April 6, 2015
A DEATH ON THE MOUNTAIN
MONTPELIER, VT – I was just kind of noodling around on the Internet here a night or two ago – rather like a dog sniffing the kitchen floor for something edible – when whimsey led me to the little village in the eastern high peaks of the Adirondacks where Mother and I lived for a couple of years after our marriage. A few long-ago names popped up, including that of the local doctor who delivered our first child in the tiny hospital there. A couple of entries below, the doc, who at the time was also the county coroner, is cited as ruling the death of a climber on Mount Marcy, a few days earlier, the result of exposure and exhaustion. What a rush of memories that evoked! – of a long-ago weekend of intense cold, gathering darkness, and inexplicable prescience.
For some years in the Fifties, the Cornell University Outing Club maintained an “emergency cache” high on the shoulder of 4961-foot Haystack Mountain, near the deep dip between that mountain and Mount Marcy. The cache held a couple of down sleeping bags, some rations, a nylon tarp, first aid supplies, and some small stuff like fire starters, a compass, and matches. The club had committed to checking it once a year, at the start of the winter climbing season.
The checkup was usually done during an annual Thanksgiving gathering of outing clubs near Lake Colden, several miles away down the Opalescent River. It involved ascending the river to Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, the highest pond source of the Hudson River, then up and over the shoulder of 5340-foot Mount Marcy, down into the head of Panther Gorge, and up Haystack – and then back again. It was a pretty ambitious trek, especially in snow and early darkness, but we were all about twenty then, and knew no fear or doubt. In 1955 a 19-year-old Cornell underclassman, Tim Bond, and I made it in good shape. It was Tim’s first winter trip.
The following year we were back, but I was with an outing club from my college in Ohio. They were suffering fro the winter camping conditions, so we hiked out Thursday and headed west. Those left behind enjoyed a lovely roast turkey, courtesy of a young lady from the Cortland Outing Club. The next day Tim and a 28-year-old graduate veterinary student, Norm Nissen, set out to reprise the former year’s trek. Norm was a four-year veteran of the Air Force who’d spent his childhood in Denmark. He’d served as an interpreter in the Air Force, and was about to receive two doctoral degrees from Cornell. This was his first winter hiking trip.
The snow, as they climbed Mount Marcy, grew quite deep, and the cold intense; but they made it up Marcy, down the other side, and up Haystack to the cache. Then they turned back toward camp, miles away. As they reached the bottom of the col and started back up Marcy, Norm began to struggle to keep going. He complained of losing his balance. Tim helped him up the long, exposed slope; but as they reached the junction with the trail downward toward Lake Tear and the relative safety of the woods, Norm collapsed. Tim tried to carry him, even tried to drag him. It’s impossible to appreciate how difficult that is, especially in deep snow. The temperature that night dropped to about twenty degrees below zero. Finally Tim stuffed Norm into the emergency sleeping bag they were carrying with them, left him, and ran for help.
Back at Lake Colden, there was no intimation of the drama developing up on the state’s highest peak. But about midmorning, while two of the men, John and Paul, were walking near the ranger station – in those days closed for the winter – Paul stopped, looked up at the mountains, and said, “I have the feeling something’s going to happen today.” Later, in the evening after dark, supper at the open leanto was finished, and people were beginning to wonder where Tim and Norm were, when Paul suddenly stood up, peered up the trail beside the river, and shouted, “Tim? Tim?” About five minutes later, a flashlight bobbed into view. It was Tim, on his way to get help.
Three men set off up the trail as soon as possible, carrying extra emergency gear, warm drinks, and a Coleman lantern. They followed Tim’s back track and came finally to where Norm lay. He was half out of the sleeping bag, frozen and dead. They dragged his body down to the leanto at Lake Tear and spent the night sitting there, shivering. “We left that Coleman burning,” one of them told me later. “We really didn’t want to be sitting there in the dark.”
About the same time during the night, Chet Rafferty, the rlong-time ranger at the Lake Colden station, woke up at his home in Ticonderoga. “I couldn’t go back to sleep,” he said. “I just knew there was something wrong up at Colden.” He got up, dressed, grabbed some breakfast, and set off for the trailhead. Shortly after dawn, hiking up the trail, he met two messengers from the outing club group, running down the trail with the news.
That trail, by the way, is no stranger to drama. It’s named the Calamity Brook Trail, after an accidental shooting in 1845 killed David Henderson, the owner of a nearby iron ore blast furnace. Teddy Roosevelt was camping near Lake Tear in 1901 when he got word that President McKinley had died, and rushed down from the mountain to assume the Presidency. Now, 55 years later, a solemn cortege of college students bore poor Norm Nissen’s body down the trail to the roadhead.
None of us who were there that weekend – those of us who are left – will ever forget it. I’d like to go back sometime, but I’m not sure I could get to that spot on Marcy anymore. Besides, the mountains are pretty much overrun these days by hikers; the ranger station is open all year now to keep an eye on them. It’s probably safe to say that none of them are aware, as they pass on their way to the summit or back, of all that happened there that long-ago Thanksgiving weekend.