Everybody likes to think of them self as a hero. It doesn’t take much effort for any of us to close our eyes and picture the scenario – a nasty fall, helpless rope team, and you-know-who in just the right place at just the right time to come selflessly swinging to the aid of their brother climbers. Unfortunately, organized rescues rarely follow this perfectly scripted plot. For starters, rescues are rarely dramatic — once the call goes out, chances are the drama’s already happened. And rescues are slow. Ever carry litter down a talus slope?
Then there’s the fact that organized rescues have to be, well, organized. And that mean you have to take orders for someone. If it’s a search, there’s a good chance you’ll spend six or twelve or eighteen hours walking around in the woods calling some stranger’s name at the top of your lungs and never come close to finding him or her.
The truth is, I find rescues to be tedious and stressful, vaguely ego-deflating and overwhelmingly boring, all at the same time. What they really remind me of is going to a high shool dance. So this January, when my phone rang in the middle of the night, I had to take a moment before responding. And in that split second pause before I committed myself to another day of alpine tedium, Maury, with the verbal acumen of a used car salesman, made his pitch.
“You’ll get to ride in a helicopter”, he said.
“So what happened to this guy, anyways?” The speedometer on Bayard’s Elantra pushed passed sixty as we crested Crawford Notch and blasted towards Interstate 93. We were running a few minutes late, and who wants to be late for a helicopter ride? The guy in question was actually named Brian. He was a college student in nearby Plymouth who’d gone for a winter hike with a few friends up Mount Lafayette in Franconia Notch that Saturday. A stong weather system was moving to the west of New Hampshire, and producing some very sporty conditions. As they moved up the mountain the winds only increased. Brian’s friends turned back, but Brian, with the wind at his back, decided to keep going and try to tag the summit. By this time, the Mount Washington Observatory was recording gusts of over 100 miles an hour. Brian’s friends waited, but he never showed at the parking lot.
This was getting weird. By now, I think everyone in the team was silently preparing themselves for the worst. Adding to the tension, the Blackhawk circled overhead and the radio crackled with communications from the command post and various teams. It felt like getting dumped on prom night, with your parents, friends, teachers, then entire fucking universe, watching.
And then we heard screaming. Bayard and I started to run.
As we had followed his trail that morning, I had absently thought about what I’d say to Brian if we found him and he was alive. It had to be something catchy, something historic like H.M. Stanley’s quip in the heart of Africa, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”, or Conrad Kain’s crack to his clients on the summit of Mount Robson, “Gentleman, I can take you no further.”
Bay and I trashed through a final stand of spruce, rounded a turn in the stream — And there was Brian. He was siting in a sleeping bag in the middle of the frozen stream, looking expectantly at us.
Knowing he was a good New England college guy, I cut right the chase. “I got bad news, Brian,” I said gravely. “The Patriots lost yesterday.”
The weekend gale had forced Brian to continue with the wind, dropping off the summit to the east. After breaking through the stream several times as he thrashed down, his boots were soaked. He took them off for the night, and they froze solid. With no way to dry them, he was immobile, and sat there for two days until we arrived. Nevertheless, he was in remarkably good shape, with only superficial frostbite and an empty stomach.
An hour after we found him, Brian was dangling underneath the Blackhawk as he was winched to safety. I lobbied on the radio for his rescuers to be airlifted out as well, but alas, no such luck. Instead, we made the long and ignoble slog out to the Kancamagus Highway on foot, arriving a little after dark. At least I succeeded in getting a few rounds of free beer at the brewpub in North Woodstock that evening — a tasty reward for a reluctant rescuer.