A Walk in the Woods


Bill Bryson

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A Walk in the Woods: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

In 1934, a meteorologist named Salvatore Pagliuca recorded a wind speed of 231 miles an hour on the summit of Mount Washington, nearly dying in the process. Mount Washington is also known for experiencing the lowest windchill factor, which is unmatched even in Antarctica. Mount Washington’s geographical location, at the boundary of several weather fronts, is partly responsible for the extreme conditions. In the winter, the average temperature is a brutal 27°F, and in the summer it’s only 52°F. Curiously, people still try to go up there in the winter.
Bryson reveals some facts about the weather in Mount Washington, exposing the natural environment on this stretch of the Trail as harsh and unforgiving—it even rivals Antarctica. The fact that many people attempt to ascend the mountain in dangerously cold weather shows once again that human beings are often responsible for their own difficulties in the wild, even though we tend to think wild animals are more of a threat to us than we are to ourselves.
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In 1994, two hikers named Derek Tinkham and Jeremy Haas tried to pass through Mount Washington while the weather was -32°F. Tinkham stopped to camp partway through, while Haas managed to make it a couple miles further to the weather hut. By morning, Tinkham was frozen solid. Another woman, who tried to ascend the mountain in 1855, got lost in fog and died not knowing that she was just 150 feet from a hotel. One hundred twenty-two so far have died on Mount Washington, making it the second deadliest mountain in the United States. When Bryson and Abdu arrive to tackle it, Bryson double checks that he has all the gear he needs.
Bryson reinforces the idea that human beings endanger ourselves more than wild animals endanger us by citing the example of Derek Tinkham and Jeremy Haas, who died after attempting to ascend the mountain in frigid temperatures. Similar stories of human recklessness in dangerous conditions account for the high number of deaths on this part of the Trail. Once again, wild animals have very little to do with its dangers—they’re smart enough to take shelter from the punishing weather at the summit. 
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It’s a clear day, so the parking lots are full, and the crowds are arriving in droves. Without a pack, the hike is easy for Bryson. The first thing they see when they approach the summit is a “nightmare” of a giant parking lot and several concrete buildings. One of them is a museum, and it has a hilarious video of a man trying to eat breakfast in a blazing storm. Bryson loses Abdu in the crowd. This been a tourist area since the 1850s—in its heyday, there were many giant hotels and casinos. Those have all disappeared now, as tourism epicenters shifted to the beaches by 1900. Bryson calls this the age of “fickle” tourists.
Bryson’s experience on Mount Washington is all but ruined by the droves of tourists who, once again, treat the summit like some kind of amusement park. Bryson exposes how thoughtlessly humans clear away forest to make way for parking lots and buildings. It disappoints Bryson that people are so eager to destroy the landscape but are notoriously “fickle” about where they’ll vacation.
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