of the men was still wearing his hat and glasses. Their canoes, drifting nearby, were sound, and the weather overnight had been calm and mild. For some unknowable reason, the six had carefully left their canoes and lowered themselves fully dressed into the cold water of the lake, where they had peacefully perished. In the words of a member of the search party, it was “like they had just gone to sleep.” In a sense, they had.Popular impressions to the contrary, relatively few victims of hypothermia die in extreme conditions, stumbling through blizzards or fighting the bite of arctic winds. To begin with, relatively few people go out in that kind of weather, and those that do are generally prepared. Most victims of hypothermia die in a much more dopey kind of way, in temperate seasons and with the air temperature nowhere near freezing. Typically, they are caught by an unforeseen change of conditions or combination of changes–a sudden drop in temperature, a cold pelting rain, the realization that they are lost–for which they are emotionally or physically underequipped. Nearly always, they compound the problem by doing something foolhardy–leaving a well-marked path in search of a shortcut, blundering deeper into the woods when they would have been better off staying put, fording streams that get them only wetter and colder.

Such was the unfortunate fate of Richard Salinas, who in 1990 went hiking with a friend in Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. Caught by fading light, they headed back to their car but somehow became separated. Salinas was an experienced hiker and all he had to do was follow a well-defined trail down a mountain to a parking lot. He never made it. Three days later, his jacket and knapsack were found abandoned, miles into the woods. His body was discovered two months later, snagged on branches in the little Linville River. As far as anyone can surmise, he had left the trail in search of a shortcut, got lost, plunged deep into the woods, panicked, and plunged deeper still, until at last hypothermia fatally robbed him of his senses.

Hypothermia is a gradual and insidious sort of trauma. It overtakes you literally by degrees as your body temperature falls and your natural responses grow sluggish and disordered. In such a state, Salinas had abandoned his possessions and soon after made the desperate and irrational decision to try to cross the rain-swollen river, which in normal circumstances he would have realized could take him only farther away from his goal. On the night he got lost, the weather was dry and the temperature in the 40s. Had he kept his jacket and stayed out of the water, he would have had an uncomfortably chilly night and a story to tell. Instead, he died.

A person suffering hypothermia experiences several progressive stages, beginning, as you would expect, with mild and then increasingly violent shivering as the body tries to warm itself with muscular contractions, proceeding on to profound weariness, heaviness of movement, a distorted sense of time and distance, and increasingly helpless confusion resulting in a tendency to make imprudent or illogical decisions and a failure to observe the obvious. Gradually the sufferer grows thoroughly disoriented and subject to increasingly dangerous hallucinations–including the decidedly cruel misconception that he is not freezing but burning up. Many victims tear off clothing, fling away their gloves, or crawl out of their sleeping bags. The annals of trail deaths are full of stories of hikers found half naked lying in snowbanks just outside their tents. When this stage is reached, shivering ceases as the body just gives up and apathy takes over. The heart rate falls and brain waves begin to look like a drive across the prairies. By this time, even if the victim is found, the shock of revival may be more than his body can bear.

This was neatly illustrated by an incident reported in the January 1997 issue of Outside magazine. In 1980, according to the article, sixteen Danish seamen issued a Mayday call, donned life jackets, and jumped into the North Sea as their vessel sank beneath them.

There they bobbed for ninety minutes before a rescue ship was able to lift them from thewater. Even in summer, the North Sea is so perishingly cold that it can kill a person immersed in it in as little as thirty minutes, so the survival of all sixteen men was cause for some jubilation. They were wrapped in blankets and guided below, where they were given a hot drink and abruptly dropped dead–all sixteen of them.

But enough of arresting anecdotes. Let’s toy with this fascinating malady ourselves.

I was in New Hampshire now, which pleased me, because we had recently moved to the state, so I was naturally interested to explore it. Vermont and New Hampshire are so snugly proximate and so similar in size, climate, accent, and livelihood (principally, skiing and tourism) that they are often bracketed as twins, but in fact they have quite different characters. Vermont is Volvos and antique shops and country inns with cutely contrived names like Quail Hollow Lodge and Fiddlehead Farm Inn. New Hampshire is guys in hunting caps and pickup trucks with license plates bearing the feisty slogan “Live Free or Die.” The landscape, too, differs crucially. Vermont’s mountains are comparatively soft and rolling, and its profusion of dairy farms gives it a more welcoming and inhabited feel.

