Guy Waterman: A Natural Death
Guy Waterman had climbed every peak in the Northeast high country—in winter, and from all the cardinal directions. With his wife, he had co-authored four scrupulously principled books on New England wilderness, and he was revered as the conscience of the mountains, a beloved teacher and friend, a paragon of Yankee self-reliance. Why, then, did he hike to the top of his favorite peak on the coldest day of the year and lie down to die?
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
That last morning. A small cabin, completely off the grid. A couple, Guy and Laura Waterman, inseparable for 30 years. No distracting buzz—no TV, no droning NPR, no telephone. Just the silence of the winter woods pressing in.
It was February 6, a Sunday. A low-pressure system that had squatted over the White Mountains for the better part of a week was finally lumbering out to sea, and a bitter Arctic high was racing down from Canada to fill the vacuum. The forecast for the Upper Valley region of east-central Vermont and western New Hampshire called for flurries and ice crystals giving way to clear skies, highs of five to ten degrees above zero, and northwest winds of 15 to 25 miles per hour.
At 8:30 a.m., Guy Waterman handed his wife a few typewritten pages, the coda to a not-for-publication “memoir” he had begun several years earlier. (“He didn’t like to call it an autobiography,” Laura Waterman would explain later. “It sounded too pretentious.”) As she wept, he stepped out the door and began the mile-long tromp through the snow to the road where they parked their Subaru Impreza. The car was their biggest concession to modern technology, and they liked to keep it at a healthy distance.
After he left, Guy Waterman mailed several letters at his home post office in East Corinth, Vermont. He then drove 65 miles east to the Appalachian Mountain Club hostel in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire, where, he had told a friend, he planned to check the latest weather update from the Mount Washington Summit Observatory. Finally, he looped back west to Franconia Notch and parked his car on the east side of the highway, opposite the sheer face of Cannon Cliff. Above him, slopes of dark timber swept up 3,600 vertical feet to the gothic ramparts of Franconia Ridge and the rocky summit cone of Mount Lafayette, at 5,260 feet the sixth-highest mountain in New Hampshire. Carrying a small pack and his father’s ancient, wood-shafted ice ax, Waterman set off up the Old Bridle Path Trail.
“I think calling Mount Lafayette a ‘favorite’ place might not be quite the right word,” Laura would write to me later. “The connection Guy felt to that mountain and to the Franconia Ridge went deeper than that.” Lafayette was the first mountain Waterman climbed when, as a New Yorker in his midthirties, burning out on the corporate world, he began to rediscover his childhood passion for the outdoors. He climbed this mountain again with his three sons, and after his second son, Johnny, was killed while solo mountaineering in Alaska, Guy chose a secluded spot on a nearby ridge to memorialize him, burying an old pair of Johnny’s boots beneath a cairn of stones. For 18 years, he and Laura “adopted” the Ridge Trail, which runs south from the summit of Lafayette, painstakingly maintaining one of the most scenic stretches of the entire Appalachian Trail. The two of them had “probably touched every rock with our feet and hands,” Laura wrote. “It felt like an extension of our backyard; it felt like home.”
The Watermans were not alone in their affection for the spot. Mount Lafayette has always been one of the most popular destinations in the Whites. On summer weekends it’s not unusual to see 100 to 200 people on the trail. A bustling AMC hut is situated just below the tree line. Winter is less crowded, but even so, being on Lafayette is rarely a solitary experience anymore. And so when Marty Sample, a hiker from Milford, New Hampshire, arrived at the summit around noon on February 6, he found half a dozen others huddling out of the wind. “It was one of those days when you could see all the way across Vermont,” Sample recalled.
Around two o’clock, as Sample was descending a steep section of the Old Bridle Path known as Agony Ridge, he was surprised to meet a lone hiker heading up the hill. “He was a real Old Man of the Mountain,” Sample said. “He had a thick, heavy beard, and some pretty old gear, but the thing I remember most is this wooden alpenstock he was carrying. It had to be close to a meter long.”
The older man nodded hello and kept climbing. It was late in the day to be only halfway up Mount Lafayette, but Sample didn’t give it much thought. “He looked like he knew what he was doing,” he said. “And he had such a small pack, I just figured he was going to go to the hut and then turn around.” But Waterman did not plan to turn around at the hut. He was heading to the top, and not coming back.
He probably arrived at the summit of Mount Lafayette not long before sunset. How long he lasted is anybody’s guess. He was a small, sinewy man, 67 years old. He wore a layer of wool, with nylon shell pants and a weathered 60-40 coat. The section of ridge where Waterman finally planted his ice ax and lay down was as exposed as the wing of an airplane.
That night the Mount Washington Observatory, some 15 miles away, recorded a low temperature of minus 16. Average hourly wind speeds ranged from 70 to 90 miles per hour. One wonders if, as the life drained from his body, Guy Waterman’s mind might finally have filled with something like contentment.
