Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire is infamous as the home of the worst weather on earth; many have perished hiking in its subarctic climate. On average, the wind exceeds hurricane force on more than a hundred days each year, and storms can develop quite suddenly and dramatically. That being said, the mountain can be hiked safely with some training and preparation.
The first time I climbed Mt. Washington, I took a misstep on a wet ledge and began an out-of-control slide. Fortunately, the angle of the ledge tilted toward the sidewall into which I slammed. Rather than dropping off the edge, I regained my footing; incredibly, I was uninjured.
This June we hiked up a trail on the other side of Mt. Washington. About two hours into our climb, the trail crossed another wet ledge. A couple hiking ahead of us was tentative; they invited us to go first. I decided to crawl across on my hands and knees while grasping the sidewall. Seeing me crawl was enough for the other couple; they wisely decided to turn back. I say wisely because both my wife and I had already noticed that they did not seem fit enough to complete the climb.
Peter Shintani perished climbing Mt. Washington approximately one week before our hike. The day we climbed, search teams and helicopters were scouring the vast and rugged terrain in an attempt to find him. Peter, a Canadian, had a lifetime of outdoors experience and was 70 when he died. He had planned to summit Mt. Washington one year ago, but had had to abort his climb. When he began his hike one day this June, the morning sky was clear. By the afternoon rain had arrived; a half inch of rain fell. The facts that are known suggest that Peter was probably above treeline when the rains came in. I know from experience how wind and rain hamper visibility on a mountain; it is easy to lose your way in a storm.
The search teams did not know which trail Peter took up Mt. Washington; after days, the search was abandoned. His body was found in July a couple of hundred yards off the Lion Head Trail—the same trail we hiked in June.
The morning of his fatal hike, Peter observed the sunrise and wrote about it in his journal, which was later found in his car. We can assume that Peter had no idea his death was imminent. In his book The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer asked this question: “Do you realize that what you’re doing at any moment is something that someone was doing when they died?”
Singer encourages us to reflect on how our priorities would change if we understood we would die within a week or a month. As we ponder our priorities, he asks this question: “If that’s really what you would do with your last week, what are you doing with the rest of your time?”
I love to hike in part because of the physical challenge, in part because of the views and the beauty of nature, and in part because of the unpretentious community that forms and dissolves each day on the trails.
But mostly, I like the honest day’s work doing something that I love to do. It is an honest day’s work; even when I’m exhausted, I must continue to put one foot in front of the other in order to complete my task. When I’m distracted by my thoughts—my ego’s views about this and that or ruminating about the past and future—I subtract needed energy from the physical task at hand. A strenuous hike limits the wanderings of my mind. To be sure, there are things other than hiking that I regularly do, such as teaching, where my ego’s noise fades to the background. But, for a host of other activities, my attention is divided.
To live with our attention divided is not to live at all. Yet, we can choose otherwise. I have no idea how Peter Shintani lived his days. His last day though was unexpected; he probably thought he had many more years of life ahead of him. If we could ask him, he might tell us that his end came too soon.
Time is short for all of us. If we truly understood this, would we spend one precious moment of our life reading another article about Sarah Palin’s future, or Jon and Kate’s troubles, or Barack Obama’s greatness? Would we polish the grievances we carry in our mind as though they were precious gems to be hoarded? Would we watch hours of nightly television, while consuming snacks laden with corn syrup? Would we be waiting around for the government to create opportunities for us to use our inherent genius?
Now, this is not a call to accomplish the spectacular. The world, Helen Keller said, “is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.” If it is not our calling, we need do nothing that draws the attention of the world to us. Yet, through our simple, honest labor doing something that we love—or doing something mundane with love—we make the world a better place; and our life is happier.
Mary Oliver ends her poem “The Summer Day” with these evocative words:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
From sports to business and across the intersecting personal, professional and spirtual segments that make up my daily activities, I discern no disparate flow for any at the edges. In those fleeting but most lucid moments, I recognize that there is but a single flow and that is the real me!
When there are no ego constructed walls, I see clearly if only for a moment, and understand that all is as it should be and I am perfectly connected to everything that I normally see as disparate. This sets the stage for the next step until the weather comes in and once again clouds the grand vision that I was gifted to behold.
That alone will cause me to come back again, in spite of the risk. And it is this realization, more than any other, that I attribute my best moments in this world to!
Thanks Bob for your comments. That awareness of flow is indeed the real you. As you say the connection is perfect and the “clouds” are illusory.
Words to a great song “Life means so Much”
Every day is a journal page,
Every man holds a quill and ink
And there’s plenty of room for writing in
All we do and believe and think.
