The Deadliest Mountain
The impact of loss on New Hampshire’s highest peak
New England’s tallest mountain is known for many things like “THIS CAR CLIMBED MT. WASHINGTON” bumper stickers, weather world records, and annual sporting adventures like the Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race and Seek the Peak.
Despite being revered and respected by outdoorsmen and adventurers alike, Mount Washington is also known for being the world’s deadliest mountain with over 160 people perishing over nearly 200 years of recorded history. One of the most infamous stories (and legends) recorded is that of its first female casualty, Lizzie Bourne.
In September 1855, 23-year-old Kennebunk, Maine, native Lizzie Bourne and her aunt, uncle and cousin set out from Glen House Hotel to climb Mount Washington with the mission of watching the sunrise from the Tip-Top House.
Unfortunately, the hiking party started late on their trek up the unfinished Carriage Road, and as they hiked on, stormy weather started to surround them. Heavy laden and weary with yards of heavy fabric from her 19th-century clothing, Lizzie and the group paused as the darkness and stormy weather kept them from hiking farther.
Her uncle stacked rocks for shelter, hoping that they would be safe for the night, but the cold was too much for Lizzie to bear, and by midnight, she perished from hypothermia. In the morning, clouds lifted and revealed that they were only a few more minutes from the safety of the Tip-Top House.
The Bourne family was shaken by the tragedy and built a memorial marker that was placed at the spot where Lizzie perished — a small pile of rocks and a wooden sign. Lizzie’s father wanted a more elaborate monument for the spot where Lizzie died, but the one he designed was placed in the cemetery instead, as it was too impractical to transport up the mountain.
The original marker is displayed at the Cog Railway Base Station Museum, and over time, the Cog Railway has had to replace the signage, and a sturdier replica of the marker has taken its place near the railroad tracks up the mountain.
Lizzie is buried in Hope Cemetery in Kennebunk, but her spirit lives on in New Hampshire. A likeness of Lizzie has even appeared over the years from her maker where she perished — a translucent figure that points toward the summit, directing her ghostly finger toward the summit she longed for but never got to see.
Lizzie’s demise, and the deaths of many others over the years, serve as a warning to those hikers or mountaineers coming after them.
Looking for other spooky outdoor tales? Check out the podcast National Park After Dark for more stories about death, dark history and tragic events and the light that is found through the darkness.
Hiker Preparedness Is Paramount to Hiking Safety
The “hikeSafe” program, along with “The Hiker Responsibility Code,” has been in place since May of 2003. It was first implemented as an effort between the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and the White Mountain National Forest to raise safety awareness for the hiking community to avoid increasing numbers of mountain fatalities.
Since its inception, hikeSafe has changed the way the state responds to and implements preventative measures. Their well-known “you are responsible for yourself, so be prepared” code is seen in their free hiking and gear information as well as a quiz to test your preparation knowledge before you hit the trails. They, along with other organizations, also raise money with efforts like the $50,000 that was raised with “Emily’s Hike to Save a Life” fundraiser to further education and safety initiatives for hikers. Another way to stay safe is by using a hikeSafe card.
Col. Kevin Jordan of New Hampshire Fish and Game emphasized that “hiker preparedness” is the name of the game. In 2015, the department began selling hikeSafe cards that are like insurance, where people who obtain it are not liable to repay rescue costs if they need to be rescued. In 2022, more than 12,000 hikeSafe cards were purchased, which raised $311,000. That money will help pay for SAR equipment, insurance, training and more.
The aim of the hikeSafe program is to reduce risks of hiking by encouraging preparedness. Such tragedies impact all involved, including SAR volunteers. Families are changed forever following loss, and the emptiness left behind is all consuming, just as it was Lizzie’s family and the families who came after her.
Explore other haunts of hikers like Lizzie Bourne in Marianne O’Connor’s book “Haunted Hikes of New Hampshire.”