Critical Hours

hiking musings Jul 25, 2018

It’s not news to you that I love hiking. I like being surrounded by nature, smelling the pine trees, hearing the birds and chipmunks, getting almost run over by two squirrels chasing one another and of course I like the views.

Most of all though I love the physical activity, I love feeling my heart pound in my chest on the ascent. I love the mental challenge of technical trails. Using my hands to assist me when I pull myself up a steep sock scramble makes me feel alive. Testing the grip of my boot against a steep rocky ledge connects me to this planet unlike anything else, and it shows me my limits (Yes, I’m talking about you, Holt trail).

On the descent, I enjoy having to focus where I place my foot for every single step. It keeps my mind occupied and away from any subjects that could cause worry, anxiety, loneliness or frustration. No wonder it’s my favorite way to spend a day off.

When I heard about Sandy Stott’s new book “Critical Hours - Search and Rescue in the White Mountains” I was intrigued. Last week, Sandy talked about, signed and read from his book at Gibson’s bookstore here in Concord. Of course I went. Meeting the author always makes books or any other works of art for that matter so much more personal, which wasn’t really necessary in this case. A mere few pages into his book, I had tears in my eyes.

The stories Sandy picked and his writing style are relatable and touching. They made a beeline to my tear ducts, I suppose. Take this paragraph from page 118 for example:

“August is a fickle month in the Whites. Dog-days’ heat often bakes the valleys and softes the tar, but the summer season has grown measurably shorter, and along the ridges, fall can appear with an icy suddenness. Mount Washington, the center pole of the White Mountain tent, usually feels a first touch of snow during the month, with a record fall of 2.5 inches. Snow’s precursor, cold rain, is a possibility verging on certainty. Even as summer cicadas buzz on, hypothermia season arrives.”

Additionally to nearly every single sentence being a literary gem, I’m learning what to do or not to do in case of a minor or (God forbid) major emergency. For example, in case of getting caught in a thunderstorm, leave your hiking poles somewhere where you can find them again easily, but keep them away from you, as they will attract lightning. Sit on your pack - as long as it doesn’t have a metal frame in it - to insulate you from the ground. I admit I didn’t know that. I don’t usually go out when thunderstorms are on the forecast, but the weather can change quickly in the mountains.

At the end of the book, you can find a comprehensive list of gear, tools and personal items to include in your pack to be prepared to rescue someone off a mountain. Something I was not aware of but which dramatically changed my outlook on my responsibility as a hiker, was to learn that the most important, effective and of course quickest rescuers are other hikers.

Makes sense, we are right there when someone needs help. All the many volunteers and professionals of search and rescue organizations first have to get to you and that can take a while. Waiting for help to arrive can easily take six hours from the time you set off your emergency beacon signal. This is not the exception but pretty common. Depending on how far away from any trail head you got before you realized you needed help. A lot can happen in 6 hours.

Another testament to Sandy’s wonderful style, is that even the chapter about the history of the Whites kept my attention. History is probably my least favorite subject (like, in the whole world). I’m more of a “being fully present” kind a gal. But it’s amazing to start thinking about the amount of dedication and commitment of regular humans that went into creating the White Mountain National Forest the way we know and enjoy it today. It’s so close, people!

Even though some stories in the book end badly, it’s not a depressing book. It also doesn’t leave me with the feeling that it’s way too dangerous to go out there. Instead, Sandy did a wonderful job researching and narrating where the hikers who got themselves into trouble might have misjudged themselves or the conditions or where they might have been under prepared or made a bad decision. It’s actually empowering. It showed me what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong. Simple, clear, non-judgemental.

Please enjoy nature! It’s not called “The Great Outdoors” for nothing. Just be prepared.


The Book Will Help With That


If you’re not much of a reader, then maybe the documentary series Kingdoms of the Sky is more up your alley. Breathtaking views of the Rockies, Himalayas, and Andes.


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