Not Without Peril by Nicholas Howe Reviewed

Not Without Peril by Nicholas Howe (2009, 2nd ed.)

Nicholas Howe grew up and around the Presidential Range of New Hampshire with the tallest peak, the Mount Washington, within view of his family’s first home. He hiked extensively, served as a trail and hut steward, and participated in some rescue efforts. In his book, Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire (2009, 2nd ed.,) Howe explains how the mountain trails have changed yet the mountain itself and the people who climbed it have not.

Starting with a grand sentence to lead his book, Howe beckons us to read on: “Mountains were invented in the 19th Century.” We learn about exploration in England’s land in North America and the carriage road up the summit of Mount Washington. We read about Frederick Strickland, an Englishman scientist, who has a tragic mishap in 1849. We follow enthusiastic mountain climbers, and evaluate their situations in 1855, 1886, 1900, 1912, the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1950s, 1986, and the deadly 1994 season.

Often the demises of hikers lost were due simply because they were unprepared. They were without appropriate clothes, nutrition, and navigation. Many died mere meters away from shelter they could not locate due to snow, wind, rain, fog, or the dark. I feel like several disaster stories (including Simon Joseph’s and Joe Caggiano’s) start out “three friends from Boston decided to go climb in the Presidential Range…”

Howe introduced me to Jesse Whitehead. She was the daughter of Alfred North Whitehead, a British-born Harvard philosopher, and she was a scholar of ancient Arabic languages that maintained a prominent place in Boston’s society. Well, she was also a hiker, skier, and a serious climber “long before anyone thought such a calling would include women,” as Howe explained her pioneering ways. Whitehead, with three men, made the first ascent of the Pinnacle in Mount Washington’s Huntington Ravine. Later, she climbed in the Alps, including the an attempt on the Matterhorn. But it was another attempt in Mount Washington’s other major eastern ravine, Tuckerman’s Ravine, that Whitehead makes Howe’s book. She and her partner, a less experienced gentleman, fell from a ghastly height. Howe traces the accident and the rescue (not a recovery) that includes Bradford Washburn, which almost seemed like a cameo in the story.

Howe’s treatment of these stories combine the enthusiasm we share for mountain adventure and is simultaneously clinical enough before leaving the reader sad. After the accident, Howe starts to evaluate the situation for lessons and explains the search and rescue process and tells stories from their perspective with as much ferver as going into the range. Each chapter I read I went with the traveler Howe profiled, full well knowing it wouldn’t end well, and they examined the maps and mistskes by flipping pages back and forth. I’m grateful to Howe and the subjects, like Joseph amd Caggiano, for their anecdotes as I prepare better my next hike.

Howe also taught me about the early visitors approach to the Presidential Range and Mount Washington in particular. They believed the mountain would largely be ascended by horseback, which was why the carriage road and the halfway house was built. The observatory on the summit was not the only purpose. In fact, other early routes attempted to rise up via gradual grades much longer than our uphill trails we rely on today.

I was drawn to reading Howe’s book because of David Roberts’ books about his own adventures with the Harvard Mountaineering Club and retelling of stories of fellow-Harvard alumni Bradford Washburn. Those tales taught me about the significance of climbing Mount Washington, in spite of its relatively low elevation of 1,918 m/6,288 ft. I learned that it was not only the highest peak in the Northeastern United States, but it was also a cold, windy place that was the best “local” training for Alaska and beyond.

I climbed it in 2002 in a round-about way via the Ammonoosuc Trail from the West. I was an experienced hiker from dozens of trips up the Adirondack 46rs, but I didn’t have more than a simple map for directions. I was surprised by many things, from the large lodge known as the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, that I was able to easily make it to the summit of Mount Monroe by a short detour, and that the bald rock was not in fact relatively smooth like the Adirondack peaks but rather enormous boulders evenly spread out; stumbling could easily mean a twisted ankle. I knew the summit had a large weather station and a cog rail train and auto road brought tourists, but it was weird summit experience after walking alone (with joy and meditation) for hours. It’s only taken on a more significant role in my imagination.

Howe’s book is worth reading if you frequent the Presidential Range or if you hike and scramble over peaks often. The anecdotes and historical tidbits, along with practical takeaways for the trail, are valuable and downright charming.

Rating: 4/5

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