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  • by Chris Stewart

Alone on Mt. Washington

Phil Labbe's Years on the Mountain


At 11:30 on the morning of December 16th, 1981, Phill Labbe decided to turn back. Seven miles up the Auto Road, a mile from the 6,288-foot summit of Mt. Washington, the fury of the “world’s worst weather” made further progress impossible. Constant 100-mile-an-hour winds, swirling snows and a thermometer hovering around eight degrees combined in a savage display of nature's power.


Through the windshield of the Thiokol Spryte snow machine, Labbe peered out searching for some familiar sign to guide his descent. For 31 winters he had driven "snow machines" up and down the mountain, and every rock, stick, and bend in the Auto Road was as familiar to him as the rooms in his Gorham home. That day, however, zero visibility obscured the faint outline of the Road. Labbe parked the Thiokol, left it idling, and stepped out into the raging tempest to find the route. When he failed to return, his three passengers--fellow WMTW Television employees--radioed for help.


"Nothing like that had ever happened to me, and I wouldn't want it to happen again," the 66-year-old Labbe recalled. "I was very lucky to get through it." Those who know him cite other reasons. It wasn't mere luck, they say, that saved Labbe, but skill, courage, and a level-headed determination to endure when others might have given up. His years on the mountain taught him what to expect and his own experience allowed no room for panic.


Labbe's career on Mount Washington began in 1950 when he signed on as an employee of the United States Air Force. Air Force researchers, wanting to learn more about the effects of ice, winds, and cold temperatures on jet engines, had selected the summit of Mount Washington as an ideal testing ground. Part of Labbe's job was to keep the men on the summit well-stocked with provisions--an arduous chore during the snowy months.


"Usually they'd truck up the bulk of their winter supplies before the road closed," Labbe said, "but fresh foods and anything else they needed would have to be carried up." Since the Auto Road shut down when the snows arrived, Labbe and other men had to backpack loads of 50 to 150 pounds whenever stores ran low. “They took us up in the Weasel (a tracked snow machine used by the Army in World War II) as far as the Halfway House, and we'd hike the last four miles from there."


After a season of tramping up across Mount Washington's frozen exposed upper slopes, Labbe was convinced there had to be a better way. Acting on his own, he approached the Air Force commanders and suggested a novel plan. "I told them if they gave me a bulldozer, I could open up the Road in winter and make it passable for snow vehicles," he said. "They told me I was crazy." Despite this initial response, Labbe persisted and finally received permission to put his idea to the test.


"In the spring of 1951 they brought in a dozer and I drove it up beyond the Halfway House where there was a big drift," Labbe continued. "There must have been 100 Air Force and government watching and taking pictures. Half an hour after I started, I was through the drift and ready to keep going, but they decided they had seen enough."


As a result of this success, the Air Force decided Labbe had been right, and so they arranged for a Snow Cat tracked vehicle to be delivered from Alaska along with a Major to take charge of its operation. "He knew all about it because he had been working in Alaska," Labbe recalled. "He drove it up around the 4-1/2 mile mark where he went off the Road and almost rolled it over a cliff. When he got out he said, The heck with this; I'm going back to Alaska where it's safe'." Labbe carefully retrieved the machine, and from that point forward found himself assigned as its driver.


Although Labbe remained with the Air Force for four years and initiated construction of the more direct Auto Road cut-off in 1953 (a wintertime short cut between the 4-1/2 and 6-1/2 mile points on the Road), he saw a new opportunity to use his skills in 1954. In that year, he joined the staff of WMTW Television—a new network which had just begun construction of a transmitting station on the summit of Mount Washington.


"I knew television was a coming thing, so I decided to go to work for them," Labbe explained. According to his boss, WMTW's Director of Engineering Parker Vincent, Uncle Sam's loss was the station's gain. "The smartest thing I ever did was hire Phil Labbe away from the Air Force," Vincent said.


Aside from his wintertime duties transporting WMTW and Mount Washington Observatory personnel to and from the summit, Labbe had a variety of year-round responsibilities as chief of maintenance for the television station. He serviced and repaired the diesel engines which supply the summit with its electricity and he was plumber, welder, electrician, and general fix-it man for whatever went wrong. "He was the man who kept the station on the air," Guy Gosselin of the Mount Washington Observatory noted. "He could do anything--it didn't matter what was broken, he could fix it."


Any list of his labors would also have to include his work as a steeplejack both on Mount Washington and throughout New England. Having no fear of heights, Labbe was called upon to help build towers, install 10-foot microwave 'dish' antennas, and to refit sheared guy wires—chores he carried out 80 or 100 feet above the ground. Under the best of conditions, such work demands steady nerves. On top of Mount Washington in winter, it takes nerves of steel.