So will you compose a curse?
Or will today bring the blessings.
Fill the page with rhyming verse
Or some random sketchings.
Every day is a bank account,
and time is our currency.
So nobody’s rich, nobody’s poor,
We all get 24 hours each.
So how are you gonna spend?
will you invest or squander,
Try to get ahead,
or help someone who’s under.
Teach us to count the days,
Teach us to make the days count,
Lead us in better ways,
Somehow our souls forgot.
Life means so much, Life means so much,
Life means so much.
Every day is a gift that you’ve been given,
Make the most of the time every moment you’re livin.
Thanks for sharing this beautiful song. I just listened to the version by Chris Rice on YouTube.
Another good one is “Now” by Dave Carroll, (Yes, the same Dave Carroll of the viral and very funny “United Breaks Guitars“)
Dear Mr. Brownstein,
I am Peter Shintani’s sister Jenny Shimono, who notified the New Hampshire authorities when my brother went missing. I read your commentary with great interest. First of all, you were able to confirm for me how hazardous the terrain of Mt. Washington can be and how important it is for hikers to prepare well and be well trained for such a challenging climb. You indicated that you were hiking during the 3 day search for my brother, which took place between June 16th – 18th. Unfortunately, we now know during that time, it was already too late to rescue Peter. It is surmised that he succumbed to hypothermia on the very day he attempted to reach the summit. I am pleased to see and save the 3 photos you posted, which offer a visual memory for me and my family. Your reflections on why you love to hike are probably consistent with my brother’s mindset. Similarly, I know he would certainly agree that his life came to an end too soon. His life was full, rich and rewarding: yes, there was still so much more he wished to do. However, I know that my brother didn’t waste a moment, as his days were busy, happily delivering “meals on wheels”, helping patients at the retirement centre, volunteering at his church and in his community, as well as sailing and fishing on Hay Bay. I agree fully that everyone needs to ponder their priorities and give thought to what they would choose to do, if it is the last action they would ever take.
I would like to share a heartwarming email which I received from Eric Pederson, rescue coordinator at the AMC. (photo attachment sent under separate email)
“My name is Eric Pedersen and I am the Search and Rescue Coordinator for the AMC and Huts Manager. I wanted to pass on this photo that I took as we started to head up the mountain with your brother last week(July 6th). It seemed that the rainbow came out on cue and it caused us all to pause and take a moment to appreciate the sight and our surroundings. It was a great sign for us and I wanted to pass this on in hopes that your family takes this as a positive sign.
My deepest condolences to you and your family.”
Dear Ms. Shimino,
I appreciate your touching reflections, and I know my family and my readers join me in sending you our most sincere condolences. My family and I have been moved by Peter’s story and although we are strangers we have held his memory in our hearts.
My name is Jozsef Zsarik, I had the pleasure to work with Peter in landscaping. I was supprised to hear about his death. On the otherhand I am not suprised to see him die on the mountain. He loved the out doors. Love might be a grose understatement.
Thank you for reflecting on my father’s demise. I am still haunted by his disappearance and death. Our immediate family went to Mt Washington and spread his ashes at the summit.
I hope the loving memory of your father brings some comfort. We are considering a hike this summer up the Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail (not far from from where your father was found) and we will remember your dad.
My husband and I hope to hike the trail my dad did someday. Do people hike with their children? Or is that what the train is for?
Angela, Mt. Washington is a challenging hike. You and your family will need to be well-conditioned and prepared.. If you train for it by taking smaller hikes first you will accomplish your goal. My family and I hiked the 48 peaks above 4000 ft in the Whites together. It was a wonderful adventure and I kept a blog of our climbs: http://nhhikes.blogspot.com You can see how we progressed from easier to more challenging hikes. Please feel free to be in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org for more specific advice. I will be glad to assist.
Wow, that’s fantastic! Thanks so much for the link to your other blog. Hmmm something to think about for sure.
We took a small hike at the Silver Creek Falls State park here in Oregon. Our 15 month old daughter fell asleep and Daddy carried her on his shoulders the entire way. It was only 5 miles though and lots of opportunities to rest.
We have friends on the Pacific Crest trail right now, but they are what we consider serious hikers. I’m not sure I could imagine ourselves doing that.
Angela, Your doing the right thing by getting your daughter on the trails early. Just be patient and you will amaze yourself with what your family will accomplish. Hiking is a great family activity and you will be rewarded with many great memories. This is one of my favorite photos from a 2003 hike: http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/7171/447/640/DCP_08191.JPG My son is a teenager now and over 6ft tall.
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