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Alumni

Mountain Man

January-February 2003

John E.V.C. Moon '52, Ph.D. '68, retired recently, having spent the greater part of his career as an historian of biological and chemical warfare. He continues his investigations, but is the first to admit that sitting at his computer much of the day can make him fidgety: "Because I'm writing, mostly, it's nice to have a physical counterpoint to my research." His idea of a mental break, however, is not a brisk 20-minute daily walk. In July, at age 72, he completed his 101st ascent of Mount Washington, the 6,280-foot peak which is the highest in the northeastern United States.

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John Moon at the summit
"I started climbing mountains at the age of 40, largely in order to do something with my son when he was an adolescent," Moon explains. "I must admit I was a pure amateur. The year was 1970, and we went in June—the worst month to go, I later found out, because of the black flies."

He also learned that if he planned to climb the mountain again, he'd better invest in more suitable gear. "I went in street shoes," he recalls, "and I was carrying a sandwich bag. A climber came down and looked at me and asked, 'Do you realize that this is a very dangerous mountain?' I later found out Mount Washington ranks third highest in number of people killed yearly, right behind Everest and K2." But Moon was not deterred. He reached the summit with his son and, after recovering from being "half crippled for a couple of days," he bought a pair of sturdy hiking boots, and settled into a routine. He has climbed Mount Washington an average of three times yearly ever since.

"My daughter summarized what most of my family think of me when she declared, 'We love him, but we think he's crazy,'" Moon reports. "At first, I had no intention of climbing it 100 times, but then that sort of accumulated as a goal. Of course I had no idea if I would achieve that goal or not, but now I've surpassed it. I have climbed the mountain in all seasons—even in the winter."

He emphasizes that his transition from novice to seasoned climber can be attributed to better equipment and daily exercise—climbing flights of stairs several dozen times, walking, and stretching exercises—and also to a mentor. "In the early 1980s, I became very good friends with a climber from New Hampshire, Charles Reed," Moon says. "Charlie, even at 70, was ice climbing in Huntington's Ravine, one of the riskier parts of the White Mountains. He was quite skillful." Reed died in the summer of 2000 from cancer, and Moon misses him "sorely. Charlie became, in a sense, my constant buddy on these climbs. My son is quite a busy business executive, so he can't climb with me as much as he used to. It was nice to have Charlie as company."

Moon admits he has slowed a bit during his 32 years of climbing, but the balance provided by the physical and mental challenge of tackling Mount Washington and the intellectual work presented by his historical research is what keeps him traveling from his Brookline, Massachusetts, home to the White Mountains several times a year.

"My climbs have taught me to meet hardships by being as flexible as possible," he says. "There's no such thing as a perfect, or even remotely accurate, weather report for Mount Washington—the weather changes so much, and the wind is quite formidable. More than anything else, though," he adds, "I think I enjoy the beauty of nature. Those of us who live in the city need to get away once in awhile and see scenes that are very different. When I go away, the computer is shut down. I just escape."