Conor Lodge and Adam Herman of Oak Bluffs took a wrong turn while descending the summit of Mount Washington in howling winds and swirling snow late Saturday. The mistake nearly cost the young men their lives when they triggered an avalanche at the lip of Tuckerman Ravine and tumbled more than 800 feet down the notorious New Hampshire cliff face that has claimed hikers in the past.
Once the men came to rest in the snow, Conor, 22, was suffering from a severe concussion that left him so disoriented he did not know who he was, where he was, or who he was with. Adam, 24, had broken his arm in seven places, and had other injuries that included a broken scapula and vertebrae. But for a brother’s intuition, the men might not have been discovered, nor help summoned before it was too late.
Late Monday, Adam, son of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football coach Donald Herman, sat in a hospital bed in the Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he had just had surgery to repair his fractured arm. Conor was home in Oak Bluffs, battered and bruised, but happy to be alive. Both men spoke to The Times about their ordeal and their gratitude to their rescuers, members of the U.S. Forest Service and local mountaineering groups who helped transport them to safety in frigid conditions in the night.
Four friends on a hike
Conor, a student at Northeastern University, and Adam, who works for the Tri-Medex company in the Westchester Medical Center in New York, were part of a group of four Island friends that included Conor’s older brother Tristan Lodge, home for the holidays from Los Angeles, and Rich (RK) Quebec of Vineyard Haven. The men had decided to take advantage of the holiday break and hike Mount Washington. Adam and Conor planned to make a day hike to the summit while Tristan and RK planned to spend several days on the mountain camping in the various shelters.
They set off about 10 am, Saturday morning. The hike up was pleasant and conditions were mild. “We were having a great time,” Adam said. As they continued their climb, RK, who had injured his knee, was keeping a moderate pace. One half mile from the summit, Conor and Adam, out for a day hike, decided to forge on ahead of their companions.
They reached the top about 3 pm, took some photographs, and began to head back. On their way down they met Tristan and RK. They arranged to meet further down the mountain at a pile of rocks that served as a trail marker.
Conor said they waited for about 15 minutes by the trail marker, but it was exposed to the full force of the wind. “As soon as we stopped moving we got bitterly cold,” Conor said, “so we decided to trek on slowly by ourselves, because we were worried about being stuck up there in the dark.”
They assumed their friends would catch up as they headed for the tree line where they could get out of the wind and wait. They also assumed they were on the right trail to Lion’s Head, but they were not, they were headed for Tuckerman Ravine. Snow whipped up by the winds obscured their vision and made matters worse. They followed the footprints thinking they would lead to the trail down.
When the footprints were no longer visible they continued knowing that they had to turn left but not seeing any familiar marks. They had arrived at a slope known as “The Lip,” where recent weather conditions that included a thaw followed by snow had created all the conditions for a serious avalanche.
“I was a little bit ahead of him [Conor] and the shelf underneath me just gave out,” Adam said. “While I was kind of falling with the snow I tried to turn around and stick my pick into the ice but it didn’t take so then I just started falling. It was about a 90-foot free-fall, and then the snow took me another 800 feet after that.”
The men came to rest amidst the ice, snow, and rocks. Conor had managed to extend his leg and stop his fall. But he had suffered a severe concussion. “I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know who Adam was, I didn’t know any of this stuff,” Conor said. “Honestly, I thought I was dead. It was kind of a strange feeling.”
Adam was severely injured and had suffered multiple fractures. The men started calling out to each other. Conor slid down to where Adam lay in the snow. “But he didn’t know who I was for the first half hour,” Conor said.
Adam said he knew they needed to find some shelter but they had lost all their gear in the avalanche. They managed to reach a bush protruding from the snow that provided a resting place on the steep incline and waited, not knowing if their companions would simply assume their friends had continued on down the correct trail to the bottom of the mountain, where they would meet.
A brother’s intuition
Asked what made his brother decide to follow a different trail, and go off and look for him, Conor hesitated a moment, perhaps unsure that a reporter would understand the bond that brothers share in moments of trouble.
He said Tristan had leaned against a rock as he made his descent and heard a voice tell him, “Conor is in trouble, go help him, go help him, he needs help right now.”
Where the trail split between Lion’s Head and Tuckerman Ravine, Tristan saw fresh footprints going in the wrong direction. Adam said Tristan knew something was wrong: “RK said, those can’t be their footprints, that would bring them to the wrong place, but Tristan was like, no, I’ve got something in my gut telling me that’s them, we’ve got to follow this. And thank God he did because it would have been another three hours before they realized we weren’t there.”
Tristan and RK followed the footprints until the footprints disappeared and all the snow was missing. Tristan knew it was an avalanche. He and RK yelled, concerned because they did not want to spark another avalanche. Conor and Adam, lying below, heard Adam and RK and called back to them.
It was about 6:30 pm, Adam said. Realizing they could do nothing and unable to get a phone signal, Tristan and RK set off in the dark to find help as quickly as they could.
After about an hour and a half, Adam and Conor heard what sounded like a snowmobile engine. They thought help was near until the sound began to fade and then disappeared. It was a bleak moment as they contemplated spending the night in freezing temperatures on the mountain and the possible outcomes, some bleak. Thoughts of death intruded. “It was pretty scary,” Adam said.
Adam said he knew Conor had suffered a severe concussion, and he was concerned that he not go to sleep. “So we were just kind of telling each other stories and ended up talking about girls and stuff like that,” Adam said, “Just to keep our minds off of it.”
Conor said they did their best to stay warm and comfortable on the slope.
“At this point Adam could not move very well, so we decided to huddle together and stay warm,” Conor said. “So, we were like that for five hours. And at one point, I kept doubting the whole situation, like whether or not we would be found or survive. And Adam kept on reassuring me.”
When they saw flashlights from below they knew help was at hand. “It was a guy named Sam and a girl named Beth,” Adam said.
Their first rescuers dug out a shelf in the snow to provide a flatter surface and more stability. They brought warm food and clothes for the stranded climbers, while they waited for more rescuers to arrive.
“Once I saw the lights I knew we would be all right,” Conor said.
More rescuers arrived to help bring the men to safety, using ropes. According to U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Colleen Mainville, the avalanche occurred at about 5:30 pm Saturday, and the call for help came in just after 8 pm. A Forest Service snow cat took them to waiting ambulances at about 2 am, Sunday. They were taken to a nearby hospital in North Conway.
Conor said he is very happy to be safe and grateful to all the rescuers for what they did, “and everything they risked by going into avalanche territory.”
His mother, Karen Lodge, was happy to have her son home, safe and sound, even if his arrival was delayed when the ferries were cancelled Sunday night. “I’m grateful to the rescuers,” she said. “They’re all so highly trained, and their job is so so important.”
Donald Herman was just as happy. “We’re very fortunate to still have him,” he told The Times.
On Friday, Adam is scheduled for another surgery to continue repairs to his broken body. Despite his ordeal, he remains in good spirits, grateful to Tristan and RK for making the hike to summon help in the face of their obvious fatigue, and grateful to Sam and Beth, the rescuers who stayed with the pair, and those who brought him off the mountain.
Asked if he wanted to share any New Year’s resolutions, he said, “Yes. Hike in the spring.”