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Book by New London author details deaths in the White Mountains

  • A pair of hikers traverse a trail on New Hampshire’s Presidential Range last summer on Mount Washington. A new book by New London writer Julie Boardman titled “Death in the White Mountains” documents 219 deaths in the New Hampshire mountain range since records began in 1849. AP

  • €œJeremy Clark on Mount Madison, is a photograph from Julie Boardman’€™s book €˜Death in the White Mountains. COURTESY—Amy Patenaude

  • Writer Julie Boardman in her New London home on August 4, 2107. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Saturday, August 05, 2017

Author Julie Boardman wants you to know that disrespecting the White Mountains can kill you.

“A lot of people underestimate the White Mountains,” Boardman said, “because they’re small compared to the rest of the world’s highest peaks.”

True, but with Mount Washington and its hurricane-force winds as part of the mix, hiking on these babies is really dangerous, and that’s the theme of Boardman’s latest book. The title says it all:

Death in the White Mountains.

In about 200 pages, the silver-haired writer from New London, who hosted me last week for a chat in her sunny condo living room, spoke about the people who have perished in this mountain range and the manner in which they were woefully unprepared for what lay ahead.

She limited her work to those killed while hiking, climbing and cross country skiing. She documented 219 deaths since records began in 1849, when an Englishman named Frederick Strickland died of hypothermia, apparently falling from a ledge on Mount Washington and, perhaps, losing consciousness.

Boardman broke things down this way:

“If you’re counting hikers, climbers and skiers, falls are the leading cause of death, then deaths from natural causes like heart attacks are second, and hypothermia is third.”

When looking at the cause of death for hikers only, Boardman says natural causes jump to first place, followed by hypothermia and then falls.

The stats she compiled show other tidbits, like young men, under the age of 30, have been the most reckless, making up nearly half of the deaths listed in the book. “Only 24 were women,” Boardman says. “Women, it seems, tend to be more careful.”

She’s played it safe herself since meeting her husband through the Appalachian Mountain Club in the 1980s. Since then, she’s climbed all 48 4,000-footers in the state, but she avoids the winter climbing that her husband enjoys.

Still, Boardman got a taste of how cruel hiking in the White Mountains can be, no matter what season it is. Like the time she hiked Mount Madison in the Presidential Range.

In July.

“It started snowing,” Boardman said. “The group leader had us turn around and wait. You can run into bad weather in the middle of summer.”

Which is why the heights of the mountains in this region can be so misleading. Mount Washington is the tallest, at just over 6,000 feet, but it’s dwarfed by the giants in other areas of the world, which are four to five times higher.

That’s why she took on this project. Maybe her book, one day, will save a life.

“For a long time, the idea of writing about death didn’t really appeal to me,” Boardman said. “But the more I thought of it, the more I thought it would be a very worthwhile subject to write about.”

She found newsletters, newspaper articles and journals. She discovered that experienced hikers lost their lives, and that more deaths from hypothermia occurred during warmer months than the colder ones.

“This is surprising, until you think that people are going off in the summer on a warm day and think that they don’t need any extra clothing,” Boardman said. “Then they get above the tree line and then all of a sudden they run into bad weather and they’re not prepared.”

She wrote about two men named Sidney Crouch and Alfred Whipple, who in the 19th century went rock climbing at Cannon Cliff at the end of August and ran into high winds and 40-degree temperatures. Both died from hypothermia.

“Everyone thinks it has to be freezing for this to happen,” Boardman said. “That’s not true.”

She also wrote about a New York City woman and Russian immigrant named Kate Matrosova, an experienced hiker and climber who had already conquered some of the world’s highest peaks when she tried the Presidential Traverse on Presidents Day weekend two years ago.

Her body was found between Mount Madison and Mount Adams, after a February weekend that featured temperatures well below zero and 100 mph winds.

“She went out there by herself,” Boardman said. “And people wonder if she was aware of the forecast. Pick the right day.”

Hiking with someone and checking the weather seem like obvious safety measures, but Boardman found that these two factors were too often ignored.

She noted that people should prepare for the worst and never assume that a sleeping bag won’t be needed for a planned day hike. Also, follow the same trail down as the one you went up. Bring an ice axe and practice digging it into a snowy slope to stop from sliding down after a fall.

And remember, when it comes to the White Mountains, looks can be deceiving.

“Show some respect,” Boardman said.

(Ray Duckler can be reached
at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)