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Man of the Mountains: Hanover Native Chronicled Accidents

Monday, October 20, 2014
Hanover — Jed Williamson’s resume is about as lengthy as some of the mountaineering expeditions he’s completed over the years.

The 75-year-old Hanover resident has balanced a brilliant career in education and administration with a relentless eye toward community service and volunteerism.

It all started in the early 1960s at the University of New Hampshire, where Williamson, a Pawling, N.Y., native and Villanova University transfer, began traversing Granite State summits.

“I wasn’t a football player or anything like that and it was something that a person of my size could do,” Williamson said last week at his River Ridge Road home, high on the wooded banks of the Connecticut River. “I also cross-country skied, but I was a transfer student (from Villanova), so I couldn’t compete the first year. That was a rule in those days. That was why climbing caught my attention, climbing and hiking in the White Mountains.”

Williamson ventured to British Columbia’s northern Selkirk Mountains for his first major expedition as a 21-year-old and went on to rummage Alaska’s Mount McKinley, the Swiss, French and Italian Alps and countless other treks, many as a leader and guide students.

Williamson was also on the faculty of UNH from 1973-81, when he developed the “Live, Learn and Teach” experiential education program still active today. He was on the U.S. Biathlon Association — first as an athlete while serving in the Army and later as executive director — and was president of the American Alpine Club from 1991-94.

Williamson has also served in various instructor and directorial roles with the Outward Bound national outdoor education nonprofit, and was the president of Vermont’s Sterling College from 1996-2006.

Through it all, Williamson maintained a 40-year post as editor of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, an annual publication reporting on the previous year’s most significant and teachable climbing incidents.

The 2014 edition of Accidents was Williamson’s final as editor, as he steps down to focus on other pursuits. He continues to serve on the board of directors for: Heartbeet Lifesharing, a Vermont-based care facility for adults with developmental challenges; Lebanon-based Upper Valley Educators Institute; Bozeman-Mont.-based Central Asia Institute and the Hanover Rotary Club.

The Valley News recently visited with Williamson to discuss his long tenure editing Accidents . The following is an edited transcript of that conversation:

VN: You’ve been the editor of this publication since 1974. How did it start?

JW: I took it over from the guy who started it, Dr. Ben Farris. He and another fellow, Bill Putnam, were the leaders of my first expedition, in 1960 in the northern Selkirks (in British Columbia). They were both prominent members of the American Alpine Club. After my first ascent of the East Buttress of Mount McKinley in 1963, they sponsored me for membership in the AAC. In 1974, I was asked to join the board of the AAC and that same year, Putnam and Ferris asked if I would take over editorship of Accidents in North American Mountaineering. Ferris had initiated it in 1948. He had become head of the Harvard School of Public Health, and his work there required that he step back from his volunteer work with the publication.

VN: What exactly was your role as editor? Would you actively investigate these incidents that occurred?

JW: The way it worked at the beginning was that parks would send their reports into us, whether it was a kid who was lost in the woods, a fisherman who was lost or climbers that needed to be rescued. The park rangers would fill out incident reports and forward them to us. I would decide, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. I’ll put that one in.” Or, “That one is not such a good one, but I’ll use the info in one of the (statistical) table reports.” We would also look at newspaper articles and speak to individuals who would self-report.

Over the last 10 years, these have come to me either by parks or by individuals, or incidents that I have found online. The access to information is one of the biggest changes because there are websites now where people will post about incidents they’ve had. Parks continue to send in incident reports, but names are often redacted and rangers are no longer allowed to write analysis because of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations.

VN: You’ve said that one of your objectives over the years has been to, “Get to the truth of the matter.” How would you characterize that philosophy?

JW: Avoiding opinions about a particular climber, a pair of climbers or a groups of climbers. To try to characterize them as people in some way is not educational at all. The idea was to get the facts of the case and fit it in to a scheme like the tables. The answer is always simple: the guy fell. What led up to the fall? What were the circumstances? Was he or she in a hurry? Had they forgotten to bring certain equipment? Was the climbing beyond their level of capability? Was it weather-related because they were trying to stay to a schedule? I never used the words, “bad weather.” When I inherited the journal, it was that category (as a cause for an incident), bad weather. For a couple years I called it “unexpected weather,” but then I nixed. Bad weather doesn’t kill a person. People die in weather that is 20 (degrees) below (zero) because they were unprepared for it.”

VN: What’s an example of the statistics contained in the table charts in the publication?

JW: There are charts on the number of accidents reported over the years in USA and Canada, then Table II breaks it down into geographical locations. Then Table II is the facts of the matter. What is the terrain? Was it an ascent or descent? The immediate causes and then contributory causes. And we try to get ages and experience levels of those involved. The interesting thing is that when you ask people when they think most accidents occur, most people will say, “When they’re descending.” That’s not true. Then people will say, “Most of these accidents happen to inexperienced climbers, right?” No, most of them happen to experienced climbers.

VN: How do you explain that?

JW: The experienced climbers are out there more. It’s more user days.

VN: Have you come across a lot of incidents where it may have been a result of faulty equipment?

JW: No, equipment doesn’t fail. If a rope breaks, it’s not because it’s a poorly made rope. It’s because it was thrown over a sharp edge and (climbers) aren’t paying attention to where the rope is going. Or, you have rock fall, where a rock comes down and hits the rope that’s on an edge.

VN: As a mountaineer yourself, has reviewing all of these incident reports deterred you at all from taking on some of the more dangerous climbs?

JW: No, although I do have a joke that it’s made it so I just do go outside anymore.

VN: It must be hard not to keep some of the trauma in the back of your head, knowing what the families of accident victims must go through and so forth.

JW: Right. Well, the journal is a lot of facts and figures. But there’s another aspect of my life, I think at least partially as a result of the journal, where I’ve been called out to do actual on-site investigations of accidents. One example was in 1986. Teachers and students were climbing Mount Hood, the 12,000-footer outside of Portland, Oregon. The 10th-graders at this particular school had to make an attempt on the mountain. They didn’t have to get to the top, but they had to make an attempt, and it’s a serious alpine climb with full-on snowy conditions. They headed up into a storm and the leader, for whatever reason — well, we found out the reason, which was hypothermia brought on by fatigue — did not turn back. Seven kids and two teachers died. I was involved with (international nonprofit) Outward Bound at the time, and I got pulled into a group of five to go out there and head up an investigation of that incident. I’ve done quite a few of those.

VN: What has some of the feedback been like to the investigations or to the contents of Accidents in North American Mountaineering?

JW: I do get good feedback. Some organizations, like (the National Outdoor Leadership School) and Outward Bound have used incidents as case studies. Both of these groups have also been in the book because they’ve had incidents.

VN: Forty years is a long time, but what are some of the biggest takeaways you learned while editing Accidents?

JW: One of the biggest takeaways I have is that behind almost every incident, there is another story of service — those who have aided in the rescue of the individuals who have found themselves in need of help. The Mountain Rescue Association over in North Conway is a classic example. All volunteers, all willing to put themselves on the line to help climbers in need, all seasons, all conditions.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.

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