Mount Monadnock staffers offer safety tips for hikers
Published: 02-07-2024 9:05 AM
Modified: 02-09-2024 3:23 PM
On Friday, Jan. 19, when the sun set at 4:44 p.m., three adults hiking Mount Monadnock for the first time were still on the mountain.
They’d begun their ascent at 9 a.m., and should have been back from what’s usually a four-hour round-trip trek.
But above the tree line, everything looks the same, and the group lost the trail several times. This is true especially in the winter, and in the dark. The trails were icy, but the park store manager had outfitted the trio with micro-spikes before they set off.
The temperature bottomed out at minus-10 that night, with the wind chill. Shortly after 5 p.m., rescuers called the hikers and captured their GPS coordinates.The hikers followed rescuers’ directions to a spot on the trail below the tree line, but they could go no further because they had no flashlights and their phone batteries were nearly dead.
After much coordination, and many hours of work by dozens of rescuers, all three hikers were brought to safety. Two walked out, and one had to be carried.
Park Manager Will Kirkpatrick, Assistant Park Manager Mary Shotton and Chief of Mountain Patrol David Targan broke down what wrong and mistakes hikers make: trying new things and getting in over their heads sometimes, underestimating the hike and continuing to go despite warning signs.
Kirkpatrick is an outdoorsman, but he’s no Grizzly Adams. Clean-shaven and bespectacled, he’s more the kindly professor: philosophical, generous and patient with his students.
“A big reason that I took this job is because I love that for many of the people who come to Mount Monadnock, it’s their first serious mountain. They are trying out brand-new gear, getting into new situations, and pushing themselves,” Kirkpatrick said.
Targan added, “Monadnock is a good stepping stone for getting ready to do something bigger. If hikers are able to hike Monadnock, they have taken a big step that can prepare them to hike some of the bigger peaks in the White Mountains, or even in Alaska, the Andes and the Himalayas. People use Monadnock to test themselves and train for bigger mountains. Mistakes they make on Monadnock will normally not have the same consequences as they would in the winter White Mountains or other higher peaks.”
Of the 100,000 people who hiked Mount Monadnock last year, 50 needed some level of rescue. Only two needed to be carried out.
Day in and day out, Kirkpatrick and his team educate and encourage. Most hikers never need to be rescued because they are physically and mentally prepared, and know when to call it a day. Hikers have to be able to turn around when the weather turns sour, if they don’t have enough daylight, if their knee is acting up or they’re not prepared for the cold or the wind.
Kirkpatrick recalls hiking the White Dot trail last winter. He was only 200 feet from the summit, when “the wind roared like a freight train and I didn’t think I could get there safely. I turned around and felt totally fine about it. I was there for the hike and felt zero need to tag the benchmark.”
Most hiking injuries happen on the way down.
“People have a tendency to turn their brain off once they reach the summit,” Kirkpatrick said.
By the time hikers reach the summit, they are tired and dehydrated. They might be sweaty, but also chilled, and they don’t think about the hike down, which requires more focus and coordination, and often more time. Gravity is much worse going down. A fall might mean a broken leg or arm. It’s harder to safely break a fall when traveling down-hill.
Information is shared with visitors as soon as they check into the park. They get the sunset talk: how much daylight is left? Do they have the right footwear, enough to drink, food, warm clothes, lights? Are they experienced?
Last week,Shotton convinced a man wearing Crocs that he would be better off returning another day with boots and micro-spikes. All winter long, those who show up without hiking spikes are happy to hear that they can rent a pair for just $10 at the park store.
Winter hiking used to be about bragging rights for the few, but each year, more people are hitting the icy and snowy trails. The park store has rented and sold micro-spikes since 2017.
Targan and his team are always ready to help a hiker in distress, but they insist that every hiker must be prepared to rescue themselves. Hikers are responsible for their own safety.
New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Hike Safe program educates hikers, providing packing/gear lists and the hiker responsibility code, and other resources. Hikers can purchase a Hike Safe card for $35 per family or $25 per individual to support New Hampshire’s outdoor education efforts.
