It was a casual remark exchanged among hikers on Mount Monadnock’s White Dot Trail last Thursday: “Isn’t this a beautiful day to be alive?”
But the words stuck with Gary Cohen.
Just a short while later, the 63-year-old Boston man would slip and fall on his descent from the mountain’s summit, taking a treacherous slide headfirst into a boulder. Dazed and bloodied, Cohen soon found himself on a stretcher, being carried down the steep and rugged trail by a ragtag group of volunteers and park rangers.
And all he could think about was that he was lucky to be alive.
In southwest New Hampshire, Mount Monadnock is said to be one of the most frequently climbed mountains in the world, drawing tens of thousands of hikers each year to its 3,165-foot summit. But as the fraught rescue of Cohen last week makes clear, even a well-trodden day hike can turn dangerous.
Though Monadnock holds wide appeal, it has its challenging parts, including areas with loose rocks and slippery terrain, said Lieutenant Robert Mancini of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. He estimated that officials and volunteer groups respond to approximately 10 medical emergencies a year there.
“It should be treated like any other mountain in New Hampshire, especially in the White Mountains, where people need to be prepared and follow the guidelines set forth and hike safe,” Mancini said.
The conditions on Monadnock could not have been more pristine on the afternoon of June 30, a cool breeze offering a reprieve from the bright sun and the skies so clear at the summit that the Boston skyline 75 miles away was etched on the horizon.
Cohen, a retired tech entrepreneur and dedicated user of the AllTrails app, had back surgery several years ago and was gradually increasing the distance and elevation of his outings. He was nothing if not prepared, carrying, as always, a first aid kit and GPS tracking device.
Monadnock was new to him but well within his capabilities.
Still, Cohen could not have anticipated what would happen once he made the summit and then headed back down. Just 15 minutes into his descent, he lost his footing on a slope, got spun around, and fell headfirst, his skull thudding into the rocks 10 to 20 feet below.
The blood began flowing instantly.
Cohen’s first bit of luck was that his fall was witnessed by 17-year-old Neil Bennett. The teenager was on the mountain with his girlfriend and his mother, Maully Shah, a pediatric cardiologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Shah was snapping photos of the pair when Bennett saw the hiker go down.
“He immediately started yelling, ‘Help me, help me,’ so I knew he was pretty badly hurt,” Bennett said.
Shah, 56, and her son take a trip to the region annually, and together they have climbed Monadnock for a decade now.
For all that experience, Bennett said, “I’ve never seen anything like that on Mount Monadnock before.”
Once Shah heard the cries for help and her son’s shouts, she rushed to Cohen, who was splayed on the ground, blood streaming from his head and splattered on the surrounding rocks. He was unable to move his neck and told Shah he feared potential paralysis.
Once she checked Cohen’s breathing and determined he was fully conscious, Shah was confident he was not in imminent danger. She cleaned and bandaged the “good-sized gash” at the back of his head. To keep Cohen’s neck stable, they fashioned shirts into a makeshift cervical collar.
By that time, two others hikers who also work in the medical field had joined in to help: Amanda Herd Wilson, a physician assistant, and Alicia Lipton Lheureux, a psychiatric nurse. With a 911 call placed, they awaited the arrival of park rangers, who assisted in the rescue effort along with conservation officers from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and search-and-rescue volunteers.
With two rangers on the scene, the small group loaded Cohen onto a collapsible stretcher by sliding a thin thermal blanket underneath him and gently lifting him up. Then they began an hours-long journey over exposed rock ledges and thick mixed woods. The destination: a helicopter landing zone on the mountain, where a Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advanced Response Team was to meet them to transport Cohen to Elliot Hospital in Manchester for treatment.
“It was a treacherous descent,” Shah said, recalling the balancing act of everyone trying to keep their footing while also checking on Cohen. The sun beat down on their backs and their drinking water was being quickly depleted.
For much of the trek, the group only numbered about eight people, including the two rangers — a far cry from the 18 or so volunteers rangers say would be ideal for such a rescue. More hikers along the trail eventually offered to help, and about halfway down, they were met by additional rescue staff. Others included a college student from Northeastern University and a father with his young kids in tow.
Despite his evident pain, Cohen remained upbeat and brave throughout — often asking how the team was holding up, Shah said. He later credited the mother-son duo and all the others as being “angels among us.”
After nearly two decades as a physician, Shah is familiar with “sort of high-drama situations,” but the makeshift “trauma center in the mountain” was hardly comparable to a hospital setting. Their efforts were punctuated by moments of humor and camaraderie, with people quietly taking over more strenuous tasks like lifting when it was apparent another was struggling with the weight.
“The sort of trail magic that happens where strangers came together in a very critical situation,” Shah said. “This was not assigned to us. We just happened to be there. It actually got in the way of everyone’s day, but everyone went home probably with the best feeling in their heart because they helped a human being.”
About 15 minutes after the band of hikers made it to the landing zone, the helicopter touched down. Bennett said the moment Cohen was lifted into the aircraft and flown to safety is one he will remember “for the rest of my life.”
Cohen has seen doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital in the past week to evaluate the extent of his injuries. Although he is waiting for the swelling to go down in his neck and has “a few staples” in his head and some bruising, he is faring relatively well.
Doctors told him that with just a few weeks of rest, he should be clear to return to the hiking trails of New Hampshire.
And he’s particularly appreciative of the compassion he was shown in his time of distress.
“I’m glad that the people around me were prepared not just to have a beautiful day but also a caring day,” he said of those involved in the rescue. “I’m grateful to all of them.”