Remembering A Mountainside Tragedy

Isn't technology, at times, overwhelming yet wonderful? Sort of like how our friend Mother Nature can be when we go up against her furies, but still appreciate her. This February marks a sad 40th anniversary for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club—an event which perhaps wouldn't have occurred if there had been Super Doppler radar, cell phones or simply greater respect for Mother Nature's gift of instinct. It was Feb. 15, 1958, when PATC Maps Committee Chairman, Dr. Robert Grimsley, set off to hike a ridge of North Mountain on the border of VA and WV.

The 30-year-old research technician from Washington, DC, and former Chicago-area Eagle Scout was leading three Boy Scouts from the East Washington Baptist Church Boy Scout Troop 81 up through Wolf Gap, a pass over North Mountain—part of the George Washington National Forest. With him that snowy Saturday afternoon were 16-year-olds Bruce McClellan and Benjamin Yorkoff and 14-year-old Dexter Legg. Before they set off, they encountered Trail Club Senior Councilor Bob Hendricks, who was returning through Wolf Gap after looking at property in WV. Bob Grimsley told him, jokingly, "If I am not at the next PATC Council meeting, come looking for me."

Well, you've probably guessed it: Dr. Grimsley did not make it to the meeting. What went wrong for an avid outdoorsman who had received the Scouts' Order of the Arrow, an honor reserved only for the most expert campers?

The PATC archives provide us with a highly detailed 12-page record of the North Mountain Tragedy, admirably reported by PATC member Grant Conway in the late summer 1958 edition of the PATC Bulletin. He writes that Grimsley hoped to travel the eight miles with the boys "from Wolf Gap to Sugar Knob Shelter [a shelter then leased by PATC from the Forest Service], where they planned to spend Saturday night and return to Washington by way of Wolf Gap on Sunday." As the assistant scoutmaster of the Troop, Grimsley had planned the trip and discussed it with other PATC members who knew the route.

The Trip's Beginning

"The three boys and their scoutmaster trudged up the switchbacks leading from Wolf Gap to the top of the North Mountain ridge, which they would follow most of the way to Sugar Knob. The snow was ankle deep, and new snow was drifting down. None was aware that a cold front from Canada would descend upon them late in the afternoon, bringing a northwesterly wind of gale proportions, a blizzard with zero temperatures" by late the next morning, Conway wrote.

Instinct seemed to hit the youngest of the party, Dexter Legg, first. According to Conway, "If any in the group had misgivings [during] the trip, it was Dexter. Now as he plodded slowly up North Mountain through the snow, the weight of his pack was just as heavy as he had thought it would be—he regretted letting the other boys talk him into the trip."

In the increasing wind and whirling snow, the going was very slow. They had reached Big Schloss, an outcropping of rocks and low cliffs, after two miles and headed west of it into a section of the trail that was unblazed and blanketed with deep snow. Their compass was little help with an out-of-date and roughly detailed topographical map. They made it to Sandstone Spring, and then saw the trail was easier to follow up to Mill Mountain—a high point on North Mountain with an aircraft beacon.

"The day was growing late now, and they moved cautiously in a little knot. The distance to Sugar Knob was unknown. They did not even know whether they were headed in the right direction. They discussed returning to Wolf Gap at this point." Instead of doing that, they headed up toward a known destination to get their bearings—the beacon. Unbeknownst to them at that point, they were only 50 yards from a trail marker indicating the halfway point to Sugar Knob cabin. Underneath the beacon on an exposed ridge they made camp at 7 p.m. Saturday. The only food they ate was candy, which they had with boiled coffee.

The Second Day

The little group broke camp the next morning after a miserable, sleepless night, taking only food with them and leaving their camping gear behind. "To Benny and Bruce, there appeared to be a feeling of pitting oneself against the elements, a challenge to be met," Conway reported. They found Sugar Knob shelter late Sunday morning with few problems. There all four had a good meal and inspected their frostbitten feet. But Grimsley "ate little and complained of an earache to Benny. They did not consider another, less-exposed route back to Wolf Gap—no doubts as to the ability of each to retrace his steps the eight miles along the ridge to Wolf Gap were expressed."

The weather had turned a bit in their favor by this time—the snow had stopped, and the sun was out. Grimsley and Bruce went back to the beacon at Mill Mountain to retrieve the camping gear, leaving about 1 p.m. Benny and Dexter cleaned up the shelter and left for Wolf Gap at 1:25 p.m.

