Quit hiking? No, survivor declares Rescue: Baltimore native says being lost for two nights in subzero temperatures won't stop him from trying it again.

January 05, 1998|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF Contributing writer Joseph Daniel McCool provided information for this article.

Tim Speicher, the Baltimore native who spent two nights in subzero temperatures on a New Hampshire mountain before he was rescued, said the harrowing ordeal has deepened his love of mountaineering.

Reflecting on his experience from a friend's home in Frederick yesterday, Speicher said he'd felt several emotions since coming off the mountain -- relief and pride that he and his rescuers were alive, guilt and gratitude for his rescuers who were injured helping him, frustration over their inexperience, and embarrassment.

But Speicher, an experienced rescuer and wilderness emergency medical technician, said the experience deepened his love of mountaineering.

"At one point, I was thinking I am never going to come up here again," he said, "but I could never turn my back on [Mount Washington]. Mountaineering is my passion, it's my life. It makes me feel like I am alive. That is what I felt during this experience.

"It changed me mentally, physically and spiritually," he said.

Speicher, a 28-year-old climbing instructor, and two experienced companions -- Rama Sibley, 26, of Baltimore and Robert Ault, 34, of Richmond, Va. -- set out Dec. 26 to conquer the Presidentials, including Mount Washington, a dangerous series of snow-capped mountains known for some of the world's worst weather.

Mount Washington has claimed 100 lives through the years.

Some hikers traverse the Presidentials to train for Mount Everest expeditions.

For three days, Speicher, Sibley and Ault climbed and descended five mountains in beautiful weather. It was almost too easy, Ault said on the phone from Richmond.

By about 3: 30 p.m. Dec. 29, the trio had trekked to about 200 yards below the summit of 6,288-foot Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast, where winds have been clocked at more than 200 mph. A sudden storm surrounded them, cutting visibility to a few feet. Sibley, who was ahead of the group, and Ault, who had fallen behind, lost sight of Speicher.

"When I got to the top, Tim wasn't there," Ault said. "Rama asked me where Tim was and I had no idea. I thought he would be waiting with Rama."

Clint Chase, 23, and Daniel Chesson, 24, who operate the Mount Washington weather station, were making routine weather checks when Ault and Sibley, covered in snow, knocked at the door and told them they had been separated from Speicher an hour before. Ault and Sibley left the station to search for Speicher.

Chase and Chesson, knowing the chances of survival in a winter storm on Mount Washington were not great, gave them a radio and promised to call for help.

Ault and Sibley attempted to reach their destination at Lakes of the Clouds, where they believed Speicher would go, but low visibility prevented them from continuing. Less experienced than Speicher, they abandoned their search the next day, leaving with the group's only tent.

Speicher had not only made it through the night, but was feeling more alive than he had ever felt before, he said. After years of wilderness training, he was, for the first time, putting to use skills he had only read about -- and they were working.

The first night, he, too, gave up on the trail to Lakes of the Clouds and built a snow cave, huddling inside with his sleeping bag and using his ski pole for an air hole. But at 4: 30 in the morning, he woke up unusually warm. He knew immediately that an avalanche had buried him.

After initial panic, Speicher said, he pulled out his shovel and dug himself out. "When I broke out of that snow cave, I felt like I had been reborn," he said.

He spent the next day feeling confident he could survive. He found his equipment and dug another cave to keep busy and warm. He melted ice in a bottle against his stomach while he waited for his friends to find their way down the trail. They never came.

As daylight faded, so did his confidence. His clothes, matches and lighters were still soaked from the avalanche and he was getting hungry.

He knew he would have to make the trek to Lakes of the Clouds to an emergency shelter.

"That night was pretty demanding," Speicher said. "I was pretty hypothermic. I did sit-ups all night to generate heat. But then I lost the lighter I was drying through a crack in the wall and that's when I knew I would have to hike out the next day."

The next morning he traveled a quarter-mile, but feeling weak, returned, and found the lighter. He heated food and snow for water and felt better. He would make the trip out the next day, he decided.

Chesson and Chase knew rescuers were stuck at the mountain's base. The two of them, weather experts with little rescue training and even less equipment, volunteered Wednesday afternoon to try to find Speicher. They found him in the shelter.

Speicher's relief at seeing people surprised even himself. He assumed the two weather experts were rescuers and put himself in their hands but found they were inexperienced climbers.

They quickly lost the trail and at one point Chase and Chesson fell into a creek. Speicher had to lead them off the mountain in the storm. What was usually a two-hour hike took 9 1/2 hours.

They emerged shortly after midnight. The three were hospitalized and later released. Chesson and Chase suffered hypothermia and frostbite on their feet. Speicher received treatment for frostbite on one hand.

Pub Date: 1/05/98

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