It was still dark when Emily Sotelo set out.
At 4:30 a.m. on November 20, Sotelo’s mother dropped her at the head of the Falling Waters Trail — named for its fairy-tale cascades. She was heading toward the Franconia Ridge Trail and the summit of Mount Lafayette, a 5,249-foot peak in the White Mountains with an alpine zone where only dwarf vegetation can survive.
But Sotelo, a trained EMT and a relatively experienced hiker for age 19, was on a mission that Sunday. She had climbed 40 of the 48 peaks that are over 4,000 feet in the White Mountains. She planned to finish Lafayette that day, and finish all of them by Wednesday, when she’d celebrate her accomplishment and her 20th birthday over dinner with her mother at the Omni Mount Washington Resort.
Sotelo never made it.
The conditions at the bottom of the mountain were chilly yet reasonable. But a cold front was moving in from the west, bringing plummeting temperatures and strong winds to higher elevations. As Sotelo climbed, the wind kicked up to between 40 and 60 miles per hour. Snow started to fall. Another hiker out on the trails that day reported to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department that he couldn’t see, even with goggles. Sotelo didn’t have goggles, a hat, or insulated winter boots.
Near the summit, Sotelo tried to turn back. She fled as the wind howled in her face, heading down the side of the mountain. Sotelo’s footprints suggest she tried to run to safety, heading toward Interstate 93, which cuts through Franconia Notch. At some point, rescue crews believe, she lost her shoes, likely without noticing. She sought cover in a drainage area, which would have offered some reprieve from the wind.
In the meantime, her mother, who was supposed to meet her after she climbed down the mountain that day, notified authorities that her daughter was missing.
That evening, an expansive search to find her began. Finally, on Tuesday, rescuers found traces of Sotelo — footprints, a banana — and followed them until they were forced back by the conditions and encroaching darkness. In places, the snow was waist-deep.
The next day, at 11 a.m. on what would have been her 20th birthday, Sotelo’s body was discovered. She had died from hypothermia, three-quarters of a mile from the trail. “I think she ran until she couldn’t do it anymore,” Colonel Kevin Jordan of New Hampshire Fish and Game, which runs search and rescue missions in the area, said at the time.
Her body was airlifted out by the New Hampshire National Guard.
The White Mountains aren’t the Rockies. They’re not even the tallest mountains on the East Coast. But they’re pretty, with white peaks that glow in the sun and clouds that roll over and around them. Christopher Johnson, the author of This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains, says that beauty is what makes them so irresistible — and so dangerous. “The power, the majesty of the mountains. It’s hard to explain,” Johnson says. “People want a sense of exploration and testing themselves.”
Sotelo would not be the last fatality of the year. In December, two more people died in the White Mountains. An experienced hiker named Joseph Eggleston slipped and fell while taking a picture on Mount Willard on December 10. On Christmas Eve morning, Guopeng “Tony” Li began the nearly 9-mile Bridle Path/Falling Waters loop. Authorities found his body the next morning, half a mile from the trail. He didn’t have a headlamp or a flashlight.
And, 2022 was not an outlier. According to Lieutenant James Kneeland of New Hampshire Fish and Game, 24 of the department’s search missions across the state ended with fatalities in 2021, 22 in 2020, and 20 in 2019. (The deaths aren’t only of hikers; they include drownings, suicides, and other accidents.) Across the state, there were 183 search and rescue missions last year — 80 of them in the White Mountains — making for an operation every other day, on average.
The New Hampshire mountains aren’t unrelenting only in winter. On June 18, a call came into the department from the wife of a hiker near Mount Clay. He had texted her: “In trouble . . . can’t move.” Then: “Will die.”
It was already a busy day for rescuers: Multiple calls had come in from hikers who were stranded along the ridgeline of the Presidential Range. Even in June, freezing temperatures, rain, sleet, and snow with winds gusting over 80 miles per hour awaited, which required some of the best rescue crews in the area: the department’s Advanced Search and Rescue Team, and the North Conway-based Mountain Rescue Service.
