Summer hiking season begins – and rescue season along with it

By: - May 31, 2021 9:00 am
Rescuers walk in a winter field toward a helicopter with snow-capped mountain in the background

An average of 189 in-person rescues happen in the state each year. (New Hampshire Fish and Game)

Memorial Day kicks off the summer hiking season in New Hampshire, and with it, hikers who need rescuing. If last year is any indication, a lot of those rescues will be done by phone. 

Typically, the state Fish and Game search-and-rescue team averages about 50 “non-responsive” rescues a year, meaning someone from the team can talk the person or party through a crisis over the phone without going to the scene. These most often involve lost hikers who need help getting back on the trail. 

Last year, when the pandemic brought record crowds to the state’s hiking trails, that number was 186. There were another 173 calls that required an in-person response from Fish and Game’s 16-member rescue team and dozens of volunteers from private rescue groups. These calls range from injuries, deaths, and drownings, to people with dementia who wander from home and hikers who hit the trail without proper gear, like a headlamp, compass, and map.  

In April, a Massachusetts woman called for help from Mount Monadnock at 8:25 p.m. because she didn’t have a light. A 911 operator was able to identify her location before her cell phone died a minute later. A rescue crew reached the woman at 10 p.m., after she had continued hiking in the dark and fallen 20 feet off a rock ledge. 

The woman had begun her hike at 6 p.m., about an hour before sunset, and also didn’t have a map, compass, food, or water.

The state has been tracking these in-person rescues, which average 189 a year, for a long time. It began tracking non-response calls about six years ago, when the numbers started climbing. Fish and Game Col. Kevin Jordan attributes that increase to a few things, including improved technology. 

“I think we have a lot more people out in the wild, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “And the more our cell phone coverage improves, the more calls I get. When they could not call, they took care of it themselves.”

The search-and-rescue work has not been the only challenge for Fish and Game. Funding is equally difficult, and Jordan noted that both in-person and over-the-phone responses cost money. Between 2009 and 2019, the department spent $3.1 million on responding to 1,890 situations and the training needed for that work. Despite a dozen attempts in the last decade to get state funding, the department gets almost no general fund money. It covers what it can with three unpredictable sources of income: donations; $1 from each boat, snowmobile, and off-road vehicle registration; and the sale of voluntary Hike Safe cards, a program that brought in $200,000 last year and exempts cardholders from rescue charges. The department bills only when a rescue is the result of extreme negligence. In the last five years, it has charged 85 people a total of about $62,000. It’s been able to collect about 60 percent of that, Jordan said. 

That income falls short of rescue expenses, which average about $390,000 a year. In some cases, a single rescue can cost $25,000

In January, Fish and Game team members and volunteers from Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team rescued two men from Mount Lafayette who were running the trail in sneakers with microspikes with no gear for a snowstorm, amid wind speeds of 40 to 50 mph. Their water bottles had frozen and one had lost a sneaker in deep snow. It took Fish and Game, 20 members of the Pemigewasset team, and a National Guard helicopter to get them to safety. Had the storm not cleared long enough for the helicopter to come in, the rescue team would have had to carry the men out. 

“That would have taken a long time and maybe resulted in a fatality,” said Allan Clark, founder and president of the Pemigewasset team. “I don’t know if they realize how lucky they were.” 

Not every rescue is as dramatic, but they often result from the same bad choice: the wrong footwear and insufficient gear, said Rick Wilcox, who’s been with the Mountain Rescue Service in North Conway for 40 years.

“I’d say the theme in the last several years is that we are seeing less experienced hikers and hikers doing this for the first time,” he said. The state’s 48 peaks over 4,000 feet get a lot of attention. Wilcox suggests new hikers start with the right gear and something less grueling like Hedgehog Mountain off the Kancamagus Highway, or Mount Willard and Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch. 

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.