Making the Final Choice on Katahdin

In the frozen grips of a fierce storm on Mt. Katahdin, each man’s choice was his own. On Thursday evening, January 31, 1974, a fierce winter storm cut a swath of destruction across northern New England. It tore roofs off of mobile homes and tossed them into nearby trees, and sent tree limbs crashing into […]

By Mel Allen

Aug 13 2008

In the frozen grips of a fierce storm on Mt. Katahdin, each man’s choice was his own. On Thursday evening, January 31, 1974, a fierce winter storm cut a swath of destruction across northern New England. It tore roofs off of mobile homes and tossed them into nearby trees, and sent tree limbs crashing into power lines, leaving thousands of homes without electricity. And it trapped six men on a tiny ledge below Pamola Peak on Mt. Katahdin, 4,600 feet above sea level, yet still 300 feet below a ridge that offered escape. They awoke that day to a breathtaking vista from their camp at Chimney Pond in Baxter State Park in northern Maine. Mt. Katahdin, 5,207 feet at its summit, was bathed in a red glow, a beautiful yet ominous warning that within the next 12 to 18 hours the unseasonably balmy weather of the past week would change, though to what extent was unknown. They were six men who had come to Katahdin to climb its ice and snow gullies, which for size and grandeur were unparalleled in the Northeast. They had met at the Pinkham Notch headquarters of the Appalachian Mountain Club, where three of them now worked. Bob Proudman, the leader of the expedition, had come to Katahdin twice the previous winter. He was 25, a highly skilled technical climber (requiring ropes and specialized equipment). He had climbed since he was a teenager and like most good climbers was competitive, taking special satisfaction in being the first to scale a mountain in winter. He had earned the reputation of being somebody who would try anything, once trying to climb Cannon Mountain in a hurricane. But now, after taking a bad fall, he had toned down, and the closer he came to a climb, the more cautious he became. Paul Dibello, 23, had come to Pinkham Notch in 1971 to ski. and found that climbing “put me more on the edge than anything I’d ever done.” The delicate movements necessary on fragile ice reminded him of ballet, and in summer he ignored the bare granite cliffs and strapped crampons (climbing spikes) to his boots, and went looking for dead pine trees to climb. Michael Cohen, 30, had climbed ice for two years, often with Bob Proudman. “We never hesitated to tell each other we were frightened,” he says. To Michael winter climbing was the perfect blending of mind and body; he had never seen anything so beautiful as a wall of ice close up. He was steady and cool. “Nothing gets Michael down,” his friends would say. Doug George, 23, a student at the University of New Hampshire, had skied since age three. He was serious and deliberate, a careful planner. With Bob, Paul, and Michael he had climbed on Katahdin the year before, and had writ- ten Bob saying, “If you’re planning another Katahdin trip I’d like to be included.” Page Dinsmore, 19, was the youngest. He had grown up only 17 miles from Pinkham Notch in Shelburne, where scrambling on rocks was as natural as breathing. He had never climbed big routes like those on Katahdin, but had gotten out of a lot of tough spots in winter. While taking a semester off from Dartmouth he had worked at Tucker- man’s Ravine, where he met Paul. Invited in December to join the expedition he had declined, saying he would be back in college. However, early in January he reconsidered. Tom Keddy, 26, was the least experienced climber. An avid skier, he had endured Navy duty in the Gulf of Tonkin by telling himself, “This winter I’ll be skiing Wildcat!” When discharged he moved into Pinkham Notch, a half mile from Wildcat, and began climbing with Paul. “I have a natural ability on ice,” he wrote his parents. When a more, experienced climber dropped out of the expedition at the last moment, Paul, who had been impressed by Tom’s calmness on a recent hard climb, invited him along. Tom reassured his parents, “One thing we’re not planning to do is to have accidents.” They would climb two steep, long gullies on Pamola cliff, 2,200 feet to its summit. It would be their first real climbing after a week of supply packing and wet weather. At 8:30 it was sunny and mild. They had no radio, unreliable in Baxter’s rugged terrain; unknown to them, the Portland Weather Bureau up- dated its forecast to read: “HIGH WIND WARNING IN EFFECT LATE TODAY. MOSTLY SUNNY THIS MORNING. IN- CREASING CLOUDINESS THIS AFTERNOON WITH A CHANCE OF SNOW BY EVENING FOLLOWED BY CLEARING. HIGHS AROUND 50. MUCH