SI Vault
Robert Sullivan
April 04, 1983
This is the story of an event that didn't happen. But that isn't to say this is an uneventful story. There were events all right, several of them, and dramatic ones, too, having to do with courage and daring on a dangerous mountain. This is the story of those occurrences, and of one the mountain wouldn't let happen.
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April 04, 1983

To Race Or Not To Race? At Inferno Time, That's The Enduring Question

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Perry wandered on the cone for 20 minutes, becoming increasingly glum. Finally, at 10:30 a.m., he radioed the base camp, saying, "It's off for today."

Competitors stayed in the bowl that afternoon and skied the headwall. Spectators, though they were told that the Inferno was postponed until Monday because of the day's winds and a gloomy forecast for Sunday, hiked up anyway. By noon there were perhaps 5,000 people in and around Tuckerman, as many as anyone could remember ever having been there. The champagne corks popped; lunches were eaten on Lunch Rocks. Many of the people who had hiked in were disappointed that there would be no race that day, but aware of the dangers of running an Inferno in bad weather, none complained about the decision to postpone.

The party and skiing continued until rain started in midafternoon. Then most people headed back down the fire trail, while others began to set up camps. They would camp two days and two harsh nights on Washington and be ready for the Inferno on Monday.

Down in the valley the weekend dragged on for McAleer. "The meetings—they just never end, but they're needed if we're to stay ready for this thing," he said. What was needed was sun to loosen up the frozen snow and raise the temperature on top above Tuckerman, and diminished wind.

Early on Monday, to those in the valley conditions seemed ideal: It was clear and not too cold, and there was little wind. But the important information was being gathered on the summit. McAleer had set a 7 a.m. deadline for decision-making, and the time was very near. On the summit there was sun, yes, and an acceptable temperature in the 20s, but there was that damned wind. At 7 a.m. the prediction was for 80-mph gusts during the day. Some committee members urged McAleer to say "Let's go." But at 7:02 Perry and McAleer decided: no race. "We said we wouldn't take chances," McAleer said sadly. "We swore we'd never run a race that would put anyone in unnecessary jeopardy. The headwall will be superb today, but above the bowl it might never soften up. I'm going to be second-guessing myself all day long."

He didn't mean that, of course. There's no reason to tell someone who knows Mount Washington well that he needn't second-guess a prudent decision.

McAleer sat in the Pinkham Camp later that Monday, explaining quietly why he had done all the work that he had, seemingly for nothing, when Arthur Doucette, the man who organized the 1969 race, walked over and patted him on the back. "Good job, old man," Doucette said. McAleer smiled. Doucette walked away and McAleer leaned on the table and spoke slowly. "Every year people talk about Washington and Tuckerman, and usually the ideas aren't terribly original. But the thought I had is that the ongoing nature of the mountain—the fact that it has always been tough—is the news. It should be talked about. Washington will be tough forever—that's why we go after it.

"There was some objection to our having a giant slalom and calling it the Inferno, but my idea is that a race on this mountain is the Inferno—always has been, always will be no matter what we call it. And even this year, we brought the whole history of the race to a new generation, and I'm happy about that. We had an Inferno at Mount Washington this weekend; it's just that the mountain didn't let us hold the race."

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