I’ve been following the story of Scott Mason with some interest this week.
Mason, if you remember, is the 17-year-old Halifax, Mass., resident who was stranded on Mt. Washington for the better part of three days last week. While on an ambitious 17-mile dayhike through the Presidentials, the Eagle Scout tweaked his ankle and tried to find a shortcut to the bottom. Warm weather, however, had the rivers roaring, and Mason found himself sinking into waist-deep runoff hidden under the snow.
For two nights, Mason slept in a bivy bag under snow-covered pine trees, starting fire with the help of alcohol-rich hand sanitizer. Figuring he would never be able to cross the mountain, Mason did what many others wouldn’t — he started to climb again. Rescuers found him as he was on his way to the Mount Washington Observatory.
A lot of people — non-hikers, mostly — made a big fuss over the fact that a 17-year-old was alone in the deep woods with his parents’ blessing. The parents should be arrested for child endangerment, the kid should be kicked out of the Scouts, the family house should be sold off to pay for the rescue…
Blah, blah, blah…
Are the woods really more dangerous than civilization?
Yes, the hike was probably a bit too ambitious for early April in the Whites, especially as a solo gig. The weather can turn quickly and the condition of the trail can change significantly in a matter of yards. It’s not, however, out of the realm of possibility for a fit, experienced hiker, which Mason is, despite his young age. Deciding how much hiking one can do in a single day is a highly personal thing. And let’s look at what the kid did right:
— He told others, including folks at Pinkham Notch, of his plans.
— When he hurt his ankle, he didn’t panic. He tried to find a shorter way off the mountain, in woods he had traveled before.
— When that didn’t work, he kept his head. He found shelter, started a fire and stayed warm.
— When he realized he couldn’t cross the river, he took a breath and started climbing again.
— He gave credit to his rescuers, saying “they were risking their lives to try to save me.”
In his excellent book “Deep Survival,” Laurence Gonzales writes about the traits of those who make it through dangerous circumstances. Accepting that one is in trouble is one of those traits; so are staying calm and “taking decisive, corrective action.” Scott Mason did all of that; it’s probably why he came through his ordeal with only minor injuries.
Are the woods are safe for an unsupervised 17 year old? Let’s put it this way: I have a 14-year-old son, and I’d worry less about him hiking solo in the mountains than walking in the middle of a city, sitting in the back seat of a car with another teenager at the wheel, or rooted in front of a TV or computer screen for hours at a time.