First Day on the Job

A week ago Ben Lewis was stuck in Cheyenne, WY. This spring he graduated from high school, and like the Donner party he headed West with high hopes. The dude ranch in Dubois, WY (said Due-boys) where he had a job put him to work in the scullery. Instead of sage, far-off thunderclouds, and the Tetons he saw nothing but grease, baking pans, and burnt soup pots. Soon enough Ben was headed East. Somewhere near Cheyenne his Subaru died, unable to face another crossing of the Nebraska plains. His older brother Malcolm is on the crew at Lakes, and told me about his predicament. When I spoke to Ben about filling an open spot on the crew at Lakes he was about to get on a Greyhound to Denver.

On Thursday Caitlin and I hiked down to Lakes to meet him. In the valley it was overcast, still and humid. At the summit the wind was gusting past 50, driving a cold rain into your face hard enough to hurt. Caitlin and I soon found we were under-dressed in our trail sneakers and thin windclothes. As usual I considered how this poor preparation would read in an Appalachia accident report: “Despite years of experience in the weather of the White Mountains Mr. Kautz’s pack contained only some frozen waffles for the hut crew and a cotton sweatshirt.” Just as I considered turning back Caitlin and I came upon two men wearing blue jeans and plastic fishing ponchos. “Quite the weather” they said with smiles, and disappeared into the fog.

Caitlin and I bucked up and carried on, arriving at the hut in slightly better weather. The Lewis Bros. were both asleep, having spent the previous night hiking to Mizpah and back on a social visit. Before we could wake them up a breathless hiker arrived at the hut reporting a hiker with an injured ankle. I borrowed some dry pants and we put our packs back on. Fifteen minutes down the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail we came upon the gentleman sitting with his wife.

Marshall (not his real name) was from New Jersey and hiking Mt. Washington for the first time. He had slipped while climbing up a wet ledge and slid about 8 feet. His ankle rolled when he landed. Marshall was complaining of extreme pain and a “crunching” sound when he tried to stand. His ankle was swollen and he was sure that he would not be able to walk. He was nauseous and pale. He was also 6’3” and 250 pounds.

Using a portable radio I called back to the hut for the litter, as well as down to Pinkham to ask for more carriers. The Galehead naturalist Selena happened to be visiting Lakes on her days off. She ran the radio at the hut while the rest of the crew came down the trail. We put Marshall into the litter on a foam pad and a sleeping bag. The eight of us took our places around the litter, and on the count of three, lifted him.

If you have not carried a litter before, the best way to simulate what it feels like would be to take a 5 gallon pail to the trailhead of your next hike. At the trailhead fill the pail with water so that you have 40+ pounds in one hand. To make the experience realistic it would also help to have a well-trained 30-pound beagle who could hop onto the top of the pail at the steeper sections of the trail. As the litter takes up the center of the trail you’ll need to hike in the brush on the side of the trail. All this is to say that even with a fairly light patient carrying a litter is physically demanding.

With only eight of us to carry Marshall everyone was at their limit. Getting the litter up over the wet ledges was tough. We could only move about 30 feet at a time before we had to rest. Everyone, from Brian Quarrier who is the size of a black bear, to Lynne Zummo who weighs 100 pounds, was straining, grunting and panting. We sounded like a colony of walruses trying to hike uphill.

Just as we were becoming exhausted Katherine Siner and her father arrived. Katherine is from St. Johnsbury, and her father serves in the Vermont National Guard. A few days before he had returned from a 2 year deployment in Iraq. Now he was hiking up with Katherine to visit the hut. Mr. Siner looked the kind of man you’d want next to you in a fight. He had a close crewcut and was the size of a refrigerator on legs. He had a sweat towel around his neck. He looked at the scene for a moment with his hands on his hips. Then he went to the front of the litter, the heaviest part. He grinned and said “At least no one is bleeding and no one is shooting at us.”

With Mr. Siner leading us on we made it to the hut. It took us only 15 minutes to reach Marshall, and over 2 hours to bring him back up. At the hut he made a remarkable recovery. After a physician looked at his ankle and wrapped it in a brace he found he could indeed stand, and walk quite well. He decided he would prefer to stay at Lakes for the night and rest, then walk to the summit in the morning. All of us on the litter carry preferred this as well.

After putting the litter away the crew washed up. It was 5pm and time to start making salads and setting tables for the 92 guests waiting for dinner. Ben Lewis was having a big first day in the huts, and he looked a little tired. As Caitlin and I packed our bags to leave I asked him if the day made him wish he were still back in Cheyenne. “No way” he said.