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Each year in the Whites at least a dozen climbers get lost, caught in storms, carrying inadequate equipment. Some don't know how to use their expensive new gear. An increasing number arrive equipped with cell phones instead of experience or even maps, thinking rescue is only a few buttons away. "They persist," says one expert, "in bad courses of action." One of the worst examples in recent memory unfolded not far from where Jon and I have stopped.

In January 1994 a young climber froze to death there, alone and delirious. His name was Derek Tinkham, and he died doing the same traverse, headed for the same summit. In terrible weather, night falling upon them, Tink­ham and his hiking partner, Jeremy Haas, kept going. The temperature plummeted, and the wind picked up, Tinkham growing weaker with each step. Eventually he could walk no farther. Haas tried to bundle Tinkham into his sleeping bag, then he left him to seek help. Winds reached hurricane speeds, forcing Haas to crawl; cold near 30° below zero began killing his exposed skin. After miserable hours he reached the observatory atop Washington, where the crew found him and brought him inside. He suffered severe frostbite, his hands eventually swelling into black stumps. But he lived.

Haas was the more experienced climber, and he was roundly blamed, first for continuing in weather that called for retreat, then for abandoning his friend, who was exhausted but did not protest out of stubbornness or simply because he was hypothermic and his brain was shutting down. A rescue team found Tinkham the next day, half inside his sleeping bag, his face a mask the men would remember for years.

Seated atop my pack, scanning the map, I remember the days after Tinkham died, when the newspapers and everyone I knew talked about weather and arrogance and death. The tragedy didn't keep Jon or me out of the mountains. We barely paused. We each thought, as all young climbers do, It will never happen to me.

Before us, several possible routes open across a snowfield sheathed with an ice crust. We choose one, Jon leading. He takes a few steps and then sinks to his hips in deep snow. He wrestles with his trekking poles and tries to push himself out of the hole, the heavy backpack fighting him. He takes another step, sinks again. Soon I'm postholing too, fir branches below the snow clawing at my legs. The process—step, sink, repeat—is exhausting, the price of an audience with Washington.

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