SI Vault
After the Fall
Andrew Nemethy
December 09, 1991
A tragic accident on Mount Washington left the survivor groping to understand the death of his climbing partner
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December 09, 1991

After The Fall

A tragic accident on Mount Washington left the survivor groping to understand the death of his climbing partner

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"The next thing I know I'm flying over this bulge and I'm kind of in the air."

Whatever hit Huntsman flung him over the ice bulge, and he hurtled down on his rear end. He went past Smith, who was dug in with an astounded expression on his face. Huntsman's first instinct was to plant his crampons to try to stop, but he knew that might start him tumbling end over end, or worse, break his ankles. But as his speed increased, he decided he had to dig his feet in, which he tried to do when he felt the tug of the rope. He was hoping that Smith could hold him.

"My crampons just blew off my feet," Huntsman says. He guesses that Smith was probably swept off, or pulled off, by the snow. Joined by the rope, the climbing partners were headed back to where they had begun hours before.

As close friends who had recently become climbing partners, Smith and Huntsman had often indulged in black humor about mountain mishaps. During an ice climb one day in Vermont, Smith said that taking a fall would be like being a "human pinball with stone flippers." He couldn't have been more prophetic.

The narrow icy trough they were on poured the helpless climbers, as would a sluiceway, into the jagged maw of the main gully. Huntsman remembers bouncing off rocks, slamming his shoulder into a huge, scoured stone slab and then being airborne for what seemed like ages. "I remember thinking, This is taking a long time," he says.

And then he had the strange feeling of being out of his body, watching himself as he fell headfirst and thinking that if he wanted to survive, he had better turn himself around. Then he blacked out.

He landed—right side up—on the fan of snow at the bottom; his free-fall was broken by the steep slope, which probably softened the impact by causing him to slide downhill instead of slamming flat. In another improbable twist of fate, the rope that still tied Huntsman and Smith together snagged on a treetop sticking out of the snow, preventing Huntsman from tumbling into the deadly rocks below. Dazed, Huntsman took a mental inventory of body parts and, to his amazement, concluded he was in one piece. Then he began yelling for help.

It was more than an hour before Pickett and Hirt, unaware that their companions had fallen, heard the call for help and discovered Smith and Huntsman. It was around 6 p.m., and pitch dark, before the first rescuers reached Huntsman—by then hypothermic, in shock, bloody from puncture wounds from his ice ax and still in a perilous position. Once additional rescue workers arrived, he was belayed down the icy slope in frigid, hostile weather and finally reached Pinkham Notch three hours later in a snow cat.

The violence of Huntsman's fall still astounds him. It shredded his pack, ripped off his watch and mittens, and littered the ravine with his belongings.

"I had these two peanut butter, honey and raisin sandwiches in the pack in a little plastic bag. They were completely disintegrated. They were just crumbs," he says, able now to laugh about it.

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