New Hampshire, Mt. Moosilauke—On February 27, four climbers, Thomas O’Donnell (25), George Young (22), William Young (20), and John Benjamin (22), students at Dartmouth College, began to climb Mt. Moosilauke at 2:30 p.m. There happened to be a Dartmouth Outing Club gathering at the Lodge at the base of the mountain, that weekend. The D.O.C. men there did their best to dissuade the four from attempting the ascent at that late hour, but their advice was not heeded.
The four started up and in less than three hours had reached the South Peak. From here it was about a mile across a windy ridge to the summit. All were feeling fine, but George Young felt that he was stronger than the rest and went ahead, alone. On the way he fell, ripping the sole of his cross-country ski boot so that he could not use his skis. He reached the summit, but could not find the D.O.C. cabin located nearby. He had never been to the summit before. He managed, however, to find shelter under the platform of a former cabin, now torn down, and spent as comfortable a night as might be expected under the circumstances.
The other three pushed on across the ridge to the summit. They also missed the cabin, although one of their party had been to the summit a number of times. They dropped down to treeline, where they dug a hole in the snow and bedded down for the night, sandwiched in between layers of spruce boughs. Around two a.m. they discovered that the wind, which was estimated at 50-60 mph, had covered them with snow. Two could not move at all, and the third could move only his left arm. In half an hour, he had dug himself out, and then proceeded to free the others. Their boots had been left outside their sleeping bags, and it took some time to uncover them. Until 6:00 a.m. they tried to keep warm and to stay awake by moving around and by asking each other questions, to which Benjamin was giving incoherent replies. At 6:00 a.m. they went up to the summit to get their bearings, leaving packs, skis, and snowshoes behind in order to facilitate their travel in the wind. Here they rejoined George Young and started down, minus packs, skis, and snowshoes. Sometimes sinking into the snow up to their waists, at 1:00 p.m. they were only two-thirds of the way down. Here, by an extremely fortunate chance, they happened to meet with the chaperone of the D.O.C. gathering, Dr. Ebaugh of Hanover, N.H., his wife, Dr. and Mrs. Beacon of Hanover, and some girls from Smith College, who were out ski-touring. At this point, George Young was on his knees in the snow, unable to go farther. A stretcher was sent from the Ravine Lodge, some two miles distant, and Young was transported back.
As of March 2, two members of the party were in the college infirmary, recovering from minor frostbite and exhaustion. Another of the four was released after a couple of days’ hospitalization, and the fourth did not require treatment.
The trip was neither sponsored nor approved by the Dartmouth Outing Club.
Source: Robert W. French, Assistant Director, D.O.C.
Analysis (French): “This is one of those near-tragedies that happen all too often in the White Mountains; this winter there have been four trips to Moosilauke alone which have come close to ending in fatalities. When there is a fatal accident, we hear about it; but I think we would do well to keep in mind the astonishing number of near-misses such as this one. If George Young had injured his leg instead of his boot, or if Sunday’s weather had been stormy instead of warm and clear, or if the party had not happened to run into Dr. Ebaugh—one can think of many ‘ifs’—this story might have quite a different ending.
“Two major errors in judgment stand out: the lateness of the start and the splitting up of the party. In addition, there were others: the three who stayed together had only one pack of paper matches between them, only one member of the party was wearing ‘longjoins’ under his ski pants, the party lacked leadership, etc. and yet the group could be described as moderately experienced.
“The blame must be placed, I think, on judgment and attitude. At the start the group was rather light-hearted and casual about the undertaking; although somewhat aware of the difficulties they might have to face, they seemed to think that there was some particular God watching over their fortunes—the ‘It can’t happen to me’ attitude with which we are all familiar. Such bravado is responsible for many accidents; it is also a difficult attitude to change.
“Perhaps continued public education about mountain conditions, stated
in the strongest terms, is one answer, but there will always be people who should listen and won’t, and one wonders what it will take to convince them.”