The card can be used by anyone hiking, paddling, cross-country skiing or engaging in other outdoor recreation. People who obtain the cards are not liable to repay rescue costs if they need to be rescued.
Individuals may still be liable for response expenses if their actions are deemed reckless or negligent as defined in state law. For information, go to wildlife.nh.gov/get-outside/hiking-safety.
Impact of cellphones and GPS
Targan remembers the pre-cellphone days, when his team went into full rescue mode each time an injured or distressed hiker was reported. Now, rather than defaulting to an automatic rescue, they offer advice. Often, a hiker just needs to rest and hydrate before continuing on. Or they need a hiking pole or a headlamp so that they can self-rescue to avoid a bigger rescue operation.
According to Targan, the biggest challenge to hiker safety at Mount Monadnock is its reputation.
“Being known as the second-most climbed mountain in the world, people come here thinking that if 100,000 others are hiking it this year, then they should be able to as well,” he said. “This ‘anyone can do it’ reputation makes it harder to convince people that sometimes it’s a good idea to turn around.”
When cellphones first became popular, Targan thought people would do riskier things, reasoning that help was just a phone call away. While it has proven true in some cases, it has not been the problem he feared.
Early cellphone rescue calls were more of a problem, because they lacked GPS. Some hikers called at the first sign of trouble. They had no map, and no idea where they were, instead saying something like “I’m near a big tree and some rocks.”
When Mountain Patrol reported lost hikers to the Jaffrey and Dublin police departments, officers would park patrol cars on Route 124 and Route 101 and roll the blue lights.
“Do you see any flashing lights?” Targan would ask. The hikers were either then talked down, or crews hiked up to them and guided them down.
Today, it’s the GPS function on cellphones that helps rescuers. Targan said.
“In New Hampshire we are fortunate to have one of the best 911 systems in the U.S.,” Targan said. “They can determine the caller’s precise location within seconds, based upon the signal sent by the GPS in most cellphones.”
This only works when the phone has power and cell reception. Hikers shouldn’t use their phones as multitools, draining the battery by using its flashlight and mapping features. Hiker should carry a map and have extra batteries for flashlights, saving the cellphone for emergencies.
Shotton urges new hikers to find a hiking buddy, by connecting with other hikers via social media groups and local conservation or outing clubs like the Harris Center at harriscenter.org or the Monadnock Conservancy at monadnockconservancy.org.
Hikers are encouraged to look for groups that include people who know Monadnock very well, and are happy to share their experiences and lessons learned.
The Appalachian Mountain Club is also a resource for books and workshops to help hikers gather the knowledge they will need to increase their skills and their confidence on the trails.
The following is on the Hike Safe sign at Monadnock State Park.
You are responsible for:
-- Knowledge and gear. Become self-reliant by learning about the terrain, conditions, local weather and your equipment before you start.
-- To leave your plans. Tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you’ll return and your emergency plans.
-- To stay together. When you start as a group, hike as a group, end as a group. Pace your hike to the slowest person.
-- To turn back. Weather changes quickly in the mountains. Fatigue and unexpected conditions can also affect your hike. Know your limitations and when to postpone your hike. The mountains will be there another day.
-- For emergencies. Even if you are headed out for just an hour, an injury, severe weather or a wrong turn could become life-threatening. Don’t assume you will be rescued; know how to rescue yourself.
-- To share the hiker code with others.
Other hiking tips
Reservations: During the busiest months, day pass reservations are required. This policy was adopted during COVID and remains a permanent policy to protect the hiker experience and mitigate trail erosion from overuse. Make reservations at nhstateparks.org/find-parks-trails/monadnock-state-park.
Music: Use earbuds, so other hikers can hear the sounds of nature.
Drones are strictly prohibited
Dogs are not allowed.
Groups should break into smaller groups of 10 to lower overall impact on trails and fellow hikers.