High-Altitude Rescue
UNH graduate celebrates the New Year by saving a life.

It is roughly 8 p.m. on New Year's Eve, 1997, and Clint Chase '97 is not in a party mood. On the western face of New Hampshire's Mt. Washington, under an ominous black sky, Chase and two companions have just slid down a frozen slope on their backsides and are trudging through a snow-filled drainage, hoping and praying to run across the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. They have been outside for more than five hours, dealing with some of the fiercest weather New England can offer. Temperatures are in the sub-zero range and dropping. Winds are near 60 miles per hour and rising. The wind chill factor is expected to reach a mind-numbing 100 degrees below zero. And the group is still more than two miles from help.

Clint Chanse '97 recently returned to the summit of Mt. Washington, where almost exactly one year ago he and his friend, Dan Chesson, risked their lives to save a stranded hiker.

Behind Chase walks a weak but game Timothy Speicher. Speicher, a graduate student from Maryland, has spent the past two days and nights huddled underneath the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, 800 feet below the summit. That is where Chase and Dan Chesson, interns at the Mt. Washington Observatory and now a volunteer rescue party, find him. Speicher, near hypothermia, is unable or unwilling to hike back above treeline to the observatory. The decision is made to bring him down along the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. Under a foot or more of new snow and obscured by sagging boughs of black spruce and balsam fir, however, the trail is difficult to follow.

"We had a map, we knew what the trail did," says Chase. "We decided to follow a small drainage, knowing that eventually the trail crossed it. The footing is pretty good, and Timothy is doing fine. Dan took his pack. We found the trail, followed it down for a while, but lost it again. We ended up back in the drainage, and at this point it's more of a stream valley. Our footing is getting very tricky. It's dark now, completely dark. We're going by headlamps, and it's kind of tough to get a picture of the topography."

At a small pool in the stream bed, Chase and Speicher creep along the left bank. Chesson, ice ax in hand, opts to go along right side. As he's about to tell Chase he could use a hand, the crack of ice splits the still night air. "I went straight in, up to my chest, about three inches below my armpit," says Chesson. "This was the coldest water I've ever been in. I knew it was bad, and I had to get out. I remember thinking, 'Damn, this (rescue) just got a whole lot more difficult.'"

Bracing his feet against the side of the pool, Chesson pushes his way out of the water, supporting himself on Speicher's pack. Chase finds him lying face up, the heavy steam of each frantic breath illuminated by the headlamps. Using a trekking pole, Chase helps him to more solid ground.

"It was a scary-as-hell moment," says Chase. "Our heart rates were out of this world."

As the pair inch their way back to Speicher, the ice below Chase breaks, plunging his boots into the frigid water underneath.

Mt. Washington has always had a moth-to-the-firelight pull on Clint Chase. The harsh expanse is among the most unforgiving small mountains in the world. The highest peak in the Northeast, at 6,288 feet, it is also an undeniable draw for alpinists. Chase counted himself among that number.

"I climbed Mt. Washington. I knew there was something more to it that I hadn't quite grasped," says the 23-year-old Connecticut native.

So Chase, while an earth sciences major at the University of New Hampshire, accepted an invitation to spend a few weeks at the Mt. Washington Observatory. The task at hand was collecting data for the University's Climate Change Research Center. The CCRC initiated the Mt. Washington program in 1996 to complement sampling of air, snow and ice chemistry being done in the extreme environments of Greenland, Antarctica and the Himalayas, says Associate Director Mark Twickler '85. The Mt. Washington program also serves as a proving ground, providing students "an idea of what it's like to work in harsh conditions," says Twickler. "It's a way to give students a chance to experience something that they won't find in the classroom—it's a real-life classroom."

The observatory crew was impressed with the level of interest and keen insights expressed by the tall, lanky Chase. And Chase was fascinated with the work, the combination of science and spirituality.

"The two came together very strongly for me up there," he says. "Walking out on the observatory deck, seeing some of the natural phenomena on an incredibly clear night, all the stars, seeing the glow of Boston, Portland and Montreal. You can see the houses on Lake Winnipesaukee, and the glow off the rivers and ponds. When it happens, you remember it—you feel a much deeper connection than just hiking up and down."

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