A mountaineering training expedition on Mount Washington. Photo by Ryan Wichelns.

They could have easily calculated that they no longer had the time to make the climb and descend before dark. They could have seen the weather moving in, as Comeau had. They could have recognized that leaving your rope behind is a sign of mental impairment.
And even if all that evidence didn’t deter them, they could have read the big yellow signs posted at the trailheads. They say, “Stop.” Then in smaller letters, “The area ahead has the worst weather in America.” Not some of the worst, but the worst. General Electric tested early turbojet engines on top of Mount Washington because of that. The notice continues unequivocally: “Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.”
Even without the posted warning signs, they could have looked up to see what Comeau and Aughton saw.
Couper and Lattey pressed on.

In “Mount Washington,” Laurence Gonzales explores the line between hazard and danger. Danger, Gonzales writes, “comes when you suspend your awareness of the hazard and refuse to change your plan.” After studying accidents for decades, Gonzales came to Tuckerman Ravine with a question in mind: “How do smart, capable, even well-prepared people—people such as Monroe Couper, 40, and Erik Lattey, 28—make seemingly stupid mistakes and end up in such serious trouble? There are many happy places with dark secrets—from the beaches of southern Lake Michigan with their deadly rip currents, to Longs Peak in Colorado with its grand slippery slide that sucks people in. And when it comes to death and suffering, those places have one thing in common: people—even experienced people—underestimate the hazards and overestimate their ability to cope with them.”

“Mount Washington” is the first of fourteen essays in The Chemistry of Fire, forthcoming from the University of Arkansas Press (and available for preorder).

These 14 essays take us from the top of Mount Washington and ”the worst weather in the world,” to 12,000 feet beneath the ocean, where a Naval Intelligence Officer discovers the Titanic using the government’s own spy equipment. We experience night assaults with the 82nd Airborne Division, the dynamiting of the 100-foot snowpack on Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, a trip to the International Space Station, the crash of an airliner to the bottom of the Everglades, and more.

“Gonzales, a former National Geographic feature writer, proves himself a chronicler par excellence of nature—including of the human variety—in this excellent essay collection. The psychological nuance and vivid detail throughout will dazzle readers.”
Publishers Weekly starred review, July 2020

“Reflective essays explore what it means to be human. Whether he’s swimming in an underwater cave or touring a NASA center in Huntsville, Alabama, ‘a kind of hillbilly heaven,’ these savvy essays are a pleasure. An appealing collection about all the ‘rough and joyful realities’ of life.”
Kirkus Reviews, August 2020

Read “Mount Washington” now, and preorder The Chemistry of Fire!