Pembroke headmaster helps with rescue effort

  • Members of the Morris family: Phoebe, Alyza, Dan, and Daphne on Mount Madison on August 7, hours before assisting another hiker. —Courtesy

  • The Morris family (left to right) Daphne, Phoebe, Dan, Braden, Alyza, Alycia, and Camden on the summit of Mt. Madison last Saturday hours before they assisted another hiker. Courtesy

  • Alyza and Dan Morris on Mount Jefferson earlier on Saturday morning wearing cold-weather gear because of the shift in weather conditions. —Courtesy

  • Dan Morris on Mt. Monroe this past winter. An avid hiker in all seasons, he has almost completed climbing all of the state's 48 highest peaks in the winter. —Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/14/2021 4:00:01 PM

Jefferson was cold, Adams warm, Madison wet and slippery.

That last one in the White Mountains – the final stop in a three-mountain family tour – was where the headmaster at Pembroke Academy, Dan Morris, was needed last Saturday.

He and his 10-year-old daughter, Daphne, just six-tenths of a mile from the Mount Madison parking lot, stopped to help a Rochester hiker who was sitting in the mud, cold, exhausted and light-headed.

And just like that, the unforeseen had turned to reality. A harsh reality. A hiking reality. The other five family members in the Morris group continued down the trail. The ill hiker, Brandon Mains of Rochester, had his own people with him, a friend and his young son.

The strategy, laid out by Morris, who’s climbed more mountains than a billy goat, was simple, careful, cautious:

“The first priority and concern is hypothermia,” Morris explained by phone this week. “His friend said dispatch had said it would be a couple of hours before Search and Rescue would come, so we’re in a holding pattern. Keep him warm. Keep him talking.”

That’s what he and Daphne did. Kept him warm and talking for at least two hours. Morris waited until a volunteer from Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue arrived. The two men escorted Mains down, holding him, guiding him, encouraging him.

“There’s a Nordic saying,” Morris said. “There’s no such thing as bad weather. Just bad clothing or bad equipment.”

Morris knows his stuff. He camps in the winter, when it’s below freezing and his GPS is warning about potential battery damage. He’s one of those 4,000-footer individuals, driven to climb all 48 mountains at that height in the Granite State. He's almost finished conquering all 48.

For the third time.

His passion was born and grew at Pembroke Academy. Morris, 41, graduated in 1998.

“I started from the outing club (at Pembroke Academy),” Morris told me. “We would go to Lafayette, Mount Washington, all the big ones in the White Mountains, hiking country.”

Asked if he’d hiked in any exotic parts of the world, Morris said, “I’m too busy hiking the White Mountains to go to other places, other states. I appreciate what we have right here.”

It’s a big family activity now. Morris, his wife, Alyza (who’s nearly hiked all 48 4,000 footers), their 13-year-old daughter, Phoebe, and Daphne, 10. Morris’s sister has become a regular hiking buddy. Sometimes she brings her two children.

The seven were hiking last Saturday when, with the sun dropping quickly, their plans changed drastically. They started at Mount Jefferson, their first stop on a 13-mile, three-mountain family outing.

Right away, their skills and smarts were tested.

“We needed hats and gloves,” noted Morris. “It was like winter, cold. We did well and we had a good time. It was just cold on the summit and there was a lot of wind, so we did not stay too long.”

Next, Mount Adams. In the crazy world of the White Mountains, nearby Adams was warm. “We needed to put on our summer stuff,” Morris said.

Then the seven hikers moved on to Mount Madison. Their good fortune after Adams didn’t last. It rained on Madison, and on the family, really hard. Just below the tree line. “It hammered us,” Morris noted.

The message of common sense from the Mountain Gods had been delivered. Expect the unexpected in these parts, folks. Dress for it all, cold and hot, wet and dry, windy, mosquitoes, whatever. Take nothing for granted. Ever.

“You don’t go out and look for rain,” Morris said, “but there is fun in being miserable too.”

The rocks and trail turned slippery. The rain had no shot against the gear worn by Morris and his daughter. Morris and Daphne hiked behind the other five, who came across Mains, trying to catch his breath. They were waived on. Just a quick break, they were led to believe.

“Daphne and I came upon them later, when it was more of an emergency,” Morris said. “He is wet and he can’t move.”

That was at about 8:30 p.m., a half-hour after Mains had gone down for the last time. It was dark. A volunteer from Search and Rescue had been called and would arrive in an hour.

Morris learned that Mains was “nauseous and fainted several times,” according to a press release from NH Fish and Game. He was told Mains had eaten a sandwich and some trail mix. It wasn’t enough. 

The billy goat knew what to do. He cut open his bivy sack – a waterproof covering that can be used in place of a tent and reflects heat back to the user – and wrapped Mains inside. 

Daphne gave her synthetic hat and puffer to the teen. No cotton, ever. No material that will allow heat to escape.

The Search and Rescue volunteer arrived and fed Mains the essentials. Fruit. Honey. Electrolytes.

Mains stood after 15 minutes and said he could walk down. This was huge. The option was utilizing about 10 rescuers, working in shifts of 15 minutes, to carry Mains to safety. That would have taken hours.

Instead, Mains wore a harness, allowing Morris and the volunteer to flank him and hold tight. It took 40 minutes to reach the trailhead.

“He was wobbly,” Morris said. “It was slow going for sure, but he was doing it and it was clear he was getting better after he had those nutrients.”

They reached their cars at about 10:30 p.m. Morris had hoped to get there before dark. Certainly by 8 p.m.

As it turned out, Mains had hiked several of the 4,000 footers, Morris said and the Fish and Game release confirmed. He said this was the first time he’d gotten sick during a hike.

Morris saw this as a great learning tool. A hiker with experience felt the power of the Mountain Gods, sometimes forgiving, sometimes not, always unpredictable. Mains declined medical treatment and left.

Morris and his entourage were already on their way home.

“It ended up being a longer day than we thought,” Morris said.

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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