New Hampshire is one big forest. Of the state’s 9,304 square miles of territory, some 85 percent–an area somewhat larger than Wales–is woods, and nearly all the rest is either lakes or above treeline. So apart from the very occasional town or ski resort, New Hampshire is primarily, sometimes rather dauntingly, wilderness. And its hills are loftier, craggier, more difficult and forbidding than Vermont’s.

In the Thru-Hirer’s Handbook^ (the one indispensable guide to the AT, I might just say here), the great Dan “Wingfoot” Bruce notes that when the northbound hiker leaves Vermont he has completed 80 percent of the miles but just 50 percent of the effort. The New Hampshire portion alone, running 162 miles through the White Mountains, has thirtyfive peaks higher than 3,000 feet. New Hampshire is hard.

I had heard so much about the ardors and dangers of the White Mountains that I was mildly uneasy about venturing into them alone–not terrified exactly, but prepared to be if I heard just one more bear-chase story–so you may conceive my quiet joy when a friend and neighbor named Bill Abdu offered to accompany me on . some day hikes. Bill is a very nice fellow, amiable and full of knowledge, experienced on mountain trails, and with the inestimable bonus that he is a gifted orthopedic surgeon–just what you want in a dangerous wilderness. I didn’t suppose he’d be able to do much useful surgery up there, but if I fell and broke my back at least I’d know the Latin names for what was wrong with me.

We decided to start with Mount Lafayette, and to that end set off by car one clear July dawn and drove the two hours to Franconia Notch State Park (a “notch” in New Hampshire parlance is a mountain pass), a famous beauty spot at repose beneath commanding summits in the heart of the 700,000-acre White Mountain National Forest.

Lafayette is 5,249 feet of steep, heartless granite. An 1870s account, quoted in Into the Mountains, observes: “Mt. Lafayette is … a true alp, with peaks and crags on which lightnings play, its sides brown with scars and deep with gorges.” All true. It’s a beast.

Only nearby Mount Washington exceeds it for both heft and popularity as a hiking destination in the White Mountains.

From the valley floor, we had 3,700 feet of climb, 2,000 feet of it in the first two miles, and three smaller peaks en route–Mount Liberty, Little Haystack, and Mount Lincoln–butit was a splendid morning, with mild but abundant sunshine and that invigorating, mintyclean air you get only in northern mountains. It had the makings of a flawless day. We walked for perhaps three hours, talking little because of the steepness of the climb but enjoying being out and keeping a good pace.

Every guidebook, every experienced hiker, every signboard beside every trailhead parking lot warns you that the weather in the White Mountains can change in an instant.

Stories of campers who go for a stroll along sunny heights in shorts and sneakers only to find themselves, three or fours hours later, stumbling to unhappy deaths in freezing fog are the stuff of every campfire, but they are also true. It happened to us when we were a few hundred feet shy of the summit of Little Haystack Mountain. The sunshine abruptly vanished, and from out of nowhere a swirling mist rolled into the trees. With it came a sudden fall in temperature, as if we had stepped into a cold store. Within minutes the forest was settled in a great foggy stillness, chill and damp. Timberline in the White Mountains occurs as low as 4,800 feet, about half the height in most other ranges, because the weather is so much more severe, and I began to see why. As we emerged from a zone of krummholz, the stunted trees that mark the last gasp of forest at treeline, and stepped on to the barren roof of Little Haystack, we were met by a stiff, sudden wind–the kind that would snatch a hat from your head and fling it a hundred yards before you could raise a hand– which the mountain had deflected over us on the sheltered western slopes but which here was flying unopposed across the open summit. We stopped in the lee of some boulders to put on waterproofs, for the extra warmth as much anything, for I was already quite damp from the sweat of effort and the moist air–a clearly foolish state to be in with the temperature falling and the wind whisking away any body heat. I opened my pack, rooted through the contents, and then looked up with that confounded expression that comes with the discovery of a reversal. I didn’t have my waterproofs. I rooted again, but there was hardly anything in the pack– a map, a light sweater, a water bottle, and a packed lunch. I thought for a moment and with a small inward sigh remembered pulling the waterproofs out some days before and spreading them out in the basement to air. I hadn’t remembered to put them back. Bill, tightening a drawstring on his windcheater hood, looked over. “Something wrong?”