"Sometimes a year would go by without a guy wire snapping and other times they'd break two or three times in a year," Labbe explained. "But I've climbed the towers to repair wires or antennas when the ice was a foot or two feet thick." Axe in hand, Labbe has often chopped his way through the ice, clearing steps so that he could climb the tower and do what had to be done. “The towers had heaters, but when the heaters couldn't melt off the ice, I'd have to go up and knock it off," he added. "At times, the guy wires. (as thick as a finger) would be two feet in diameter covered in solid ice."


Like others who live and work on the mountain; Labbe was always ready to lend a hand to rescue stranded and lost people. Still, however willingly he gave of his time, such episodes were never easy for him nor his wife Germaine. "Whenever the phone rang on Sunday afternoon--that's when most, of the calls seemed to come--the voice would say, 'This is Willy (Hastings of the Fish and Game Department)’, and I'd say, Not again'," Germaine recalled. "I worried about Phil, but I knew that if he didn't get up there, nobody else would. Those people had to be saved, and he knew--and he has always known--exactly what he was doing."


Because of his frequent participation in rescue operations, Labbe remembers more than one occasion when trouble could have been avoided if people had used just a little more common sense. One time, in the dead of winter, two men were reported lost after having departed from the summit during a fierce storm. Around midnight, Labbe was called from home. "We drove up in the Thiokol almost all the way to the summit, but turned around because the winds were way up over 100 miles an hour," he said. "As it turned out, these fellows were a quarter mile below the summit in the lee of the wind where they pitched their tent and camped all night. We were very close to them but we had no idea where they were."


Returning to the summit to carry on the search the following morning, Labbe learned that the men had been rescued, safe and sound. The subsequent media coverage of the event bothered Labbe almost as much as the foolishness men's action. “We risked our lives to chase after these kids, and then they put them on television—even our own people at WMTW,” Labbe said. “I was wild and I went to the studio to tell them. The more publicity these people are given, the more people are encouraged to go up there in bad weather." While he noted that rescuers were beginning to receive more credit in newspaper, radio, and television coverage of mountaineering accidents, he believes they've been shortchanged for too long. "The rescuers are often ignored and this is wrong," he added. "They risk everything to try to save other people."


Through more than 30 years of ferrying passengers and cargo to the summit, Labbe experienced every extreme of weather Mount Washington has to offer. Once, while spending a night atop the mountain working on a construction project, he awoke to discover a freak winter rainstorm had blanketed everything with 20 inches of blue ice. Another time, during his term with the Air Force, he remembered a moon-lit night—almost as bright as daylight—when he could gaze out for 100 miles in the distance. More often than not, however, he faced the worst the mountain could dish out when he piloted the Snow Cat or Thiokol Spryte along the Auto Road.


Labbe’s reputation for sound judgement and steady nerves earned him, respect and admiration among those who traveled with him, and part of his reputation stemmed from a keen understanding of the limits of machine, mountain, and men. “The decision of when to leave and when to stay was always Phil’s,” Germaine explained. "If he said, 'We're staying put’, they stayed.” When conditions weren't right, Labbe never hesitated to call off a trip.


For new passengers, unfamiliar with Labbe’s skill at the controls, the first ride to the summit could be more than exciting. "Sometimes a passenger might ask if I’d turn back, and say, ‘Gee, it’s too rough. Let’s stop’.” Labbe said. “And I’d tell him, ‘Well, we’ll just go up a bit further and see how it is there.’ So, we always made it up."

Reaching the summit, from time to time, required tricky maneuvers. “Many times going up and down the mountain we'd hit patches of thick blue ice which bubbled out at a pitch—but you had to cross it in the machine," Labbe continued. "Everyone would get out and put their crampons on and I'd tell them, 'Try to keep the machine from slipping while I cross this patch, but if you can't hold it, let it go'. They always managed to hold it long enough so we got across. We never lost it." This fact alone speaks to Labbe's talent at the controls.


Even with his admirable track record on the Mountain, Labbe had his share of close shaves while driving. Once he set out to the summit and came within a quarter mile of the top before 100-mile-an-hour plus winds and blinding snow forced a retreat. That day, the 15-and-a-half mile round-trip journey took nine hours. Another time, while towing a sled-full of television equipment, he was nearly blown off the Road.


