Some books really “get you where you live,” don’t they? You turn the pages and realize the words are affecting you personally, because of some connection with the author or the subject matter.
Vicki Doudera here. A book that strikes home with me is called Not Without Peril:150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire. It came out in 2000, when I was lucky enough to be hosting a radio show, and after reading the book I contacted the author, Nicholas Howe,.and interviewed him on-air.
All this makes for fond memories, but the real reason Not Without Peril resonates with me is because I’m an avid hiker, and the White Mountains are one of my favorite places to climb. I’ve been hiking them for nearly twenty years, usually right around this time in September, and never fail to be awed by their beauty.
In fact, if you are reading this after 10 am, I’m on a trail somewhere by Tuckerman’s Ravine, headed with a group of friends to the AMC’s largest (and coldest — trust me) huts, Lakes of the Clouds. I’m wearing a new pack that is heavier than I’d planned, off to spend three days in a place I sorely wish was in Maine.
But back to Not Without Peril.
Howe’s book is not a crime novel, although there is death, and plenty of it. The stories he relates are true tales of stupidity, misinformation, egoism, terrible luck, and what we PC parents call “bad choices.”
In many cases, the villain is the weather. Unpredictably severe weather, the kind for which the Presidentials are famous. As the Mount Washington Observatory website puts it: Despite its relatively low elevation (6,288′) Mount Washington is located at the confluence of three major storm tracks, and being the highest point in New England, it generally takes the brunt of passing storms. The steepness of the slopes, combined with the north/south orientation of the range, cause the winds to accelerate dramatically as they rise up from the valleys.
We’re talking snowstorms in August. Winds so strong they can whisk a hiker off a rocky face. Dense, impenetrable fog to rival Holmes’s London.
Mountains in Maine can be dangerous, too. Acadia has seen its share of tragedy, as has Baxter State Park. But as Howe’s book reminds us in each of his chapters, the White Mountains possess a very deadly grandeur, the kind that has killed in the past, and will kill again.
It’s fair to say that I’ve questioned whether I should have read this book in the first place. It’s terrifying, to be sure, but also compelling – and sobering. Whenever I think I can take a high mountain hike for granted, I think back to the stories in Howe’s book and get serious.
I’ve made my share of mistakes, and will probably continue to do so, but thanks to Not Without Peril, I’m hoping they’ll be small. Like not bringing enough chocolate. Or forgetting a hairbrush. But my sleeping bag, water and first aid kit? A trusty trail map and headlamp?
Believe me – they are safely packed.
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