I told him. He made a grave expression. “Do you want to turn back?”

“Oh, no.” I genuinely didn’t want to. Besides, it wasn’t that bad. There wasn’t any rain and I was only a little chilly. I put the sweater on and felt immediately better. Together we looked at his map. We had done almost all the height, and it was only a mile and a half along a ridgeline to Lafayette, at which point we would descend steeply 1,200 feet to Greenleaf Hut, a mountain lodge with a cafeteria. If I did need to warm up, we would reach the hut a lot faster than if we went five miles back down the mountain to the car.

“You sure you don’t want to turn back?” “No,” I insisted. “We’ll be there in half an hour.” So we set off again into the galloping wind and depthless gray murk. We cleared Mount Lincoln, at 5,100 feet, then descended slightly to a very narrow ridgeline. Visibility was no more than fifteen feet and the winds were razor sharp. Air temperature falls by about 2.5°F with every thousand feet of elevation, so it would have been chillier at this height anyway, but now it was positively uncomfortable. I watched with alarm as my sweater accumulated hundreds of tiny beads of moisture, which gradually began to penetrate the fabric and join the dampness of the shirt beneath. Before we had gone aquarter of a mile the sweater was wet through and hanging heavily on my arms and shoulders.

To make things worse, I was wearing blue jeans. Everyone will tell you that blue jeans are the most foolish item of clothing you can wear on a hike. I had contrarily become something of a devotee of them because they are tough and give good protection against thorns, ticks, insects, and poison ivy–perfect for the woods. However, I freely concede that they are completely useless in cold and wet. The cotton sweater was something I had packed as a formality, as you might pack anti snakebite medicine or splints. It was July, for goodness sake. I hadn’t expected to need any kind of outerwear beyond possibly my trusty waterproofs, which of course I didn’t have either. In short, I was dangerously misattired and all but asking to suffer and die. I certainly suffered.

I was lucky to escape with that. The wind was whooshing along noisily and steadily at a brisk twenty-five miles an hour, but gusting to at least double that, and from evershifting directions. At times, when the wind was head on, we would take two steps forward and one back. When it came from an angle, it gave us a stiff shove towards the edge of the ridge. There was no telling in the fog how far the fall would be on either side, but it looked awfully steep, and we were after all a mile up in the clouds. If conditions had deteriorated just a little–if the fog had completely obscured our footing or the gusts had gathered just enough bump to knock a grown man over–we would have been pinned down up there, with me pretty well soaked through. Forty minutes before, we had been whistling in sunshine. I understood now how people die in the White Mountains even in summer.

As it was, I was in a state of mild distress. I was shivering foolishly and feeling oddly lightheaded. The ridge seemed to run on forever, and there was no guessing in the milky void how long it would be till the form of Lafayette would rise to meet us. I glanced at my watch–it was two minutes to eleven; just right for lunch when and if we ever got to the godforsaken lodge–and took some comfort from the thought that at least I still had my wits about me. Or at least I felt as if I did. Presumably, a confused person would be too addled to recognize that he was confused. Ergo, if you know that you are not confused then you are not confused. Unless, it suddenly occurred to me–and here was an arresting notion–unless persuading yourself that you are not confused is merely a cruel, early symptom of confusion. Or even an advanced symptom. Who could tell? For all I knew I could be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state characterized by the fear on the part of the sufferer that he may be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state. That’s the trouble with losing your mind; by the time it’s gone, it’s too late to get it back.