"When we left the Glen House the weather was fine," Labbe said. "In fact, it was so warm the snow was melting. But by the time we got up to the flats, the temperature had dropped and the winds had picked up." At this point, less than 500 yards from the summit, a strong gust upended the sled, sending valuable electronic gear hither and yon. Labbe stopped his snow machine, reassured his passenger, and went out to right the sled. After collecting as much of the spewed contents as possible, he returned to the Snow Cat and once again set the machine rolling upward, but before he had gone 20 yards, the sled again flipped over.


"Then I just decided to cut the shackles and let the sled go," he recalled. Cutting chain shackles with a hacksaw in arctic cold and hurricane winds isn't an easy chore, and by the time Labbe finished the task, another problem surfaced: Each of the four pontoon tracks of the Snow Cat had frozen solid in ice. "I took out a hammer and pounded one track after another until I finally loosened them," he continued. "We spent the night at the summit because of the wind."

The aftermath of this incident proved less critical than it first seemed. Under calm sunny skies the next morning, Labbe and other members of the WMTW staff retrieved most of the $15,000 worth of television gear at the edge of the Road, and Labbe's passenger--an older woman familiar with the ways of the mountain--was none-the-worse for her experiences riding in the back seat.


"Afterwards she told me she wasn't the least bit scared," Germaine Labbe said. "She watched the back of Phil's neck and since he never moved a muscle, she knew she had nothing to worry about."


No matter how experienced, or how well prepared a person might be, Mount Washington is full of nasty surprises. Two winters ago, one of Labbe's friends had a close call on the mountain which--as later events would show--nearly duplicated Labbe's own bad luck. It was almost a case of reverse deja vu.


As usual, the winds on the summit were howling, and, also as usual, snows swirled around Mount Washington's upper slopes. On a return trip down the mountain, accompanied by three other men, Labbe hit a patch of ice and skidded "just off the edge" of the Road. John Howe, Chief Engineer at the Mount Washington Observatory, volunteered to leave the Thiokol and find the Road; he didn't return.


"We waited and waited, and finally when he didn't come back I went out to look for him," Labbe said, “but the wind was so strong that I had to go back to the snow machine." Three times Labbe left the cab to search for Howe, and three times came up empty handed. After more waiting and searching they decided to head back down--not an easy chore considering the elements.


Parker Vincent walked ahead of the Thiokol scouting the route, heading back into the cab for warmth between searching. When he lost sight of the Road, Labbe took a turn as guide and finally latched onto a clear view of the Road between the Seven Mile Post and the Hairpin Turn. "You could not see your hand in front of your face," he remembered. "That's the way it was."


Happily, just as they reached the base of the Auto Road, John Howe appeared. Labbe's sense of deep relief and joy was mixed with frustration. "I laid into him and told him, 'Never leave the machine where you can't see it.’ He told me that once he was outside he couldn't see the machine,” Labbe explained. "But after what happened to me last winter, I went to John and apologized. Then I knew what had happened to him because the same thing had happened to me."


As Labbe noted, December 16th did not begin like most other regular Wednesday shift-change days. "Everything went wrong that morning,” he said. "Something should have told me to stay away from the mountain."


Nothing went as planned. "First I had to pick up groceries at the store, but the truck bringing the groceries was late,” Labbe explained. "That put me half an hour behind schedule. Then, when I got down to base and loaded the groceries into the Thiokol, I locked the snow machine keys in my Ranchero." Another half hour passed before the keys were retrieved. Finally, when he went to gas up the Thiokol, Labbe discovered that the pump was frozen; yet another half hour lost.


Despite a rather tardy 10:30 start, the weather looked promising as Labbe drove up the lower leg of the Auto Road with only light snow and moderate winds. An hour later conditions had drastically deteriorated. Near the Seven Mile Post, 100-mile-an-hour winds and white-out conditions forced him to retreat.


“I turned around at the Seven Mile Post and made it across the Seven Mile Stretch, but as we came across the Hairpin Turn, I lost the Road," Labbe said. In this bleak treeless segment of the Road, at an altitude of about 5,600 feet, few natural markers serve as guideposts. Here Labbe halted, not knowing--literally--which way to turn.


"I stepped out and walked in front of the machine to find the road," he continued. "Usually, I never walk further than a point where I can look back and see the machine. But this time, when I walked in front of the machine, I stepped onto some ice and slid. I couldn't tell you how far I slid, but I went far enough and got twisted around so I didn’t know which direction to go when I stood up."


With howling winds drowning out the sound of the Thiokol’s engines, and thick churning snows blocking out his own view of his boots, Labbe faced some difficult choices. "I walked in one direction and then another to see if I could find the machine," he said. "I did that for 15 or 20 minutes until I realized it wouldn't work. Then I decided to head downhill, because I figured I’d eventually cross the Road."