COLDER WITH LOWS 5 TO 10 TONIGHT.” They arrived at the base of their gullies by 9:30. Because of the warm day they traveled light, expecting to complete their climb in eight hours or less. In addition to the standard climbing outfit (double boots, wool pants, wind pants, gaiters, hats, wool shirts, and windbreakers), they threw sweaters and down vests in their packs, except for Page and Bob, who also carried down parkas. They would climb in teams of three, linked by a rope. Paul led Page and Tom up a steep gully packed with dense ice from refrozen water, the most challenging ice to climb. To Paul it would prove exhilarating, “the best ice of my life,” but also unexpectedly difficult and slow. Meanwhile, Bob led Mike and Doug up a more moderate gully filled with more snow than ice, which made for faster climbing. Soon Bob lost sight of Paul’s party as the gullies deepened and by 5 P.M. he had chopped from the snow a small ledge, three feet wide and five feet long, while Doug and Mike waited at the end of the rope 150 feet below. He was in the clouds, and it was growing dark rapidly. He wondered how far he was from the ridge where Dudley Trail, a popular hiking path, led to their base camp. Peering into the mist with his headlamp, he tried to see the route above but saw only the glare from the mist. He grew anxious waiting to hear from Paul’s team, sensing the storm’s approach. “It was so still, like before a thunderstorm,” he says. There was a shout from the other gully. It was Paul saying he would hook up soon, but not until three hours later was Mike able to lower a headlamp to Page coming into view. With no warning the storm hit, pinning everyone in their tracks. “It was like someone just hit me in the face in a dark room,” Page says. Tom and Paul flattened themselves against the slope, pressing their faces to the ice. Bob crouched on his ledge, his face to his knees, unable to look up because his face would fill with snow. As it snowed, the sky rocked with thunder and lightning flashed. Through the snow and furious gusts they inched their way towards the ledge where Bob waited, his rope held taut. Two hours after the storm hit, the snow abated; stars shone painfully bright through the swirling snow and the winds intensified. In nearby Millinocket temperatures plummeted from 40 to zero in a few hours. First Doug, then Page, followed by Mike, Paul, and Tom, climbed to the ledge where they tied into anchoring pins placed by Bob. Bob was frightened, especially upon seeing Tom stumble onto the ledge after falling several times, while Paul quickly lapsed into dazed exhaustion. Options swirled in his mind: he knew their strength would never be greater than it was at this point. Soon they would face a wind chill of 80 degrees below zero, and if they did not keep warm and awake they would die. But to leave now would mean climbing in the dark, in the raging wind with tangled ropes, onto unknown terrain, where if the leader fell he could pull ropemates with him. They opted to stay, and they huddled together, embracing each other for warmth. At Chimney Pond, Baxter Park ranger Arthur York had come on duty. He was troubled, but not deeply worried to find the men had not returned. The rangers had all been impressed by the group’s knowledge of mountains, and had granted them blanket permission to camp out on the mountain so that they could climb some distant gullies. He called on his radio for other rangers to see if Proudman had mentioned to them about overnight plans, but failed to reach anyone. He decided he would give them until Friday morning. There was no place to turn on the ledge. Packs and ropes crowded their legs. They struggled for 45 minutes to put Tom’s windbreaker on him; it became impossible in the wind to search for sweaters in the packs. Except to gulp food they could only crouch together, yelling their names over and over, making certain nobody dozed. They tried singing but the wind drove their voices away. With faces pressed close, they yelled “Endure!” a hundred times. But the wind and cold tore confidence from them, and as the night wore on, their shouts lessened, and enduring became each man’s private war with cold. Mike pressed himself into a narrow crack in the ledge until he felt he was part of the rock. Concentrating on every part of his body, he willed himself to stay warm. He told himself he had been uncomfortable before, that the storm would pass, and he’d be needed to make decisions in the morning. Paul was silent, appearing to the others as though he was drunk. In the middle of-the night he became aware that he no longer had feeling in his legs, but he didn’t care that much, only that they no longer felt cold. When