I glanced at my watch again and discovered with horror that it was still only two minutes to eleven. My sense of time was going! I might not be able to reliably assess my faltering brain, but here was proof on my wrist. How long would it be till I was dancing around half naked and trying to beat out flames, or seized with the brilliant notion that the best way out of this mess would be to glide to the valley floor on a magic, invisible parachute? I whimpered a little and scooted on, waited a good full minute and stole a glance at my watch again. Still two minutes to eleven! I was definitely in trouble.Bill, who seemed serenely impervious to cold and of course had no idea that we were doing anything but proceeding along a high ridge in an unseasonal breeze, looked back from time to time to ask how I was doing.

“Great!” I’d say, for I was too embarrassed to admit that I was in fact losing my mind preparatory to stepping over the edge with a private smile and a cry of “See you on the other side, old friend!” I don’t suppose he had ever lost a patient on a mountaintop, and I didn’t wish to alarm him. Besides, I wasn’t entirely convinced I was losing my grip, just severely uncomfortable.

I’ve no idea how long it took us to reach the windy summit of Lafayette other than that it was a double eternity. A hundred years ago there was a hotel on this bleak, forbidding spot, and its wind-worn foundations are still a landmark–I have seen it in photographsbut I have no recollection of it now. My focus was entirely on descending on the side trail to Greenleaf Hut. It led through a vast talus field and then, a mile or so farther on, into woods. Almost as soon as we left the summit, the wind dropped, and within 500 feet the world was quite calm, eerily so, and the dense fog was nothing more than straggly, drifting shreds. Suddenly we could see the world below and how high up we were, which was a considerable distance, though all the nearby summits were wreathed in clouds. To my surprise and gratification, I felt much better. I stood up straight, with a sense of novelty, and realized that I had been walking in a severe hunch for some time. Yes, I definitely felt much better: hardly cold at all and agreeably clearheaded.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” I said to Bill with a mountain man chuckle and pressed on to the hut.

Greenleaf Hut is one of ten picturesque and, in this case, wonderfully handy stone lodges built and maintained in the White Mountains by the venerable Appalachian Mountain Club. The AMC, founded over 120 years ago, is not only the oldest hiking club in America but the oldest conservation group of any type. It charges a decidedly ambitious $50 a night for a bunk, dinner, and breakfast and consequently is widely known to thruhikers as the Appalachian Money Club. Still, to its considerable credit, the AMC maintains 1,400 miles of trails in the Whites, runs an excellent visitor center at Pinkham Notch, publishes worthwhile books, and lets you come into its huts to use the toilets, get water, or just warm up, which is what we gratefully did now.

We purchased cups of warming coffee and took them to a set of long tables, where we sat with a sprinkling of other steamy hikers and ate our packed lunches. The lodge was very congenial in a basic and rustic sort of way, with a high ceiling and plenty of room to move around. When we’d finished, I was beginning to stiffen up, so I got up to move around and looked in on one of the two dormitories. It was a large room, packed with built-in bunks stacked four high. It was clean and airy, but startlingly basic, and presumably would be like an army barracks at night when it was full of hikers and their equipment. It didn’t look remotely appealing to me. Benton MacKaye had nothing to do with these huts, but they were absolutely in accord with his vision–spare, rustic, wholesomely communal–and I realized with a kind of dull shock that if his dreams of a string of trailside hostels had been realized this is precisely how they would have been.

My fantasy of a relaxed and cosy refuge with a porchful of rockers would actually have been rather more like a spell at boot camp (and an expensive one at that, if the AMC’s fees were anything to go by).I did a quick calculation. Assuming $50 as the standard price, it would have cost the average thru-hiker somewhere between $6,000 and $7,500 to stay in a lodge each night along the trail. Clearly, it would never have worked. Perhaps it was better that things were as they were.

The sun was shining weakly when we emerged from the hut and set off back down the mountain on a side trail to Franconia Notch, and as we descended it gathered strength until we were back in a nice July day, with the air lazy and mild and the trees fetchingly speckled with sunlight and birdsong. By the time we reached the car, in late afternoon, I was almost completely dry, and my passing fright on Lafayette–now basking in hearty sunshine against a backdrop of vivid blue sky–seemed a remote memory.

As we climbed in, I glanced at my watch. It said two minutes to eleven. I gave it a shake and watched with interest as the second hand kicked back into motion.

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