Dressed in a snowsuit, and wearing hat and gloves, he slogged his way through deep snowdrifts, following a course dictated by the wind. By keeping his left shoulder back to the wind gales he calculated that he'd soon find the Road. As it turned out, those calculations were correct and Labbe probably did cross the Road just above the Hairpin Turn, but he had no way of knowing this at the time. Between one and three o'clock that afternoon, wind velocity on Mount Washington averaged 103 miles an hour.


Instead of moving toward the Road as he hoped, Labbe's route led parallel to the Road and parallel with the Nelson Crag Trail northeast of the summit. Just after he entered this area between the Road and Trail, he found an old telegraph pole which he believed to be one of a string of poles running up the north side of the mountain; it wasn't. This pole stood on the south side of the Road apart from the others and was no help in Labbe’s effort to orient himself. “From the pole I went out in two or three different directions, but I couldn't find anything,” he said, "so I kept moving with the wind to my shoulder."


While 30 volunteers (from organizations including the Mount Washington Observatory, the U.S. Forest Service, Mountain Rescue Service, the Appalachian Mountain Club, WMTW Television, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, Wildcat Mountain, and the New Hampshire Highway Department) had begun a systematic search for Labbe, conditions on the mountain continued to deteriorate. The temperature had dropped from 27 degrees in the morning to 8 degrees that afternoon, and the sun was due to set around 4 p.m.


Between three and four o'clock, Labbe's battle against the wind, snow, and ice had begun to sap his strength. “I didn't have time to get scared, but two or three different times I almost gave up," he said. 'I’d walk into a drift, sink up to my belly, and then have to crawl out on my hands and knees; I was exhausted. Once I even buried myself in the snow--and I thought I was going to stay there--but after 10 minutes I started to get cold and shiver. Then I told myself, 'This old mountain wants me badly, but it isn't going to get me without a fight'."


Pushing on again, Labbe reached a giant snow drift blocking his path. To stay on course, he decided to slog on through. "When I went into the drift, I couldn't see a thing, but when I was coming out I ran into one of the wooden poles marking the side of the Road," he recalled. "Then I knew where I was."


Labbe had finally linked up with the Road, reaching a familiar spot he knew as the Cragway Drift--a stretch of the Road near the Six Mile and five-and-a-half mile mark which often collects up to 30 feet of snow. "When I saw that pole I went over and hugged it as if it were a woman," he said. "I couldn't have hugged it any tighter." (At Labbe's retirement party on May 28th, his friends remembered those feelings about the pole and presented it to him as a gift--dressed up with a mop for hair and other assorted womanly garments).


Buoyed by his discovery, Labbe walked for another three-quarters of a mile until he heard the engines of a Thiokol--one of the four machines on the mountain that day. "When I approached the machine some fellow was shoveling snow to clear the Road," Labbe said. "All of a sudden, he started yelling, ‘There he is! There he is!' They picked me up and threw me into the machine."


This Thiokol--manned by Al Oxton and Ken Rancourt of the Mount Washington Observatory and Motorola employee Frank Hobley--had followed behind Labbe's machine later that morning. Like Labbe, they decided to turn back, though an avalanche and heavy snows slowed their descent. Chance found them near the Five Mile Post when Labbe appeared.


News of Labbe's whereabouts was a profound relief not only for those in the search party and his friends throughout the North Country, but for Labbe's wife Germaine who endured five-and-a-half hours of anxious waiting sitting "like a stone" at home in Gorham. Recalling her elation when the telephone rang at 4:10, Germaine remembered the fears that came before. "People had given up hope," she said, "but I tried to think of Phil's experience and his know-how."


Aside from a slight case of exposure and fatigue, Labbe was none the worse for his ordeal on the mountain. After spending a few days in Berlin's Androscoggin Valley Hospital, he returned home and went back to work until retiring this May. Now fishing, golf, gardening, and a seemingly endless string of odd jobs fill his agenda, though he hopes to find time to write about his years on the mountain if his busy schedule ever allows.


In looking back to December 16, Labbe believes fate was on his side. "I feel that I was lucky," he said. "If a stranger had been in my place, a person unfamiliar with the mountain, he might not have made it." And in looking ahead to his years of retirement, he has no regrets. "I'll miss the mountain since I've been there for so long, but I don't think I'll miss it in winter. When you reach my age, you've got to start thinking more about staying out of the weather they have up there. Perhaps what happened last winter was a good warning for me to get off."


Editor's Note: Phil Labbe went on to live a full life after retirement. According to his obituary, he passed away in Berlin, N.H., at age 94 in July 2010.

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