the others tried to make him stand in the middle of the night he discovered he couldn’t unbend his legs. He knew then he could never climb off the ledge, that his only chance was rescue. Tom had slipped from an active leader of yells to a groggy state and Bob grew very frightened looking at them. “I knew we couldn’t leave them,” he says, “We’d have to get them out. But I didn’t know how. We could slap them, tie ropes around them, carry them out. Whatever we tried I knew it would be dangerous for everyone.” Daylight startled them. For the first time they could see the ridge, only 300 feet away. They would have to climb a steep snowfield, but if somehow they could untangle the frozen knot of ropes, the attempt would be reasonable. Page, his face ghostly white, said quietly, “I’ve got to leave. I’m freezing to death.” Bob looked at Page who obviously was suffering and warned, “If you fall there’s nothing to stop you.” Page, his hands immobilized and unable to help untangle ropes, climbed off the ledge. Shocked by their condition that only now they could see, Bob and Mike worked desperately to free the ropes. With enough rope tied together, Bob could carry it to the ridge, loop it around a rock, and descend to the ledge. With the rope as a handline he was certain they could escape. They were all now going blind from frostbitten eyes. With blurred vision Bob found a large, perpendicular boulder near the ridge, perfect for securing the rope. He rappelled swiftly down the cliff, exulting that they would all soon be out, when suddenly he was clutching the end of the rope, dangling over space; the knots had untied in the wind. He hung onto the rope for what seemed an eternity. He couldn’t see. He yelled for Mike but he knew it was futile. He wondered if he could even find the ledge; he knew it might be suicidal to climb down with blurred vision, with no rope anchoring him to the mountain. He decided to leave, hoping there was time for a rescue. “I wish I could have told them that it was probably, here on in, every man for himself,” he says. Mike and Doug realized something had gone wrong. For the next three hours Mike concentrated on helping Paul while Doug refused to let Tom sleep, hugging and punching him, until he felt himself dangerously weak. He knew he wouldn’t survive another night. Mike was reaching the same conclusion. He tried to think through his options, but there were no data except that he was freezing and had no more warmth to give Paul. He told Paul he was going for help. He told himself that if he didn’t get off soon, there would be three men help- less on the ledge. Mike and Doug climbed unroped and separated. On his way to the ridge, Doug’s glove blew away as he momentarily placed it under his arm. He screamed watching his hand shrivel in 60 seconds. Miraculously the glove blew past Mike, then when the wind slackened, slid back down. Using his teeth, Mike tugged the glove over Doug’s now useless hand. When he reached the ridge Doug walked around in circles until he came to his senses and started down Dudley Trail. As he slid down the trail he couldn’t understand why he didn’t pass a rescue team. He crawled the last 100 yards through the snow to the ranger’s cabin and pounded on the door. When Arthur York opened the door it was 1:15 P.M., the first time anybody knew there was trouble on the mountain. Ten minutes later Mike arrived. Shortly past 2 P.M. Page broke into the ranger’s cabin at Roaring Brook, 3.3 miles from Chimney Pond, and radioed for help; he was exhausted from bushwhacking through the woods after blindly wandering with Bob down the wrong trail. Soon a helicopter arrived to transport them to a hospital; already crack mountain rescue units from New Hampshire and Maine had started for Katahdin. The body is resourceful; by cutting off blood to Paul’s feet and legs, more blood flowed to his brain and he started to think clearly. When he felt his hands also begin to freeze he became scared, and realized his hopes for a rescue were remote. He looked at Tom with dismay. Six months earlier Paul’s best friend had been killed falling off Cannon Mountain and Tom had become his new best friend. Tom could make a stone laugh, and was a tireless worker, volunteering to pack blankets with Paul into the AMC huts whenever he could. “It’s time to go!” he yelled to Tom. “We’re not going to stay here and die.” Everytime Tom would slip off the ledge where a rope held him in place, Paul would drag him up, cursing at his gray face, demanding he talk, get up, MOVE. But Tom had nothing left to give, except to murmur, “Tell my parents I was doing what I loved. ” Paul beat his hands against his legs incessantly for two hours; when he tried