Three days before her 20th birthday, Emily Sotelo set off Sunday from a campground in Franconia Notch State Park aiming to summit a pair of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot mountains.
An experienced hiker, Sotelo, who lived in Westford, had set a goal of hiking each of New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-foot peaks in the White Mountains before she turned 20.
But she disappeared on her weekend hike, amid dangerously cold and snowy conditions that forced her to turn back after reaching the top of Mount Lafayette.
After a frantic search by rescue teams, Sotelo was found dead Wednesday, on what would have been her 20th birthday, according to her family and New Hampshire officials.
Sotelo tried to quickly escape the mountain, cutting a roughly straight line through thick brush down the northwest side of the mountain toward Interstate 93, officials said.
But as the snowfall and wind gusts picked up and the temperature dropped to single digits and below, Sotelo eventually stopped and took cover in a drainage area.
“I think she ran until she couldn’t do it anymore,” said Colonel Kevin Jordan of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, which coordinated the three-day search for Sotelo.
Sotelo’s body was lifted out of the wilderness by a New Hampshire National Guard Helicopter, officials said.
Sotelo’s father, Jorge, declined to comment on Wednesday, saying it was too difficult to speak.
Sotelo was a sophomore majoring in biochemistry and chemical biology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. In a letter to students, vice provost G.L. Black said Sotelo had become an active member of the community since transferring from the College of William & Mary and was a leader in an organization working to reduce drug abuse on campus.
She had experience hiking in warmer conditions, her family has said, and had already crossed most of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot peaks off her list, but she had less experience hiking in the winter.
When rescuers found Sotelo’s body Wednesday, she was wearing a light coat and shirt with windbreaker pants, Jordan said. She had no hat and only a small pack with a water bladder inside that was frozen. Jordan said Sotelo had three-season hiking shoes but was barefoot when they found her.
Jordan said some rescuers had encountered waist-deep snow as they searched the mountain. It’s not likely she survived past Sunday night, he said.
The search for Sotelo began Sunday evening and was hampered by blowing snow kicked up by wind gusts between 40 and 60 miles per hour that brought the wind chill down to 20-below zero, according to Michael Cempa, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine.
“She was in extreme conditions on very challenging terrain,” Jordan said. “We don’t think she had a clue where she was. I don’t think she could see. My guys couldn’t see up there. There was no visibility.”
On Tuesday, searchers descended the mountain from the summit and located a plastic water bottle and a banana near some tracks they believed were left by Sotelo, Jordan said.
The crews followed the tracks for about 250 yards, which took about an hour and a half as they moved through dense forest and snow, Jordan said. The rescuers were called back as they approached a dangerous drop-off and night was setting in. They noted their coordinates to resume the search the next day.
On Wednesday, rescue crews began ascending the mountain from the northwest side in the direction of where the previous night’s rescue crew had stopped and located Sotelo’s body along the way about 11 a.m. on Wednesday.
“We’re glad we found her because I’d hate the thought of one of my kids laying in the woods somewhere,” Jordan said. “I’m glad we got her home.”
Officials urged hikers to be prepared for the worst possible conditions when heading into the mountains this late fall and winter. Jordan noted that the conditions above the treeline are usually far worse than what is seen at the trailhead.
“This is preventable with experience, equipment, and some pre-trip planning,” he said. “People hike in the winter all the time and they do it safely.”
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.