The teams were brought to the top of the mountain by a State Park truck equipped with tire chains. Then, rescuers climbed down from the icy summit. Four hours after the call for help came in, they found the hiker in a hypothermic state. They carried him to the top of Mount Washington, a journey of just over a mile that took three more hours. A truck took him to the base of the mountain, where an ambulance waited. Xi Chen, 53, of Andover, died at the hospital.
The Indigenous Abenaki called Mount Washington Agiocochook, or the place of the Great Spirit. It’s the tallest peak that’s both north of the Smoky Mountains and east of the Rockies, at 6,288 feet tall. A life force of its own.
For centuries, the White Mountains have inspired both awe and fear: In his 1835 fable The Great Carbuncle, Nathaniel Hawthorne imagined that its beauty came from a magnificent jewel hidden among the peaks, and described “the singular fatality” that attended those who went to seek it.
In the 1850s, the railroad began to expand into the countryside and brought with it tourists looking for fresh air and an escape from the claustrophobic city. Inns and hotels popped up. Summer homes were built. The first Summit House opened atop Mount Washington to house tourists in 1852. The next year, a 110-room hotel opened in Franconia Notch. The Mount Washington Cog Railway leading to the peak followed in 1869. The White Mountains were now major tourist attractions. And people haven’t stopped coming since.
More than 6 million visitors now visit the national forest every year in search of a touch of wilderness and freedom. It’s less than a day’s drive from large cities — New York City, Boston, Worcester, Portland, Maine — and promises ravines, exquisite foliage, lakes, swimming holes, and gorges.
With that many visitors, a lot can go wrong. “Statistics would say something is going to happen, whether it is rolling an ankle or twisting a knee or those kinds of things,” Kneeland says.
But in the White Mountains, an accident that would be minor almost anywhere else — a slip, a twisted ankle — can be catastrophic.
A rescue begins with a phone call. First, to 911. Then the call is rerouted to the appropriate authorities, usually the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. The on-duty officer determines what kind of mission it is — a lost hiker, a person in danger on a river, someone stuck on a cliff — and puts a call out to the department’s specialized search and rescue team as well as the appropriate support groups, whether it be the Appalachian Mountain Club or one of the numerous specialty volunteer groups. (These include Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, Lakes Region Search and Rescue, New England K-9 Search & Rescue, Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, and White Mountain Swiftwater Rescue Team.) The groups put out the message to their volunteers, who are experienced wilderness rescuers.
When Justin Preisendorfer gets the message that a team is needed for a rescue, he and other volunteers snap into action. They figure out if they can skip work or family obligations, grab gear and radios, and go to the trailhead chosen as the gathering point. There, the incident commander briefs them on the situation. Then, they head out.
For the past 20 years, Preisendorfer, whose day job is with the US Forest Service, has volunteered for the Mountain Rescue Service, which specializes in the most difficult rescues. It’s a dedicated and highly trained group of almost 50 people, who are practiced in rope and avalanche rescue and can move proficiently on some of the most difficult terrain in the White Mountains. The group has a strict policy regarding whom it allows into its ranks — not only do they need the proper training, but a board member of the organization, someone who believes in their judgment and ability to work on a team, must vouch for them. Many of the rescuers have been, or currently work as, climbing guides, but they also come from all walks of life — avalanche forecasters, writers, carpenters, teachers, arborists, salesmen, woodworkers, nurses.
When asked what the most important skill is for a person going out on a rescue, Preisendorfer has a simple answer: “Don’t create more patients.”
In an emergency, there’s no time to rescue the rescuer.
Things go wrong in the White Mountains for a number of reasons, but more often than not, it’s because someone wasn’t prepared for the weather.
The weather in the White Mountains is some of the most erratic and extreme on the planet. At any point, the temperature can drop; rain can appear; snow can start to fall in June. On April 12, 1934, Mount Washington recorded the fastest wind speeds on the planet, not counting cyclones or tornadoes, with speeds topping out at 231 miles per hour.
