MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. — As the two hikers approached the summit of Mount Washington on that winter night in 1963, they were in serious trouble. Snow was falling rapidly, the temperature had plunged below zero, and the wind — which was averaging over 50 miles an hour — was hitting them with 116-mile-an-hour gusts.
“We had had it. We weren’t going much further,” Harold Addison remembered. “The last 400 yards, the wind was going right through us, knocking us off our feet.”
As he recalled this, 50 years later, Addison was standing at the base of the mountain with Gerry Wright, his hiking companion that night. They were waiting to reunite with the man they credit with saving their lives, a man they hadn’t seen since.
Addison and Wright told the story of that March night 50 years ago as though reliving it, telling of approaching the summit dome in the snow and driving winds. Addison knew they only had one hope: They needed to spend the night inside the Mount Washington Observatory at the summit. But there was a catch. Addison knew that hikers were not allowed inside the observatory in the winter, a policy that continues to this day. He knew this because he had been turned away at the observatory door in the past. If you go up the mountain, they expect you to be prepared to get yourself down.
So, with the sun going down and the observatory just coming into view, Addison broke the news to Wright. Then he told him the plan.
Wright was a convincing orator — the two had met because Wright was a youth minister at a Methodist church in Essex, Mass., where Addison was a parishioner — and so he would knock and plead their case.
The wind was blowing so hard that it took Wright nearly 45 minutes just to climb the steps to the door. Finally, he knocked. A man answered. Wright made his case.
“I said, ‘Sir, unless you let us in, you’re going to have two dead bodies on your doorstep in the morning.’ ”
That’s when this man, this stranger, opened the door and let them in.
Wright and Addison knew very well that he had done something he was not supposed to do and they were forever grateful. But as time passed, the man’s name was lost in the fog of memory. Around Thanksgiving last year, that all changed when Addison was going through some old papers at his home in Essex and discovered the other important thing the stranger had done for them, a hand-drawn map outlining the safest way for them to get down the next morning. When Addison flipped over the map, there, on the back, the man had written his name: Guy Gosselin.
Addison’s son, Bruce, tracked Gosselin down. Phone calls were made. A 50th reunion was organized. And so it was that on a recent Saturday, the three men arranged to meet at the base of the famous “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” auto road to head again to the summit.
Wright and Addison were in high spirits as they kept an eye out for Gosselin’s car. While they waited, Wright detailed some of the other things Addison neglected to mention before their hike all those years ago.
“I had a guide who was supposedly an experienced mountain climber,” Wright, now 78, said as he looked at Addison, who is 84. “Little did I know he had reached the top maybe once, and turned back many times.”
When they left that day — March 9, 1963 — Wright remembered it was a pleasant day in the valley, and he assumed the hike would be “a walk in the woods.”
After showshoeing for hours through the woods, Wright, who lives in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, asked if they were almost there. Addison told him they had just made it to the base of the mountain. By the time they made it above the tree line, Addison said, he told his companion that if the weather didn’t kill him, “I knew Gerry would.”
A car pulled in to the lot, a bearded man at the wheel, and they knew this must be Guy Gosselin.
Gosselin, who is 80, spent 36 years working at the observatory, retiring as the director in 1996. He has seen all sorts of incredible weather — his personal record is 193-mile-an-hour winds — and all sorts of irresponsible hikers. But he remembers Wright and Addison, and said he let them in because they were telling the truth: Even by the standards of Mount Washington, “Home of the World’s Worst Weather,” the situation was bad.
But that doesn’t mean the observatory staff was thrilled by their uninvited guests. The observatory logbook for that night scolded the two hikers for “pulling such a stunt,” but noted “they were very nice, however, and even washed the dishes.” The hikers were hit with a $14 fee, though the logbook says the hikers “pleaded poverty.”
As Gosselin’s car pulled up on the recent Saturday, Wright rushed to his door and again pleaded his case: “Thank you for forgiving our sins,” he shouted at Gosselin, who let out a smile.
As the trio rode to the summit in a car driven by a current observatory employee, they made small talk, gawked at the views, told the driver to keep her eyes on the road, and reminisced about that long-ago night.
When they reached the top of the mountain, they got out of the car and began to make their way to the summit sign, just a few dozen yards past some boulders. Just as in 1963, it was slow going, but it wasn’t the wind holding them back this time. It was the years. Addison relied heavily on the assistance of his son, Bruce, to make it over the rocks.
When they reached the summit sign — something the hikers were never able to do that night in 1963 — the three men put their arms around each other and posed for photos. On one side of the sign stood the two lifelong friends. On the other, the stranger who opened the door, the man whose name they will not forget again.
As they stood on the summit, the wind picked up, and it seemed almost a joking reminder of just how unpredictable the mountain can be. Because this time, the weather was not bad. It was a daily temperature record for the summit, a whopping 65 degrees.
“If it starts to hail,” Wright said, “I’ll know I’m back.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.