I'm nearing the end of Peter Kick's Desperate Steps,
a collection of real-life tales of incident and accident in the Northeastern U.S. backcountry. Many--too many, one might say--do not end well. My own life experiences make these accounts troubling. Many are not on mountains at all. Of those that are, a good number take place on fairly moderate mountains, the sort of places where I might easily make the same mistakes.
The book has me reflecting on experiences of my own, and of my spouse's, which came very close to being fodder for a book like this.
My brother and I spent much of our childhoods on a small island in Lake Winnisquam, NH. When we got old enough for school, we necessarily spent less time there. It was about that time that my dad bought a second boat, so that when he commuted to work we would not be marooned. It was (is: my brother still has it) a 12 foot all-aluminum boat, then a novelty. It had a three horsepower outboard, which didn't deliver a lot of speed,
One weekend my dad chose this boat for a visit to the former owners of the island on the western shore of the lake. Keith, the husband of the couple, was blind (his reason for selling the island) and both my brother and I thus became acquainted early with that particular view on life. While we were there, the cloud cover thickened, and it was Keith who first noticed thunder in the distance, and suggested that we had better get going.
Even with the early warning, we weren't quite in time. A thunderstorm was coming up the lake and was upon us before we were well underway. Keep in mind first that the boat was entirely aluminum, even the seats. second, it was very slow with a load of an adult and two children. My brother and I wrapped ourselves in tarps and crouched in the bilges while my father steered through the longest mile any of us had ever had on the water. We did make it without incident, which owed a lot to luck.
My spouse and her sister, in high school, crewed for their dad on a Lightning-class sloop (hold the irony for a moment). One weekend, they went to a regatta on Lake Champlain. The weather began to turn dirty and their dad, being a prudent sailor, headed for the dock from some distance out. Now one can't hurry a sailboat. When thunderstorm fronts approach over the water, several things happen. First, as they say, it blows like stink, and one is preoccupied with keeping the boat upright. Next, just behind the front the wind is likely to drop. This is awkward, because there is still lightning and one wants to get ashore fast.
My wife can't remember the exact moment that lightning struck, or even whether it actually hit the boat. There was a brilliant flash, The good thing about a sailboat is that one is sitting under a grounded nest of rigging, which MAY minimise damage. It did this time. She and her twin were stunned and numb. She remembers that her dad's hair was literally standing on end, and that the boat was afloat in a sea of stunned or dead fish. That is about as close a call with lightning as anyone would care to have. In the years we sailed, we either left races early if a thunderstorm threat became serious, or never left the dock.
In our early years sailing, we and the fleet sailed well into the fall, under conditions we would never chance now. As one dockmaster said, "the boats are 40 years older, and the sailors are 40 years older."
At any rate, we were racing in 20-something knot wind, with seas we could look up at from the cockpit of our small boat. My wife was skipper, and after a while decided she had had enough. Before heading home, she asked me to take in the jib. I'd nearly finished the job when I slithered, rather than fell, overboard. Both of us were experienced enough on the water to be wearing life jackets. I never lost contact with the boat, but began to wonder how I was going to get back on board, seeing that I'm twice the size of my wife. The water temp was somewhere under 50 degrees F, which made getting aboard very attractive.
In the seconds I was thinking these thoughts, I was going hand over hand aft, to the lowest point of the boat's freeboard, knowing that was my best shot. As I tried to lift my very wet self into the boat, my wife left the tiller, grabbed the back of my life jacket, and hoisted me bodily back on board. Never before or since have I been party to such a demonstration of the benefits of adrenaline. The subject still comes up now and then, and she is still astounded that she was able to do that.
These incidents are very like those in Desperate Steps
. They include a balance of bad luck and bad judgment, and any one of the three could have been fatal without an injection of a dose of good luck.
I never forget any of them.
Labels: dangers, Outdoor sports