New Hampshire sits almost smack in the middle of the midlatitude between the North Pole and the equator, which cool at different rates, causing two systems of air to collide, right over the state. On top of that, a jet stream runs over the area. Like a highway for the upper atmosphere, it carries weather systems that crash into the mountains with limited warning. When, say, a cold system comes in, it can bring the temperature down 20 degrees in as little as an hour.
Add elevation and you have a perfect mix of elements for extreme weather. A warm front brings a storm, usually from the east and the ocean, and then it has to climb over the mountains, which may have a cold front on the other side that undercuts the storm, causing weather to swirl.
To be safe, Jay Broccolo, director of weather operations at the Mount Washington Observatory, suggests hikers not only look at the weather at the base of mountains, but also check the forecasts coming in from the higher summits.
“The forecasters there will explain what they think will happen but also what could happen given the circumstances,” Broccolo says. “And the what could happen is usually what gets people into trouble.”
Next year will inevitably bring more rescues. What Kneeland and others in the White Mountains want is for people to be prepared. There are websites and programs to help with this, including HikeSafe.com. The proceeds from the organization’s Hike Safe card, for which users must pledge to hike safely, go to fund the Fish and Game Department, which has seen its rescue costs balloon in recent years. Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service created a program where volunteers wait at the base of some of the busiest trails in the White Mountains and check in with hikers to make sure they’re prepared. Hikers should always bring a map, compass, warm clothing, a wool hat, extra food and water, a flashlight or headlamp, matches or fire starters, a first aid kit, a whistle, a rain or wind jacket and pants, and a pocket knife.
Kneeland has worked rescues for Fish and Game since 1992, and his office’s purview encompasses Franconia Notch, where the Old Man of the Mountain used to be. His office is responsible for roughly 80 rescues a year. What he wants to curtail aren’t the regular broken bone rescues, or someone tripping and falling on a trail. “We realize injuries are going to occur and people are going to need to be rescued,” Kneeland says. “It’s the ones that happen that could have been prevented with a little bit of planning that are the ones we try to discourage.” To do that, Fish and Game has taken an extreme measure: charging people with crimes.
On September 5, Jason Feierstin, of Massachusetts, and Dylan Stahley, of New Hampshire, pleaded guilty to reckless conduct charges, and each man was fined $248. The men were rescued June 11 after they were stranded on some of the ledges behind the Old Man viewing pull-off. They had left the trail to climb the ledges and got stuck. Stahley was found relatively quickly; it took five hours before rescuers could find Feierstin and another two hours to get him off the ledge via harness and rope and down to the base of the mountain. Neither man had rock climbing gear.
When rescues are not successful, the toll it can take on the rescuers is huge. Kevin Jordan, the Fish and Game colonel, has trouble shaking the images of the bodies he’s seen — they’re ingrained into his memory. He can still see the fingernails of the dead 10-year-old boy he once found.
Sights like that become “permanently tattooed” in your memory, Jordan says. “And you get help or it goes somewhere in your mind that you can live with it.”
Every once in a while, a rescuer he directs will quit. They can’t take it anymore. Jordan says he would be more worried if his rescuers weren’t affected by finding a dead person on one of their rescues. It’s human.
At first, when rescuers find the victim, there’s a sense of completion — the search is now over, Jordan says. But dejection arrives quickly. At the bottom of the mountain, the family is there, waiting and hoping.
When rescuers found Emily Sotelo, the plan was to carry her body out, but that would take time. The search had already lasted three days. Jordan wanted her family to be able to go home, rather than wait another 12 hours. He called in a helicopter to airlift her out and down the mountain.
“A family member told me once how important it was when you get them back,” Jordan says. “You ended the wait. They can take them home and grieve their loss.”
Kevin Koczwara is a writer in Worcester who has written for Esquire, VICE, and The New York Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Because of reporting errors, an earlier version of this story misidentified a trail leading to the top of Mount Lafayette. It is the Franconia Ridge Trail. In addition, only one truck with tire chains brought rescuers up Mount Clay. The Globe regrets the errors.