Almost from the moment they moved north from New York City in 1973, Guy and Laura Waterman were accorded quasi-royal status within the small and sometimes cantankerous Northeastern wilderness community. On their 27-acre homestead they led a demanding, largely self-sufficient life that others only dreamed of. Their volunteerism on Franconia Ridge, too, was enviable—the ultimate model of wilderness stewardship. And fellow recreationists stood in awe of the couple’s hiking, bushwhacking, and climbing résumés. In New Hampshire alone, Laura had climbed all forty-eight 4,000-foot peaks at least seven times, while Guy, his trademark tam-o’-shanter jauntily set on his head, climbed them 16 times around, including winter ascents of each peak from all four points of the compass.
But the couple’s wider influence stemmed from their four books, required reading for anyone interested in the past and future of the Eastern wilderness—or “wildness,” as they often preferred to call it. Their seminal Backwoods Ethics, first published in 1979, was a practical guide to low-impact hiking and camping, while Wilderness Ethics, published in 1993, took a more philosophical tack, arguing for the preservation of an intangible “spirit of wilderness” threatened by an onslaught of cell phones, helicopters, and burgeoning numbers of winter campers. In the intervening years, the Watermans produced two exhaustive historical works on New England hiking and climbing from colonial days forward.
They were known as “the conscience of the Northeast mountains.” But the closest friends of Guy and Laura’s—you rarely heard one name without the other—thought their greatest achievement was the bond between them. “If you think of all the time they spent by themselves, it’s remarkable,” says Doug Mayer, a Web-site producer for the NPR program Car Talk and trails chairman for the Randolph Mountain Club in New Hampshire’s northern Presidentials. “They were always so courteous with each other, paying attention when the other spoke, really loving and respectful.”
As the news of Guy’s death spread across the Upper Valley last winter, there was no shortage of speculation as to why he had walked out that door. “He had terminal cancer,” the manager of a ski shop told me. “He couldn’t stand the pain anymore.” A hiker I met in the parking lot at Franconia Notch shrugged and said, “He was just an old Eskimo who went out on an ice floe.” Some acquaintances referred to “personal demons,” while many assumed he was simply despondent over the steady erosion of the wilderness he’d fought so long to protect.
There was, perhaps, a grain of truth in all these guesses, but few of these friends and strangers could have had an inkling of the disillusionment and pain that Waterman carried with him to the top of Mount Lafayette, including an enduring grief over two earlier family tragedies that would eerily prefigure his own death. Nor could anyone have predicted the anger and confusion that swirled in the wake of his suicide, or the heated controversy that developed over the ethics and cost of retrieving his body. The whole episode left many of the Watermans’ followers questioning what was perhaps the community’s central article of faith: the redemptive power of the wilderness. In the end, Guy Waterman was a man who turned his back on society and sought out the solace of the mountains, only to find that the mountains ultimately offered no guarantee of peace.
“I went to the woods,” Thoreau said, “because I wished to live deliberately.” Guy Waterman went Thoreau one better. Before he and Laura left New York, he drew up a list of ten principles they would live by; every morning thereafter he posted a calendar page for the date, listing notable events in history and their own life, and a daily quote. His notebooks and clipboards recorded everything that happened, grew, or flowed on the homestead: They saw four red squirrels in 1984, grew 622 onions in 1996, consumed 157 pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in 1997. Waterman explained to a newspaper reporter for the Burlington Free Press in 1997 that he always kept five three-by-five index cards of varying colors in his left breast pocket. On the red ones, he would record every penny spent that month. On the yellow, the chores for the day. The blue was their shopping list, the orange a list of short-term projects, and the green the more ambitious tasks they needed to polish off that season. “I was always this way,” Waterman told the reporter.
His meticulous habits—and protean nature—manifested themselves early on. Waterman was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1932, the fifth and last child of a Yale physics professor who later became the first president of the National Science Foundation and moved the family to Washington, D.C. Alan T. Waterman was an old-school Roosevelt liberal and an experienced outdoorsman, and while his political ideas never rubbed off on his son—Guy became a staunch Republican while still a teenager—the two spent many summers canoeing and hiking the great North Woods of Maine and New Hampshire.
But Guy’s first true love was the piano, and by the age of 16 he was making a living in the Washington area with the Riverboat Trio, a ragtime band. And there was another leading passion: At just 18, over his father’s objections, Guy married his high school sweetheart. By the time he graduated from George Washington University three years later, Guy and Emily Waterman had two sons and a third on the way.
After college, Waterman left music behind to enter politics, first as a legislative aide for the Senate Minority Policy Committeeand then as a speechwriter for President Dwight Eisenhower, Vice-President Richard Nixon, and Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford, among others. By all accounts, he was destined for a promising career on Capitol Hill. But after Nixon lost to Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, Waterman moved his family to Stamford, Connecticut, and began a new career as a speechwriter and labor negotiator for General Electric. “Corporate life was an odd fit for Guy,” says Mike Young, a New Hampshire physician and climber who met the Watermans in 1973 and had heard Guy talk of his days as an organization man. “He said he never went out to lunch with the guys from the office. Instead he’d walk around the streets of Manhattan and sit down with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Milton’s Paradise Lost.” According to Young, Waterman memorized eight and a half of the 12 books of that epic poem—nearly six hours of blank verse.
It was another book—The Climb Up To Hell, an account of a tragic climb in 1957 on the Eiger’s northwest wall—that turned Waterman’s thoughts back to the outdoors. He joined the New York chapter of the AMC and, in 1963, learned to rock climb upstate in the Shawangunks. Three years later, accompanied by the family dog, Waterman and his two eldest sons, Bill and Johnny, by then teenagers, would blitz New Hampshire’s 46 highest mountains in a record 14 days. (Since then, two additional 4,000-foot-plus peaks have been charted in New Hampshire.)
As the lure of the mountains intensified, Waterman grew weary of life as a corporate exec and suburban family man. On top of that, his marriage had begun to unravel. In 1969, he and his wife separated; they were divorced two years later. (Citing a desire to protect her privacy, family members politely refused to help me contact Emily Waterman for this story.) “I think Guy always felt that getting married so young had been a mistake,” Young says.
With the end of his marriage, Guy dedicated himself to the wilderness. That summer, while working as a climbing instructor on an AMC outing, he met a new chapter member, a lively 30-year-old book editor named Laura Johnson. She too was the product of an academic background; her father was the headmaster at Lawrenceville, a tony New Jersey prep school, and an editor for the estate of Emily Dickinson. After college, she worked in a succession of New York publishing houses, but a trip through the Bavarian Alps left her dreaming of a life of climbing.
“My first reaction to Guy?” Laura wrote to me in a letter. “Easy. Love at first sight. We met at the Shawangunks and immediately we began talking about climbing and Moby-Dick and Dickens and Alice in Wonderland. And of course we began climbing together.”
A year later, in 1970, after Laura took an editing job at a new magazine called Backpacker, she and Guy began to think about a different sort of life, one away from the pressures of society. On a climbing trip to the White Mountains, a friend recommended a book that changed the course of their lives. Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life, first published in 1954, chronicled the self-sufficient farm the couple had established in Vermont a generation earlier. “They had organized their lives in such a way that they had plenty of time for music and writing, and to do the creative things they liked to do as well as the homesteading,” Guy recalled in an interview. In 1971, after an abortive attempt on a difficult route on Alaska’s Mount Hunter—the couple’s first and last serious climbing foray outside the Northeast—Guy and Laura purchased their Vermont homestead, which they named Barra, after the Waterman family’s ancestral homeland in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. They married in 1972, moved into a lean-to on the property, and began building a simple one-room cabin, complete with a disconnected toilet (to satisfy the letter of the building code) and Guy’s cherished Steinway, which friends drove to Barra in a pickup truck.
Thus began a grueling but joyous cycle of seasons that continued for 27 years. The winter months were for ice climbing and tramping in the mountains. March was for sugaring. The vegetable garden occupied them from the end of April to the first part of June. There was time for more climbing and hiking in the summer, and then came canning, the root vegetable harvest, and weeks of chopping firewood for the winter. By Thanksgiving it was time to go hiking again. At one point, Guy figured they were in the mountains 50 percent of the winter days and slept there one night out of three. Until Guy’s Social Security payments began six years ago, the Watermans lived on a budget of $200 a month, paid for by savings and the earnings from their one “cash crop”—their writing.
Barra never became what the Nearings’ homestead, Forest Farm, had been—a sort of open-ended commune where people were welcome to visit and pitch in for as long as they liked. The Watermans were too protective of their peace and quiet for that. When reporters came to do interviews, they were asked not to mention the homestead’s location, for fear the place would become some sort of zoo, with Guy and Laura the prize specimens. Still, to the Watermans’ inner circle, Barra was a light in the forest. “I always loved going there,” Mike Young says. “There were just a few kerosene lamps, but somehow you always felt it was a brilliant place. There was Guy’s gentle charisma, his music, a ring of friends. Going there was like going on a pilgrimage.”
Yet no matter how perfect a life the Watermans created at Barra, Guy couldn’t escape the tragedies that darkened their first decade in the woods. Before his divorce, Waterman had begun teaching his sons Bill and Johnny to rock climb in the Shawangunks. Both boys seemed destined to become fine climbers. But on June 19, 1969, 18-year-old Bill, who had just graduated from high school, grievously mangled his leg while attempting to hop a freight train in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on a Kerouac-like cross-country odyssey. Bill underwent a series of operations to try to save the limb, but a few years later it finally had to be amputated, and he was fitted with a prosthesis.
Johnny, about a year younger than Bill, continued to climb, and though it’s tempting to suggest he threw himself into the sport as some kind of compensation for Bill’s injury, he had already proved himself a prodigy. At the age of 15, stocky, explosive, and all of five-foot-three, he was leading many of the hardest pitches in the ‘Gunks. A year later, he became the third-youngest person ever to summit Mount McKinley. “By 16 or 17,” Guy once said, “Johnny was far too good to be held back by climbing with me.” By 20, he was regarded as one of the boldest young alpinists in the country. But along the way he had suffered the loss, either by accident or suicide, of no fewer than eight of his climbing partners and mentors.
In 1971, after briefly attending Western Washington State University, in Bellingham, Johnny moved to Fairbanks, Alaska. Eventually he enrolled at the University of Alaska. Bill, who hoped to work with native tribes, would soon move to Alaska himself. (Jim, Guy’s youngest son, was still in high school and living with his father in Stamford, Connecticut.) In 1973, four years after his accident, Bill sent Guy and other family members a short letter informing them that he was going off on a long trip; the destination wasn’t specified. According to one rumor, Bill went north to live with an Inuit tribe. In any case, it was the last Guy, or anybody else, ever heard of him. He simply disappeared.
Johnny continued to live and climb in Alaska. In 1978, he stunned the climbing world with a solo ascent of the previously unclimbed southeast spur of 14,573-foot Mount Hunter, a feat that has since passed into Alaskan folklore. It took him 145 days of fixing lines, ferrying loads, and waiting out storms to get up and down the mountain. He came back a hero, but something seemed to have changed him.
“He became fixated on difficult climbs,” says John Dunn, who met Guy and Laura at a mountaineering school at about the time Johnny climbed Hunter. Though Dunn never met Johnny, he had spoken with Guy often about his brilliant and troubled second son, and still has a few letters exchanged between the two of them. “If he survived,” Dunn continues, “then the climb wasn’t hard enough. In between climbs, it seemed like he was hanging on by a thread.”
According to several written accounts, Johnny Waterman had always been something of a character in Fairbanks—a guy who ran around the university campus wearing a black cape and eyeglasses with a star glued between the lenses, maniacally serenading passersby on a beat-up guitar. In his 1994 book, In the Shadow of Denali, author Jonathan Waterman—no relation—devotes a chapter to Johnny and his strange fate. “The climb changed him irreparably,” Waterman writes of Johnny’s experience on Hunter, and he quotes a climbing friend of Johnny’s who said that “after Hunter he was almost dangerously psychotic.”
In 1981 Johnny, now 28, prepared for the ultimate challenge: a winter solo of Denali’s unclimbed east face, some 6,000 feet higher than Hunter. He was last seen on April 1, heading up the Ruth Glacier, a vast minefield of hidden crevasses, carrying absurdly minimal gear and provisions. Jon Krakauer, who spends several pages telling Johnny’s story in his book Into the Wild, quotes a climber who had seen Johnny at a lower elevation a few days earlier: “He was wearing a cheap one-piece snowmobile suit and wasn’t even carrying a sleeping bag. All he had in the way of food was a bunch of flour, some sugar, and a big can of Crisco.”
To many who knew Johnny, his death did not appear to be an accident. “When he wandered up there, he didn’t expect to survive it,” Dunn says. “Whether he jumped in a crevasse or just fell into one doesn’t really matter. Basically what he did was akin to wandering numbly across a highway at rush hour.” (Jim Waterman, Guy’s only surviving son, an environmental engineer who lives outside Boulder, Colorado, declined to comment for this story.)
The National Park Service searched Waterman’s route for a week by air before giving up. His body was never found. Guy got the news two weeks later. “Poor Johnny embodied those impulses in me which have been destructive, as they were so finally for Johnny,” he wrote in his unpublished memoir. “He was always at war with the world, never knew calm, always teetered on the edge of being out of control.” Every year, on the anniversary of Johnny’s disappearance, Guy and Laura would climb to the cairn where Johnny’s boots are buried and sing laments in his memory.
At the end of February, three weeks after Guy Waterman’s body was recovered from the summit of Mount Lafayette, I dropped a note at the post office in East Corinth, Vermont. I was hoping Laura Waterman would want to talk, if not about her husband’s death, then at least about their life together. But the next day an unidentified friend of the family called my answering machine, saying that Laura had been swamped by interview requests from the press. “She’s just not up for a visit right now,” he said. “She would ask you to send her a letter with any questions you might have.” A few days later, I wrote the letter and drove back to East Corinth to drop it off.
East Corinth (pronounced cuh-rinth) is quaint and small. There’s a Congregational Church, a general store, and a post office. Across the street is the library where the Watermans had volunteered a few nights a week. I went in to look it over, intending to make a quick photocopy of my letter. Two women sat at a table by the door, deep in conversation. The older one, trim and sixtyish with short, graying hair, wore neat, no-nonsense clothes and L.L. Bean boots. She looked up and smiled, and then turned back to her conversation.
As I stood waiting for the copy machine, I heard the older woman’s voice floating across the room. She and her husband had expected a few articles to appear in the local paper, she said plaintively, but nothing like the media invasion she’d had to face. The other woman, her voice lower, murmured some words of consolation to her friend.
It took me a moment to realize that the older woman was Laura Waterman. I briefly considered handing the letter to her directly, and introducing myself in the process. But there was something about the scene—the distressed tone in her voice, the sacrosanct hush of the library, the awareness that I was, however inadvertently, an eavesdropper—that stopped me. I walked across the street and mailed the letter at the post office.
When I got home from Vermont, Laura’s reply was waiting for me in my mailbox. It was four pages long, banged out on a manual typewriter. The sentences were short and direct and, unsurprising in a letter to a stranger, largely matter-of-fact. The most poignant part of the letter was the handwritten postscript. “Sorry about misspellings and poor punctuation,” it read. “Guy always caught my errors as we always read over each other’s mail before it went out.” Otherwise the tone was straightforward, with occasional flashes of anger at a culture that, as she put it, “sees only strangeness, imbalance, and sickness in suicide.”
Laura seemed to relax in passages that dealt with details of her and Guy’s life together. The longest paragraph in the letter dealt with their collaborative approach to writing, which began with a column called Woods Trails they wrote together for New England Outdoors in the late 1970s. “Guy would draw up an outline,” she recalled. “We’d each take sections that appealed to us to write. We’d scribble furiously for about two-thirds of the morning. We’d read aloud what we’d written to each other. Guy would construct the bridging paragraphs. One of us would type it up. We’d mail it.” Many of those essays became chapters in their books, and the column kicked off a happy era of impassioned advocacy on behalf of the region’s wilderness.
Though far from a best-seller, their first book, Backwoods Ethics—a whimsical but fervent compendium of tips for hikers and campers seeking to lessen their impact on the environment (skip the fire, sleep in hammocks, “rock-hop” in areas with delicate ground-cover vegetation)—nevertheless had a tremendous impact within the wilderness community. “It reminds me of something they used to say about this one Velvet Underground album back in the sixties,” Doug Mayer says. “It only sold a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought it started a band.”
In 1979, the AMC approached the Watermans with an irresistible offer: a book contract for a comprehensive recreational history of the Northeastern mountains, from the trailblazing pioneers to the new wave of extremist ice climbers and ski mountaineers. The couple planned to spend three years on Forest and Crag, but in the end it took ten. The book, dedicated to Johnny Waterman, came in at a relatively svelte 884 pages only because the AMC, worried about the bottom line, insisted on removing all the material on technical climbing. (These sections were later published by Stackpole Press under the title Yankee Rock and Ice.)
In 1993 the Watermans’ fourth book, Wilderness Ethics, was published. (A fifth and final work, Mountain Tales: Tall and True, a collection of fiction and nonfiction, will be issued this fall by The Mountaineers Books.) Among other issues, Wilderness Ethics wrestled with a concern that became the Watermans’ paramount cause later in life: their conviction that the maintenance of the “illusion” of wildness was just as crucial as the wildness itself. The book casts a jaundiced eye on everything from helicopter rescues and large, boisterous groups to the use of cell phones, to which Guy had a particularly strong aversion. It ends on a hopeful note, but scattered throughout are signs of a deepening pessimism and Guy’s growing sense that his work was not being taken seriously. “[T]he erosion is so creeping,” one passage reads. “It is like the tide coming in, first a foot from your toes, then up to your knees, and in a short while over your head. You never saw it move, but you are drowning and there is no more wildness.”
If a creeping disillusionment with the wilderness-preservation movement weighed heavily on Guy Waterman’s mind in his later years, so too must have the lonely deaths of his two sons. In the many published accounts of Johnny’s life and death, Guy’s relationship with his sons is the subject of much discussion. Laura, Guy’s surviving son, and close friends take extreme exception to those accounts, but the family’s longstanding refusal to comment directly on the matter makes it difficult to know how responsible Guy may have felt for what eventually befell his boys. In Into the Wild, Krakauer quotes an anonymous source “close to the family” who alleges that when Guy and Laura traveled to Alaska to climb Mount Hunter in 1971, Guy “came and went without even bothering to visit [his son]. It broke John’s heart.” Jonathan Waterman’s In the Shadow of Denali offers a more benign portrait of Guy as a loving father unwillingly pushed away by Johnny’s “tumultuous teenage rebellion” and by both of his older sons’ distrust of his new wife. “When Guy remarried,” Waterman writes, “he felt that [his sons] never really forgave him: A stranger now occupied his attention. Furthermore, Guy and his new wife…moved to the woods of Vermont, forsaking any modern conveniences…Johnny and Bill took up residence in Alaska, as if they needed to get as far away as possible from their ruptured family.”
But others recall a strong bond between father and sons. “When Guy and Laura came back from Mount Hunter in 1971, he wrote them an 18-page letter describing the trip,” Dunn says. “It was really elaborate, with drawings, and it clearly indicated to me that he was still very connected to them.”
If Guy’s relationships with other young men were any indication, he was an extremely attentive father. “I and some other teenagers were like his second sons,” Dunn remembers. “He was very encouraging, I think just as he had been with his own sons. He spent a lot of time with his kids, more than most dads. He was only positive, and I’m sure they, like me, desperately wanted to succeed in order to please him. But too much could be tough to take—he was such an upbeat, shining example. Bill, with his leg, had an out. And Jim, being the youngest, wasn’t as into it. But Johnny tried to embrace it.”
Another of Guy’s “surrogate sons” was Doug Mayer, who met Waterman 12 years ago, when Mayer was 23 and in the process of planning an eight-day attack on the New Hampshire 48. “Guy was really into it,” Mayer says. “And my dad had passed away, so I guess the connection was obvious. Different groups of us would go off and join Guy on these demented bushwhacks. He was five-six and tough. He’d dance through this small spruce and fir, his feet never touching the ground for a quarter-mile, just whistling and humming little ditties to himself, totally in his element.”
Demanding of himself, Guy also expected a lot from others. “I don’t think Guy ever got angry,” Mayer says. “He would get…disappointed. That was the one thing you didn’t want to see. Even if it was something minor, like you couldn’t make that next bushwhack or something, you dreaded that look.”
Mayer doesn’t know how much Bill’s and Johnny’s deaths may have weighed on Guy in his last years. “I do know Guy felt incredibly close to Johnny,” he says. “But he had this intensely private side, and you couldn’t help but feel respectful of it. So I never asked about his sons.”
Laura is even more reticent on the subject. In a frank article she wrote for the local newspaper soon after Guy’s death, she admits, “I did not fully understand why he needed to get out of life, though I can talk around the question.” Still, she adds, “Losing two sons was undeniably paramount.”
As their last decade together wore on, the Watermans seemed to retreat ever further from the outside world. There’s a telling passage in “Saving the Wilderness—From Whom?” an article they published in Appalachiain 1995. For 12 years, Guy and Laura wrote, they and a group of ten or so friends had gathered for an annual midwinter reunion deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, east of Mount Lafayette. But over time, this tradition began to seem a hypocritical violation of the very ethic the Watermans had helped create. “The values of solitude, stillness, remoteness and respect for other parties’ experiences spread,” they wrote. “One tenet of the new ethic was limiting group size…. People were offended by the inappropriate imposition of cocktail-party values of raucous sociability on the tone of the backcountry and on the experience of every other party there.” So a dozen old friends stopped coming together in the woods—as if laughter could only be sanctioned in some destitute bar in the far-off, fallen city.
Meanwhile, the Watermans were also backing away from their once-prominent role in the AMC. In 1995 and ’96, Guy worked as winter caretaker of a rough-hewn Randolph Mountain Club hut on Mount Adams, where the atmosphere was more quiet and contemplative than at the AMC huts, and where the use of the hated cell phone was forbidden. By then, Laura’s knees had worn out. Though she could still climb, and even ice climb, hiking became an ordeal. Guy, for his part, quit climbing. “He said his rock shoes were worn out, but I think it alluded to other things,” says Dunn. “He saw rock climbing becoming more of a technical, gymnastic thing and less of a wilderness experience. All the modern gear and the bright colors were part of it.”
Waterman began to spend more time at Barra, explaining in one interview that he “would rather have Laura without mountains than mountains without Laura.” He began writing again, but about baseball, a sport whose statistical intricacies appealed to him. Through the daughter of a friend, he developed a fan’s enthusiasm for Dartmouth women’s ice hockey, so much so that he attended every home game and became something of a team mascot. He sat in the stands with his index cards, making little checks next to a skater’s name when she made a good play.
But he seemed to have difficulty summoning the passion that he’d once felt for wilderness advocacy. “Guy always tended to do things intensely, then move on abruptly,” Dunn says. “I think he lost a little fire each time. The things he did later on just didn’t give him the same satisfaction as climbing. He didn’t have the big issue.”
In her Valley News article, Laura quoted a passage from the last few pages of Guy’s memoir, the same pages he had handed her on the morning of February 6. “The transition away from deep involvement in the mountains and in the issues of preserving wildness in the northeastern backcountry has been painful, associated with a sense that we were retreating, defeated, from the field,” he wrote. “A few people have said some very nice things about our books, but on the whole they and our ideas about Eastern wildness seem to be sinking into oblivion unnoticed. All this is accompanied by a feeling that I could have done better.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Guy Waterman’s suicide was how much of an open secret it was among his wife and their closest friends.
He had almost done it once before. On July 3, 1998, Guy left Laura at Barra and went for a day of solo hiking in the Whites. When he returned that evening, he told her he had climbed to the top of Cannon Cliff with the intent of throwing himself off but had not been able to go through with it.
“I was stunned,” Laura wrote about the incident, after Guy’s death. “My first thought was, as I watched him pace as he was telling me: Am I married to a crazy man? But I knew I wasn’t, and I realized how much I loved him, and that the most important thing was to go on loving him as hard as ever I could.”
Rebecca Oreskes, who met the Watermans in the early 1980s and is now manager of dispersed recreation and wilderness for the White Mountain National Forest, remembers hiking with Guy last fall. “He kept talking about how he really dreaded the thought of aging,” she says. “My husband and I tried to argue that older people can have good lives—do have good lives—but with him it was obviously ‘case closed.'”
One reason he might have been so gloomy was that he had developed a chronic abdominal condition a couple of years earlier, something akin to colitis. “I believe at one point he thought he had something more serious,” says John Dunn. “But he refused any invasive diagnostic procedures.” Dunn, a physician, says he doubts Waterman had a life-threatening illness, “but, if anything, having a problem like that only reinforced his conviction.”
Friends also said his mood swings had become more extreme. “I’m not sure you could call it clinical depression, but he clearly had episodic bouts where he appeared deeply depressed,” Dunn says. “Every couple of months he would seem to get down. He’d be withdrawn, and when he did talk, it would often be about his black mood.”
“Friends have asked me why did he not seek medical help?” wrote Laura in the Valley News. “I cannot easily answer that question either, except to say it was not Guy’s way…. Medicate his demons? Guy Waterman had no wish to do so. Better to live with a full blast of his terrors than to soften those sharp edges.”
At the back of his mind, perhaps, was the knowledge that he would not be able to handle the rigors of life at Barra indefinitely. To that end, he set about putting things in order. He started mapping his property. For Guy Waterman, that meant dividing all 27 acres into 50-foot squares, making little cairns on each corner, and then painstakingly diagramming each square, indicating all the natural features and vegetation—every tree and bush. “I think he was preparing a sort of owner’s manual for the place,” says Doug Mayer.
A year ago, Guy and Laura made plans to leave Barra to the Nearings’ foundation, the Good Life Center, which will steward the land. They also began construction of a new log house down in the hamlet of East Corinth so that Laura could live closer to neighbors once he was gone.
“I think most of us knew it was coming,” says Dan Allen, one of Waterman’s oldest winter hiking chums. “He had shown me his memoir and said, ‘It’s all done except for the last page.’ That’s a pretty big signal.” That no one ever challenged him or attempted some kind of intervention was understandable, if you knew Waterman. “It just wasn’t a negotiable item,” says Allen.
One day last fall, Guy had Mayer and Oreskes bring a cassette recorder to Barra to tape him playing several of his favorite waltzes and a few other favorites—a Haydn sonata, Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”—on his Steinway. “We knew it was for his memorial service,” Oreskes says. “We were just hoping it wouldn’t be so soon.”
But Waterman was ready, and all that remained to do was to wait for the weather to change. “He wrote to me, ‘If you hear that I’m off for the mountains on a cold windy day, don’t be saddened,'” Mayer says. “He said he did not cherish the thought of getting old or enfeebled. He referred to what he called his ‘considered preference.’ He was deliberate in everything he did, right up to the end.”
Yet somehow, Waterman overlooked a last, crucial detail in planning his own death. On his way to Franconia Notch that February morning, he mailed letters to several friends, including Dunn, Mayer, and Young, assuming that at least one of them would immediately visit Laura, the only person who knew where he had gone, and then climb Lafayette to retrieve his body. The problem was, none of those friends were at home when the letters arrived.
After three days, Laura couldn’t stand it anymore, and she snowshoed into East Corinth to find a telephone.
“It was late in the morning when I got the call,” Rebecca Oreskes says. “I couldn’t get ahold of any of Guy’s friends. All those guys who live up here and work in Boston. There was a big storm forecast for the next day. I told Laura, ‘We can try to get a helicopter to look today, because we may not find him tomorrow.’ She said, ‘No, I don’t think we want that.’ But in the end, we all decided we had to call. Nobody wanted some hiker to stumble on him three weeks later.”
Shortly after noon, Fish and Game, the agency responsible for all rescue and recovery missions within the state, contacted the New Hampshire National Guard in Concord, the nearest place a helicopter was available on short notice. A Blackhawk helicopter was dispatched at 12:30 p.m. and arrived at Franconia Ridge at about 2:15. The helicopter flew until about 4:00, at which point it had to return to the nearby Laconia airport to refuel. The search was suspended for the night. “The crew probably flew over him several times,” says Fish and Game Sergeant Doug Gralenski, “but with the rime ice and dull clothing, he wasn’t found.”
Meanwhile, Oreskes agonized about her decision to call in a helicopter. “Helicopters!” she groans. “If you knew Guy, it would have confirmed exactly what he felt, which is that none of us was listening.”
Concerned about the approaching storm, Gralenski decided to postpone a ground search until Saturday. But later that afternoon, Guy’s inner circle—Mayer, Dunn, and Young; another longtime friend, Jon Martinson; and Mike Pelchat, the head of Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue—asked Gralenski if they could attempt a private retrieval the next day. “I had no problem with it,” Gralenski says.
The party of five men and one dog arrived at the summit around noon on Friday, February 11. “It was snowing and blowing about 40, and visibility was under a hundred feet,” Pelchat recalls. “All things considered, not so bad.” The group fanned out and began a slow march down the ridge toward the subpeak called North Lafayette. Pelchat was 500 feet north of the summit when he noticed an oddly straight piece of rime ice standing five feet off the trail. It turned out to be an ancient wooden ice ax inscribed with the initials A.T.W. Guy was on his side next to it, his back against an outcropping of rock, his crampons still strapped to his boots. One overmitt was off; otherwise, there was nothing to suggest that he’d done anything other than plant his father’s ax, lie down, and die.
Standing in the swirling snow, the men embraced one another and the frozen form of their friend. Then they put him in a litter and began the long process of sliding him down the mountain. “It’s strenuous work, but he wasn’t a big man,” Pelchat says.”Really, I think we all liked the idea of him taking us on one last hike.”
In the weeks following Guy Waterman’s death, a lively debate sprang up over the “wilderness ethics” of his suicide. After all, one argument went, isn’t leaving one’s corpse on a public trail the ultimate act of littering? And then there was the issue of dispatching a Blackhawk helicopter, which cost taxpayers $1,500 an hour to operate, and the bitter irony of its hovering over the edge of the Pemigewasset Wilderness for the better part of an afternoon.
In a way, the Watermans themselves had helped stoke this indignation. “One has to be sympathetic with public anger about the enormous costs expended in efforts to save people who often have acted foolishly,” they’d written in Wilderness Ethics. “That such people should pay the costs of rescue efforts seems to us an unarguable point. If you get yourself in trouble, you get yourself out, or you pay.”A recently adopted ordinance now allows New Hampshire Fish and Game to charge “reckless” hikers for search and rescue efforts initiated on their behalf, but it seems highly unlikely the service will pursue the matter with a figure as sympathetic as Laura Waterman.
“I have strong reservations about what Guy did,” says Fish and Game’s Gralenski. “I hate to see him martyred. Basically what happens when you die like that, from hypothermia, is you become like a drunk. It’s fortunate this didn’t cause him to wander too far. It could have blown up into a major search. We don’t wish to spend money recovering people like this. We’re small, with a limited number of officers. We’re already taxed dealing with people who unintentionally hurt themselves.”
A more painful problem for a lot of people, including many of the Watermans’ close friends, is what Laura has had, and will continue to have, to endure. No matter how bad Guy was feeling, they wondered, how could he leave her like that?
Laura herself handles these concerns with impressive equanimity. “I don’t feel abandoned or betrayed or even particularly left,” she wrote me. “Guy was nothing if not conscientious and he took care to leave me with a full woodpile…. I wouldn’t have wanted to have held him back, nor could I have. Loving him meant letting him go.”
The other thing Laura had to contend with was the flood of media attention. There is irony in this, too, as Guy would surely have resented having his past dredged up again. And yet, by choosing such a public way to die, he invited it.
Like a dozen other journalists, I puzzled over Guy’s “reasons.” It was hard not to speculate about those final hours on Mount Lafayette or to second-guess his plan. Why not just crawl off into the less frequented emptiness of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, where no one would have found him and the ravens could have picked him clean? “Guy was very pragmatic and thoughtful,” Doug Mayer says. “It tortured him not knowing where his sons’ bodies were, and he didn’t want Laura to deal with the same thing.” And, Mayer points out, “Estates can’t be settled easily without a body, and Guy didn’t want Laura to have any complications with his will.”
Nearly 200 people attended Guy Waterman’s memorial service, many more than could fit inside the little Congregational church in East Corinth. A small cassette deck on the altar played the medley of waltzes, Haydn, and Joplin that Mayer and Oreskes had recorded Waterman playing last fall. There were poems (“Song on a May Morning,” “The Road Not Taken,” “Down to the Puritan Marrow of My Bones”) and hymns and tearful reminiscences, and only one moment of laughter, when someone made a joke about Guy’s Republican politics and Democrat friends. Afterward, his body was cremated; his ashes were to be scattered at Barra in a ceremony in the spring, after the snow melted. Guy had asked that his boots be buried under the same cairn where Johnny’s are, on the spur below Mount Lincoln.
Whatever their feelings about his suicide, virtually all of Guy’s friends dismiss the notion that his passing was a death knell for the cause of Eastern wilderness, an acknowledgement that the fight was over and lost.
“I didn’t feel that what Guy did in any way was a repudiation of our life’s work,” Laura wrote me. “Perhaps it was an affirmation of it. Nor do I feel that he was making the statement that the good fight was no longer worth fighting. Again, perhaps he was saying—by his action—just the opposite.”
Perhaps. One would like to think that his was the last act of a man who believed in the wilderness even when he stopped believing in anything else. Yet all we can know for sure is that on a bitter winter afternoon he climbed up into its heartless heart and felt the full blast of its power in a way that no one can who would come back alive.