During the early part of the afternoon, Bruce carried Grimsley's heavier pack while he lagged behind, walking slowly, Conway writes. "While snow was not falling from the skies, the wind picked up the light snow, and at times the blowing snow swirled around them, enveloping them and interfering with visibility." Snow had covered their tracks from the day before. At 2 p.m., Bruce asked Grimsley if he might go ahead and check out the trail south of Sandstone Spring. Bruce told Conway, "We had implicit faith in our scoutmaster, and we never questioned his judgment. We had made hikes with him before, and he usually lagged behind, stopping to rest frequently. He told me to go ahead, and he would see us at the car in Wolf Gap."

Struggling To The Gap

Bruce arrived at the Gap about two hours before Benny and Dexter. Dexter arrived first, and Benny was the last to see Grimsley at approximately 4 p.m. He made it to the car about one-half hour before dark. Grimsley had told Benny too, to "'go on, I'll see you at the car.' He was walking slowly through the snow drifts with his pack. Benny noted that his exposed hands were red and swollen." None of the boys could remember seeing Grimsley with gloves or mittens, Conway added.

Dark arrived with the temperature dropping quickly. Grimsley had the keys both to his car and the Wolf Gap cabin. The boys, afraid of freezing, broke a shutter latch at the cabin, started a small fire and ate Spam and frozen strawberries. Dexter's feet were severely frostbitten. They left a lantern burning in the window for Grimsley. He never saw it.

Morning came, and without their adult leader, Bruce and Benny tried, in vain, to find him. After retracing their steps up the ridge, they returned to the cabin. They broke into his car, but didn't find an extra set of keys. "With some mental anguish, Dexter (with his frostbitten feet) watched the other two boys depart again, not knowing whether they might not return again, to go down the mountain for help." Early in the afternoon on Monday, Feb. 17, the two boys appeared at Noah Barb's home, located on a road east of Wolf Gap. From there, they notified a local fire warden and the local forest ranger, Bernard Eger. Barb took the boys back to the Wolf Gap cabin and then returned home himself. With some help, Dexter was able to hike down the road with the boys to meet the forest ranger.

Eger treated the boys for frostbite, called their parents and bought bus tickets for their trip back to DC that night. Around 7 that evening, Bruce McClellan's father called PATC's General Secretary Ruth Blackburn at headquarters to notify the Club that the boys were safe but Grimsley was missing. President Wallace Haynes Walker learned of the situation after McClellan's second call that evening. The boys made it back to Washington early Tuesday morning. With some interference run by a Washington Star newspaper reporter, Eger soon accepted PATC's help in organizing a search for Grimsley.

Rescue Efforts

By 9 a.m. on a very snowy Tuesday, PATC members Jeannette Fitzwilliams, Alvin Peterson and David Wones were in one car and President Walker, Grant Conway and Fred Blackburn in another—both headed toward Wolf Gap. They arrived shortly after 2 p.m., and Walker appointed Peterson second-in-charge of the search parties, under Eger's directions. A brief time later, seven local searchers came down off the mountain and reported no sign of Grimsley. The PATC members, except for Walker who stayed at the cabin for support and message relay, made a quick run up the ridge before descending by dark that evening. Eger decided to search in earnest in the morning.

By 8 a.m. 30 searchers from Washington had joined the effort. Peterson asked Art Lembeck, chairman of the Club's Camping Equipment Committee, to be in charge of search efforts while he and his band of searchers started off for Sugar Knob. Peterson's group, which included David Wones, Paul Bradt and Conway, was the first out—by 8:45 a.m. "The reasoning in going to Sugar Knob as quickly as possible was that if Bob was still alive he would have to be in a shelter. No attempt was made to search off the trail as it was assumed that later combing parties over the same area would accomplish this."

