A life and death for the mountain

Sun Journal

Suicide: A noted outdoors writer, hiker and wilderness protector closed his life like a book atop one of the peaks he loved.

March 04, 2000|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Nomadic tribes through history have been known to leave their old people behind in the wild when their times seemed over.

Guy Waterman, a well-known author, hiker, wilderness protector and occasional eccentric in the like-minded mountaineering community of New England, did the reverse.

It was he who decided that his time was up and, at age 67, left his world of family and friends.

His suicide, while privately planned for months, became quite public because of the means and place he chose. He sat down and froze to death atop Mount Lafayette, where he and his wife, Laura, had voluntarily maintained a famous trail for years on the open, treeless Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire.

The place is a spectacular height of land in the White Mountains. A photograph of the trail illustrated a June 1995 Appalachia journal article in which Guy and Laura Waterman summarized their woods philosophy: Hikers should respect the hills, practice restraint, repair a trail or give something else back.

On Feb. 6, Guy Waterman, of East Corinth, Vt., left home, drove east and climbed Lafayette. On Feb. 10, after being alerted to Guy's plans by his letters to them, five friends ascended the 5,260-foot peak to recover his body. They found the snow-dusted form just north of the summit and carried him down on a litter.

Many fellow hikers, like Mike Dickerman, 43, a Littleton, N.H., outdoor writer and publisher who heard the news and rushed to meet the litter bearers at the trailhead, said they didn't understand the why. But they mourned Waterman and respected his pioneering efforts to protect the northeast wilds with hikes, books, trail work and good examples.

A decade ago, the Watermans wrote that while deaths were not uncommon in the dangerous hills (126 recorded on Mount Washington), a few "transfix public attention."

"Some particular ingredients of drama or pathos strike a particular responsive chord of sympathy or fascination, perhaps morbidity, perhaps a feeling that some special blend of heroism or fatalism was involved," they wrote.

This might become the case with Guy Waterman. But friends also remember his colorful life and wilderness work.

Scores of saddened e-mail writers on the Appalachian Mountain Club's Web site (www.out doors.org) responded. Said one: "Thank you, Mr. Waterman, for all that you have given to those who love, travel and climb the peaks you loved so dearly."

Some suggested naming the mountain for him, but others said no, just follow the Watermans' ideas in "Backwoods Ethics," their 1979 book suggesting leaving only footprints in the woods.

"Guy and Laura taught me how to be a good steward of the wilderness," Dickerman said. "I think that was their most influential book. They were ahead of their time in being responsible in the woods. They would not only spend hours working a trail, they watched where hikers walked and talked with them about avoiding the delicate alpine plants."

They are also remembered as hot shot peak-baggers, climbers who view mountains as collectible items, such as doing all mountains over a certain height or as many in a day as possible. The Watermans climbed all 48 peaks over 4,000 feet in New Hampshire from all four compass points, meaning much hard bushwhacking.

"Guy claimed he once hiked naked from hut to hut on the AMC hut trail in the Whites," Dickerman chuckled. With Waterman, who liked to laugh and have fun or create it, it was possible.

Dickerman, who climbed with the Watermans over more than a dozen years, felt that other things were on Guy's mind than a simple fear of growing old and not being in top form.

"Guy had personal demons. He had bouts of depression. He felt he hadn't been as close as he could have been to two sons from an earlier marriage that ended in divorce [in 1965]; the two died years ago." William wrote his father a letter in 1973 about an intended trip, disappeared and is presumed dead. John died in 1978 on an ill-prepared solo climb of Mount McKinley in Alaska.

In their 30-year marriage, Laura was a collaborator with Guy in hundreds of hikes, five books and homesteading adventures. They lived on a 27-acre East Corinth homestead without electricity, plumbing or telephone.

Laura first realized her husband was intent on suicide more than a year ago. "I can't agree with him, but I can respect and love him as an individual," she told the Boston Globe after his death. "He wanted out. And he chose the way he felt was appropriate for himself."

Guy's third son, James, of Longmont, Colo., was among 250 present at a memorial service at the East Corinth Congregational Church. They heard a tape of 20 waltzes Waterman played on a Steinway piano assembled after friends had carried it piece by piece to his home. A friend said Waterman once recited several straight hours of John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost."

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