The last meal Kaiwen Chen cooked for his father, Xi, was a feast of lamb chops last Friday night. The tradition — Kaiwen as master chef and Xi as his devoted, hungry fan — began during the pandemic when the family was cooped up at home in Andover.
It was over these sprawling home-cooked dinners that Xi Chen would casually express his happiness with how his life had turned out. He had three thriving kids, a successful career as an engineer, a loving wife, a beautiful home in Andover, and — not far from the dining table — 21 red thumbtacks on a wooden map of New Hampshire’s tallest peaks, marking his 21 summits in some of the country’s most treacherous terrain.
On Saturday afternoon, Xi Chen, 53, found himself near the top of the state’s highest peak, winds roaring from the northwest at over 50 miles per hour and a light freezing rain whipping across the rocky ridge. His destination was the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, a shingled lodge above the tree line near the peak of Mount Washington. The temperatures officially dipped just below freezing, but the storm made the air feel closer to 15 degrees.
The weather was taking a toll on his body.
“If I stop moving then in trouble,” he wrote to his wife, Lian Liu, who was tracking his trek via iPhone GPS.
Soon after, Chen stopped moving.
“Do I need to call rescue?” asked Liu.
“Yes,” he responded. “Could die.”
Liu rang 911. But they needed Chen to call so they could decipher his exact coordinates.
“Must call. Will die. Quit,” wrote Chen in three separate texts. And then, he went silent.
Four hours later, a search party found Chen. He was alive, but severely hypothermic amid the high peaks of the Gulfside Trail. Rescuers ferried him through blizzard-like conditions to a hospital in Berlin, where he later died after hours of life-saving efforts, according to a press release from the New Hampshire Office of Fish and Game released Monday.
His family, having jumped in the car after Chen went dark, was by his side.
The severe conditions on a Saturday in mid-June showcased the mercurial and extreme climate of the White Mountains, which can turn quickly, imperiling unprepared or unlucky hikers. A camera feed that day from the observatory atop Mount Washington, roughly a mile from where Chen was found, shows nonstop wet and windy conditions with little to no visibility, a far cry from the partly cloudy scene the day prior when visitors skittered along the summit rocks and took photos on the observatory’s stone deck.
At least three other rescues took place over the weekend. In fact, when Chen’s wife alerted the New Hampshire Office of Fish and Game to her husband’s condition on Saturday night, a group of officers was already tending to an injured hiker on the Centennial Trail, also in the White Mountains.
But Chen’s situation seemed especially dire, prompting the office to assemble an ad-hoc team of 15 highly trained personnel from both the N.H. Fish and Game’s Advanced Search and Rescue Team and the North Conway–based Mountain Rescue Services. Three of those involved in the Centennial Trail rescue joined the effort. At 9:30 p.m., nearly three hours after Chen’s last text, the first team began their search.
By then, the weather had worsened to a bitter cocktail of rain, sleet, and snow accompanied by wind gusts of over 80 miles per hour. An hour later, the team found Chen, who was unresponsive and in a highly hypothermic state. The team carried him over a mile to the summit of Mount Washington to a waiting truck that ferried him to the base. An ambulance then drove him to Androscoggin Valley Hospital, a windy 17-mile journey slowed even more so by the rain.
“We all got to say goodbye to him that morning,” said Kaiwen. It was Father’s Day.
The 19-year-old typically joined his father on hikes. Last summer the whole family embarked on a trip to Iceland, where Kaiwen and Xi peeled off for a four-day excursion on the 34-mile Laugavegur Trail. But Kaiwen was busy this last weekend so Chen tackled the trek alone. He’d hiked Mount Washington — colloquially known as the most dangerous small mountain in the world — twice before. Once with a 13-year-old Kaiwen. And more recently, with his daughters, Mei and Meiling.
“He loves the challenge of going up. He wasn’t overly reckless. He always looks at the forecast. And historically all had gone well,” said Kaiwen. “But maybe this time he thought, ‘Well, if I’m just by myself of course I can do it.’”
The Mount Washington Observatory posted a photo of the blood-orange Thursday sunrise and wrote: “The whole ‘red skies at morning, (hikers) take warning’ rings true for the coming days . . . ”
The observatory said Sunday morning that 1.3 inches of snow and sleet had fallen on the peaks over the weekend. The wind, meanwhile, had reached speeds equivalent to a category 1 hurricane at the summit.
“My dad had very strong willpower, but you can’t willpower past weather. But you can always reschedule,” said Kaiwen.
Though an engineer by profession and hiker by hobby, Chen also devoured books on philosophy. Perhaps his most beloved read was “Sapiens,” a sprawling history of humankind that focuses on homo sapiens’ unique capacity for imagination, and the restlessness, ambition, delusion, and romanticism that stems from it. One of the book’s most repeated quotes is: “It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time.”
A funeral for Xi Chen will be held Wednesday. Per wishes he expressed long before his final trek up Mount Washington, his oldest daughter will write his eulogy and he will be cremated and buried, in time, beside his mother in China.
Hanna Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger.