Updating the 'death list'

Mount Washington State Park will recompile fatalities on a single plaque

Mount Washington State Park plans to update its "death list," a grim chronology of fatal mishaps on the mountain. The list will continue to be displayed in the lobby of the Sherman Adams Visitor Center on the mountain's 6,288-foot summit. "We've been accumulating corrections so now we have enough so we can put it all on a nice, quality poster-sized plaque. ..." said Mike Pelchat, state park manager. "It's a printed list of the fatalities. As morbid as it seems, it's one of the most popular exhibits at the park." The current display has become cumbersome and in need up corrections. "It's kind of a hodgepodge of plaques, plus we've had some errors in spelling and ages. A lot of people who do know someone who passed away on the mountain use it as a memorial," Pelchat noted. Since 1849, 139 fatalities have occurred on and around Mount Washington, according to the list. New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation displays the record of people who died on Mount Washington and its immediate surroundings both to honor those who died and to remind visitors of the dangers posed by the mountain and its ravines. Since the start of 2000 alone, 12 people have died in the area monitored by state park staff — Mount Washington itself and the rugged terrain around it bordered by Route 302 to the west, Route 16 to the east and Route 2 to the north. At first, one plaque contained names of those killed on the mountain with brief descriptions of the incidents that took their lives. This list of names ended in the mid-1980s. A second plaque picked up where that one left off and displayed 30 more names. As more deaths occurred, a third plaque was needed, Pelchat noted. "Right now we have three plaques because unfortunately fatalities keep increasing," he said. The most recent fatality on the mountain occurred Aug. 4, 2006 when Jean Moreau, 50, of Becancour, Quebec, Canada, died of a heart attack while on the Davis Path near the path's intersection with the Camel Trail. The state park will continue its practice of referring obliquely to mishaps involving either the Cog Railway or motor vehicles on the Auto Road, Pelchat said. Confronted with fatalities involving either mode of transportation, even though they are exceptionally rare, might spook some visitors, making them jittery about descending the mountain either by the railway on the Route 302 side or via the Auto Road on the Route 16 side, Pelchat noted. "Even though there's enough time gone by, and those incidents are buried in the middle of the list, we're still sensitive to the mechanized ones," Pelchat acknowledged. Accordingly, fatalities 55 through 62 will continue to be listed: "Eight people were killed Sept. 17, 1967 due to causes indirectly associated with Mt. Washington just below the Cog RR’s 'Sky Line Switch.'" Fatality 100, a death on the Auto Road, likewise, will still read: "Paula Silva, age 22, of Cambridge, Mass., died July 30, 1984, of causes indirectly associated with Mt. Washington at the bottom of the Mt. Washington Auto Road." (As an historical note, Fatality 8 was that of Mrs. Ira Chichester, of Allegan, Mich., who died July 3, 1880, when a coach overturned on the Carriage Road near the three-mile mark.) Overwhelmingly, riding the train or ascending by the Auto Road are the safest ways to tour Mount Washington. "The Mount Washington Cog Railway has experienced only one major accident since its founding in 1869. In 1967, due perhaps to human error, a switch on the track was improperly set. As a result, a descending train lost its braking power, began to pick up speed and finally derailed. Eight of the passengers aboard died," reports the Mount Washington Observatory. "Some rate the Auto Road as the safest toll road in the nation. Since it opened in 1861, this road to the summit of Mount Washington has suffered only two fatalities. One woman was killed in 1880, when a drunk carriage driver steered the horse drawn coach she was riding in off the Road. More recently, a woman died in 1984 when the brakes in the car she was in failed near the base of the Road." Hypothermia, fatal plunges, heart attacks and avalanches account for many of the deaths for ill-prepared or unlucky visitors. "Fatalities on Mount Washington occur for various reasons — overexposure to the cold, wet, and wind, falls down steep slopes, avalanches — perhaps few accidents on the mountain can truly be attributed to just one reason, one misstep," states the Mount Washington Observatory Web site (www.mountwashington.org/about/visitor/surviving.php). A leading piece of advice to visitors: Always be prepared to turn back. It's not worth risking tragedy to reach the summit. Peter Crane, director of programs for Mount Washington Observatory's Educational Programs, said, "Even though Mount Washington is modest in height, it gets enough visitors and the hazards are great enough. Even though we don't think of Mount Washington as being a precipitous mountain, there have been quite a few falls up there." The autumn season can be one of the most dangerous seasons because of the dramatic difference in weather conditions at the base and on the summit. "Sometimes in midwinter, it might be bitterly cold on the mountain, but, gee whiz, it's cold enough when you get out of your car on the base, too," Crane noted. "In October and November, it is a little cool, and people get out of their cars and say, 'It's not that bad.' And they head up into winter conditions." Scot Henley, executive director of the Mount Washington Observatory, noted that tragedy can occur quickly on the summit. "It can be a series of poor choices or extremely bad luck or a sudden change in weather," he said. Local writer Nick Howe profiled 22 climbers who suffered mishaps on the Presidential Range from 1849 to 1994 in his book, "Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire." Since the Howe book, the "death list" has gained notoriety, Henley said. For summit staff, wilderness first aid training is being offered in a couple of weeks. Staff at the observatory receive basic first aid training but fill a subordinate role in rescues, according to Henley. "It's not really our domain, we assist the search and rescue community where needed, but given that our staff is up there to do work in meteorology ... they're not trained to be paramedics," he noted. "We never take the lead, we're always in the subordinate role." Residents and visitors are fortunate to have such an outstanding search and rescue team for Mount Washington, he said. Chris Thayer, White Mountain facilities director with the Appalachian Mountain Club, said the club maintains its own list of fatal tragedies in the Presidential Range, available for review at the club's visitor center at the base of Pinkham Notch. Thayer and Pelchat planned to share information so the lists are consistent. The Appalachian Mountain Club's list also outgrew its original format. "It's actually grown beyond the size of our walls here, and what we've done is put it into a binder that people can refer to. The challenge that we have is the list keeps growing," he said. The club also presents messages relating to mountain safety. The state park's Web site (www.nhstateparks.org/ParksPages/MtWash/MtWash.html) warns: "Even though the park plans to be open daily through Oct. 22, hikers should be advised that, during periods of extreme weather when the Auto Road and Cog Railway must temporarily close, there are absolutely no rides down the mountain. Hikers attempting the peak this time of year should be well prepared with winter gear to safely travel through the extremes in weather but also to be fit enough to hike up AND BACK DOWN! After Oct. 22, 2006, there is absolutely no shelter for hikers on the summit until mid-May 2007." The Mount Washington Observatory Web site reports that of the 139 fatalities on and around Mount Washington since 1849, "many of them involving ill-prepared hikers, skiers and climbers. There is no room for poor judgement and carelessness in this unforgiving mountain environment. To gain an understanding of the harsh conditions atop the mountain, observe the following statistics. The average year-round temperature is below freezing, at 26.5 degrees. Winds average 35.3 miles per hour on an annual basis. Fog frequently limits visibility to 100 feet or less. The average annual precipitation is 86 inches, including 21 feet of snow. The world's highest recorded surface wind speed, 231 miles per hour, occurred on the summit on April 12, 1934." On Mount Washington, the season for visitors is at an end. The Sherman Adams Visitor Center closed on Sunday, Oct. 22. Pelchat said the division of state parks will prepare its new list of those who died on and around the mountain for next year.