They found the Mill Mountain Beacon camp and reached Sugar Knob cabin by 2:30 p.m. in 12 degrees cold—"almost six hours to cover the eight miles!" Conway wrote. "And, of course, no sign of Bob Grimsley, since the Sunday log entry." They stayed the night at the cabin and returned to Wolf Gap Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, another PATC member, Earl Mosburg, headed a combing party to the top of the North Mountain ridge and onto Big Schloss. In his party were three members of the Washington, DC, Ski Patrol; two professors; four students and PATC's Fred Blackburn and Bob King. They, too, came up "empty." Another PATC group—Vic Howard, George Brown, George Brown Jr., David Schlain and David Varmette—joined a local man with his bear dogs to search. "This assignment proved to be the most exhausting, as the bear dogs bounded over the snow, including uphill, at greater speeds than was possible for the human followers. Keeping the dogs in sight was impossible at times, and it became a problem to track the dogs."

The last party organized was led by Art Lembeck. His crew consisted of Arnold Wexler, Woody Kennedy, Larry Gage, Alan Talbert, Warner Davis and Joe Scorba. Jeannette Fitzwilliams, who had suggested searching the Dynamite House Road during Tuesday afternoon's quick search, stayed behind, and a local man went instead. Near Big Schloss, in Lembeck's words, "we had gone possibly three-quarters of a mile from the road, some 700 vertical feet below the summit of the rocks and about a half mile below the rocks at a point some three-quarters of a mile from the north end of the Schloss, when Woody Kennedy noticed a suspicious looking mound in the snow. The mound was a green blanket near a small campsite. In searching the area, in a skirmish line formation, "using the campsite as the center of a circle 200 yards in radius, [we] had covered about 90 degrees of this circle when Chester Hughes [the local man in the party] saw the remains" at 11:40 a.m. Wednesday. Conway wrote, "The released autopsy summary indicated that Dr. Robert L. Grimsley died of exposure and overexertion."

Hiking Advice

Alvin Peterson "put his finger on the key factor that triggered the chain of events leading to the disaster. The hiking party made a late start from Wolf Gap on Saturday." Considering the known weather conditions at the time, an allowance of additional time at the beginning would most likely have permitted them to reach the shelter at Sugar Knob, even after they encountered increasingly unfavorable weather conditions. Their problems were "further compounded by a late start again on Sunday for the return trip." More good advice in Conway's article—"Do not be afraid to turn back early if there has been a miscalculation of the weather or other unforeseen factor; a long-range weather forecast may prove helpful before starting on a long hike; and if you are caught overnight under unfavorable weather conditions, such as cold winds, look for a sheltered location to make camp." Dr. Grimsley may have survived the cold temperatures if he had sent the boys down the mountain for help and stayed at Sugar Knob to nurse his earache and exhaustion.

Hiking in bad weather hasn't changed much in 40 years. But there are a few things we can add to Conway's advice. "Adequate communication is a weakness in Wolf Gap," he wrote. If you have a cell phone, with considerable strength, by all means bring it along. We now have the advantage of the Weather Channel, Super Doppler radar and the Internet in finding out forecasts for specific areas—use them. A well-supplied first aid kit should be the first thing in your pack.

Fifty-four-year-old Dexter Legg has never forgotten the trip; every winter his formerly frostbitten feet are particularly sensitive to cold weather. Although his feet slowly healed over several months after the ordeal, Dexter lost all of his toenails. "The one thing was, I probably would have done OK if I'd had better boots and socks. Although we didn't have Thinsulate and all the new materials we have nowadays, I could have had better than I did." Bruce, Benny and Dexter considered the hike a "great adventure. We were all full of vim and vigor, but when we spent that night under the beacon, we all pretty quickly came to the realization this was a pretty serious thing. We should have turned around the next morning and gone back. We shouldn't have started in the first place." But the biggest mistake of the venture was becoming separated, Dexter believes. "We should have stayed together, no matter what." Now a Montgomery County, MD, school district personnel administrator, Dexter has not let the experience stop him from living out of doors. When he was first married and then when his daughter was younger, Dexter and his wife often hiked and camped. "Oh, no. You can't let something tragic like that destroy your enjoyment." He says Benny Yorkoff went on to become a physician, but he has lost touch with Bruce McClellan over the years.

For extended, overnight winter hikes, make sure your family and forest officials know of your plans and ETAs. Perhaps the asset we should rely on most is instinct. If it feels wrong, listen to that inner voice. If you can't tell the difference between hardy and foolhardy, you shouldn't be endangering yourself, your companions and others who may come looking for you. Dr. Grimsley's tragic death is a lesson we can all learn from.

 — Dianna Heim, PA Staff