to stand it felt as if he had two wooden legs. He could not see except for a blur of white. He found 30 feet of rope, tied it to Tom’s waist, and unhooked him from the anchoring pins. He heaved on the rope to pull Tom up, but failed. Carefully he anchored Tom again to the mountain, and with the edge of his ice axe cut the rope that linked them. Groping his way upwards he forced Tom from his mind. Twice he fell, but the wind gusted so hard up the gully it held him in place until he could dig his crampons into the snow. Without his sight Paul knew he had to keep facing into the biting wind, his only bearing to the southwest toward Dudley Trail and the way down. The one burning thought in his mind was that the minute he took his face from the wind he’d be off the other side of the mountain and helplessly lost. As he crawled off the ridge he heard a helicopter and thought it was watching his descent. He groped for handholds, bumping into boulders, falling repeatedly into snow. The effort warmed him enough that his eyes began to thaw and Paul was certain he saw a shortcut; taking three steps he plunged 60 feet into a thick stand of spruce and deep snow. He lay dazed, and badly scratched, but otherwise unhurt. He thought, “That’s it. I’ve had it. I can’t go any farther. I’ll just lie here until they pick me up. I’m done.” But the sound of the helicopter faded, and disappeared. It was silent where he lay. “It was as if I was the only one on earth. I knew I had to keep moving.” He crawled for several hours, periodically collapsing in the snow to catch his breath. It grew dark and he saw a candle a long way away. He headed for the candle, and crashed into the ranger’s cabin, whose window light he had been following, falling against the door at 7 P.M., four hours after leaving the ledge. They carried him inside, and started cutting away his clothes. When they reached his favorite climbing britches, he roared, “Leave them alone,” and with his remaining strength he yanked his pants off, sparing them the knife; then he collapsed into unconsciousness. Rescue teams arrived late that night. The temperatures were still below zero and the winds made climbing treacherous. An elite group of mountaineers attempted a rescue, for they knew that Tom’s slim hopes rested on them, but were forced to abandon the climb. They left at dawn, on Saturday, February 2. By 11:30 they had reached the ledge and found Tom, frozen, eight feet below the ledge, where the rope still protected him from falling farther. Until the winds ceased, it would be too dangerous to carry his body up the mountain; and they did not cease until Wednesday, February 6, when Tom Keddy finally reached Pamela. Bob Proudman, the least injured, was hospitalized five days for serious frost-bite. It would be several weeks before Mike, Doug, and Page could leave. Paul would be hospitalized for eight months, finally losing a thumb and both his feet. Tom’s father put two pictures of Tom in his den, both showing Tom poised on an outcropping of rock in the White Mountains, with a burst of foliage behind him. At first Mrs. Keddy could not look at the pictures, but in time they became a part of her life, so that today she says, “When I walk past him now I tip my hat. He always said he felt so alive when he was climbing, and he had fun, he had so much fun!” Paul operates a successful garage and from his doorstep views snowcapped mountains. He plans to ice climb again soon. He says the storm taught him humility, and he figures people won’t understand when he says in some ways it was the best thing that ever happened to him. Doug lives near Paul, working at a half dozen things at once, including building solar homes. Page went back to college, and in two years will be a veterinarian. Bob stopped climbing soon after the storm, his heart no longer in it; but he stayed active in the outdoors, continuing to work for the Appalachian Mountain Club. Michael lives in western Maine where he is an educator. He also leads outing club expeditions, where his goal among others is to show young people they can persevere, no matter what the circumstances. They say there will always be traces of guilt in having left, yet they acknowledge there was nothing else they could have done. Bob Proudman looks his questioner in the face and asks, “What would you have done?” They are the survivors of a night without heroes, though surviving that storm may be heroic enough; for the storm cut short all choices but the final one, between life and death – choices for which no rules exist, not for them, not for any of us on mountains of our own, in storms we cannot foresee, storms that catch us with no warning. Yankee classic from February 1980