He was all alone, 5,200 feet up Mount Washington, scrambling over a challenging boulder section of the Lion Head Trail, when his 80-year-old body quit on him.
It had been slowly coming on, an incredible weakness in his muscles, unlike anything James Clark had felt in his life, far from the typical fatigue he experienced on any of the hundreds of mountains he has hiked.
His movements grew weaker and weaker until they stopped altogether. He could not go up. He could not go down. He could not go anywhere.
No one was in sight. Hours before, he had urged his hiking partners, his two teenage grandsons, to head for the summit without him. Now, he slumped between two boulders, pulled his body into a fetal position, and blew his safety whistle. Then he blew it again.
As minutes became hours, he lay there, with no cellphone or flashlight or matches or overnight gear, above the tree line on this mountain that is famous for having the “world’s worst weather.” And he began to believe that he was going to die.
His only hope was that the plan he had earlier hatched with his grandsons — the one that led to his being alone on the mountain — would save his life.
After a few hours alone, saying his goodbyes in his head, he heard footsteps nearby and did the only thing his body would still allow him to do: He moaned loudly until a rescuer found him.
The boys had followed the plan.
But authorities don’t see it quite that way. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, which coordinated Clark’s dramatic overnight rescue on June 14, are accusing Clark’s grandsons of leaving their 80-year-old grandfather behind — a cardinal sin in hiking — and announced they are considering criminal charges against the family, as well as a hefty bill for the rescue.
The plan for the brothers to descend a different path — while common in hiking, as it changes the scenery — was criticized by authorities in this instance as it eliminated the chance for the teenagers to check on their grandfather.
Back home in Dublin, Ohio, Clark is awaiting word about what authorities will decide and wants to make one thing clear: He was the one who came up with the plan. He was the one who told the boys to go ahead. And he believes that decision is the reason he is still alive.
Clark said he and his grandsons, Kevin McNerny, 19, and Aidan McNerny, 14, who live in Virginia, were on a hiking road trip together. It was something they did regularly, he said. Last summer, he and Aidan summited five of the six highest peaks in the Smoky Mountains in five days. On this trip, they had already summited the highest peak in New York, Mount Marcy, and attempted the highest peak in Vermont, Mount Mansfield. The boys had made the summit of Mount Mansfield, but Clark said he turned back after falling and bruising his tailbone.
On the third day of their trip, they set out to take on Mount Washington, New Hampshire’s highest peak. Their plan that day was the same as it had been on their previous hikes. The grandsons would go ahead at their own pace, and Clark would hike at his.
Because Clark knew cellphone service on Mount Washington is unreliable at best, and often nonexistent, he devised a way to check in: The boys would summit, then return to the base of the mountain on a different trail.
Clark would hike to the top, call them from a telephone at the visitors center, then take the cog railway or hitch a ride to the bottom with a car on the Auto Road. If the brothers did not hear from him by the time they returned to the base, that would mean something went wrong and they should immediately alert authorities.
“When I didn’t check in, they didn’t hesitate,” Clark said. “Those boys are my heroes.”
On the mountain that day, Clark told the boys to go ahead when they were about 30 minutes into the hike, a move that Clark acknowledges violated hiker protocol. He said he did not want to slow the boys down and believes it was more dangerous for him to attempt to keep up with them.
Clark said his own hike had been going well until he came to the long, difficult rock scramble and started to feel weak.
“I had no strength, and I got to the point where I couldn’t move,” he said.
Authorities reported that Clark was showing signs of hypothermia, but he does not believe that is true. Doctors at the hospital where he was taken later told him he was suffering from rhabdomyolysis, he said, a dangerous condition in which muscles damaged by injury or severe exertion dump toxic material into the bloodstream, threatening kidneys and other vital organs. It was not a condition he had had before, he said.
Clark said he had been researching the Mount Washington hike for a year and was wearing five layers of clothing. He said the temperatures were cool but not cold.
The brothers, who successfully summited and hiked back to the base on another trail, alerted authorities at 7:45 p.m. when they had not heard from Clark. A rescue team from the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Hermit Lake Shelter was the first to locate him, just above the Alpine Garden Trail junction, and bundled him in warm clothing and a sleeping bag.
Fish and Game officers hiked to them, and rescuers carried him 1.7 miles in a litter to the Auto Road, where at 5 a.m. an ambulance took him to Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin.
“Whatever they want to bill us for the rescue is fine,” Clark said. “I have no problem with that. Those people who came for me were amazing. They were so nice and understanding. I can’t thank them enough.”
He said he can also understand the frustration of state authorities, who responded to two deaths in the White Mountains — including a woman on Mount Washington — in the same 24-hour period when Clark was rescued. “They’ve got to warn people to prepare more carefully and plan more carefully, and I’m sure they’re feeling: ‘What can we do to put a stop to all these people running into danger?’ ”
But as for the decisions that led to him being alone, he still believes it was the right plan, and the only reason he is alive.
“If my grandsons had been with me, there was nothing they could have done without cell reception. They couldn’t have carried me, so they would have been forced to make a dangerous dash for the summit in the dark, and it would have ultimately taken longer for rescuers to get to me. If anyone is at fault, it’s me, not the boys. They didn’t do anything they weren’t told to do, and they did not hesitate to call when they did not hear from me. We made some mistakes, but ultimately the way that we did this is what saved my life.”
Clark said he has hiked hundreds of mountains in his life and has remained remarkably active for his age. In the past year, he said he has walked 3,200 miles, taking regular 20-mile walks nearly every other day.
He has been receiving care in Ohio and said he has regained most of his strength. But after this scare, he thinks it may be time to give up hiking.
“I probably should have done it before now,” he said. “And that’s OK.”
Authorities have yet to announce whether they will charge or bill Clark and his family.