Ever since his days as a boy Scout, Jamie Huntsman has loved mountain climbing. As a kid in Vermont he would go into rugged Smugglers Notch, scampering up the cliffs with a clothesline hitched to his belt loop. His parents eventually yielded to his unusual passion and gave him a climbing rope on the condition that he take lessons.
In high school in Montpelier, Huntsman, who was also a cross-country ski racer, went out to bag peaks, using snowshoes and crampons, in Vermont's Green Mountains and the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. While attending the University of Rhode Island, he made weekend forays to climbing sites in the Northeast, but during his junior year, in 1975, he decided he would rather scale mountains than academic heights. He left college and headed for the Rockies. Eventually, he made his way back to Vermont, where he now works in a sports-equipment shop and enjoys the outdoor life.
Last winter Huntsman's passion for climbing put him, at the age of 36, in a gully high on New Hampshire's Mount Washington—and in the path of one of climbing's worst nightmares. As he was scaling ice near the top of Huntington Ravine on Feb. 24, an avalanche knocked him off his perch. The fall was terrifying, and his survival ranks among the most miraculous in mountain-climbing annals.
Sliding, tumbling and in free fall, Huntsman plunged 1,400 feet, a distance greater than the height of the Empire State Building. In the seeming eternity before he landed, he endured, he says, a singular out-of-body experience in which he calmly observed himself plummeting down the ravine. Against all odds, he came through this deadly Cuisinart of rock and ice alive, albeit with a banged-up right shoulder, a smashed pubic bone, deep puncture wounds and a body so black-and-blue that it looked as if it had been used as a punching bag.
His good friend and partner on the climbing rope, Tom Smith, who was 41, also fell, and was killed. A Massachusetts native who worked with Huntsman, Smith was an experienced rock climber and an accomplished athlete who was at one time a nationally ranked bike racer. Smith's was the 106th name added to the plaque atop the mountain that sadly commemorates those who have lost their lives on Mount Washington, the Northeast's highest—6,288 feet—and most dangerous peak.
How Huntsman cheated the mountain is both a puzzle and a marvel. "I guess it's one of those mysteries that you just say, for lack of anything else, that it's an act of God," says the tall, sturdy Huntsman, who is married and has a four-year-old son. "I've spent a lot of time wondering why me, not Tom. Why didn't I hit the rock he hit?" So far Huntsman has not been able to find the answers, though he understands that the experience and the loss of his friend have forever changed his life. "I've been through something, but I can't put my finger on what it is," he says.
Had Huntsman and Smith been the kind of people who believe in omens, they might have thought twice about continuing their climb up the ice on that Sunday. On their first pitch, using 150 feet of rope, Huntsman heard a noise and looked to his right. What he saw was another ice climber shooting down an adjacent gully, tumbling like a rag doll, end over end, toward the base of the ravine. He later learned from rescue personnel that the climber had just started up when he lunged to catch a mitten and lost his grip. He ended up with a broken wrist and internal injuries.
But neither Huntsman nor Smith, nor the other two men who had made the trip with them, all competent and well-equipped climbers, had an inkling of what the day had in store for them. The other two climbers were Roger Hirt, a Volvo mechanic from Barre, Vt., and an accomplished climber who had done routes all over the Alps and North America, and Jack Pickett, a Stowe, Vt., chef and avid mountaineer who had made many trips up Mount Washington.
They got up at 4 a.m. that day to make the two-hour drive from Vermont to Pinkham Notch and the trailhead to Huntington Ravine, one of a handful of prime ice-climbing sites in the Northeast. The ravine has five major gullies filled with ice and snow that lead to the summit shoulder of the peak. The appeal of the ravine goes beyond its merits as a place to hone climbing technique. Huntington, an impressive semicircle of steep rock and tenuous vegetation that lies north of the more famous Tuckerman Ravine, has a grandeur that makes it a shrine for adventurous souls who like to scale rock and ice in winter's solitude.
"It's a beautiful place. It's as close to the Alps as you can get in the Northeast," says Hirt.