Death on Mount Washington cover pic

This month I review Death on Mount Washington: Stories of Accidents and Foolhardiness on the Northeast’s Highest Peak by Randi Minetor (Lyons Press, ISBN 978-1-4930-3207-5, paperback).   As the title suggests, the book describes how various hikers, skiers and others have died on the mountain over the years.  As an avid hiker who has hiked Mount Washington many times, I was excited to pick up a copy of this book in the hopes of learning something new.

The book has nine chapters.  Each of the first eight chapters addresses a particular cause of death (one chapter for stories of avalanche deaths, one for hypothermia deaths, etc.), and the ninth chapter has stories of missing hikers.  The epilogue gives the reader sound advice on how to stay safe on the mountain.  As most of us know, carelessness and lack of preparation can quickly doom a hiker on Mount Washington.  Death on Mount Washington is an example of how carelessness and lack of preparation can doom a book. 

Out of respect for those who have perished on the mountain, it is absolutely essential that the details and circumstances surrounding these deaths be written as accurately as possible.  That much is owed to the deceased and their families, especially since a number of deaths described in this book are fairly recent.  In the book’s preface the author lists the kinds of resources that were consulted “to bring you the facts in as journalistic a manner as possible.” This book is riddled with careless errors, however. 

Now, they say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case it’s really hard not to.  That’s because the mountain they put on the cover isn’t even Mount Washington – it’s actually Mt. Eisenhower!    How did that detail get missed?     

Death on Mount Washington cover close-up
A close-up of the cover showing Mt. Eisenhower.
Presidential Range
In this unrelated professional photo of the Presidential Range, Mt. Washington is left of center (in the clouds – note Cog Railway) and Mt. Eisenhower is at far right. ©Peter Rintels. See Peter’s beautiful work on Flickr here
Death on Mount Washington pizza cover

Sadly, this cover with a slice of pizza is just as accurate as the cover that was used!

The carelessness displayed on the cover continues throughout the book.  After reading only a few pages I found myself looking for mistakes in the text instead of focusing on the stories themselves.  For example, starting in Chapter 1, Tuckerman Ravine is incorrectly referred to as “Tuckerman’s Ravine.”  This mistake is repeated over forty times in the text.  Lakes of the Clouds is incorrectly called “Lake of the Clouds” on numerous occasions.  Nuances, perhaps, but a simple glance at an AMC trail map, or the relevant White Mountain National Forest signage, would have prevented these and other similar mistakes. 

One gets the sense, then, that the author and editors have little in-depth knowledge of the mountain.  The author’s writing style is agreeable, but when “boots on the ground” insights would benefit a story, the book lacks them. 

The description of Lizzie Bourne’s ordeal in Chapter 2 (she was the first recorded female hiker to die on the mountain) is disappointing from a journalistic perspective.  According to the author, a New York Tribune account has Lizzie hiking up the mountain (with her uncle and cousin), and dying near the top, on Wednesday September 12, 1855.  This is not what the Tribune account says, though.  At the end of the Tribune account it notes that Lizzie’s hike began at two o’clock the following afternoon.  Perhaps the author didn’t read the whole Tribune article?  Anyway, at the end of Death on Mount Washington Lizzie’s date of death is listed as September 14, 1885.  Huh?  

Much of the material in this book has been written about previously, so there isn’t a lot new.  That said, I did find the account of Herbert Young’s death interesting.  I’ve hiked past the marker on the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail on numerous occasions and had always wondered about that day in 1928.

Death on Mount Washington falls short, though.  With no maps and no pictures it is difficult for the reader to fully grasp the scale of the mountain and the circumstances surrounding these unfortunate deaths.  The book leaves the reader lost in a fog of careless mistakes – a fog as dense as that which so often cloaks Mount Washington’s 6,288-foot summit.

For those interested in this subject matter there are better options than Death on Mount Washington. One to consider is Not Without Peril: 150 Years Of Misadventure On The Presidential Range Of New Hampshire by Nicholas Howe.  It offers a thorough treatment of the material and includes maps and pictures. We review this book here.

Another excellent option is Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova by Ty Gagne.  This book is incredibly well-written and has maps and pictures.  It offers a fascinating account of this extremely dangerous rescue and recovery operation.  I couldn’t put it down. Our review of this book is here.

BONUS BOOK: Julie Boardman’s When Woman and Mountains Meet: Adventures in the White Mountains addresses a different subject, but offers an excellent account of the Lizzie Bourne incident noted above. This book is well-written and well-researched.

-William Browne, columnist

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