Family of dead hiker struggles with ‘deepest grief’
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Her son's final text message came through about 4 p.m. Christmas Eve. Jack Holden, a 26-year-old who loved the quiet of the wilderness, was going up a peak in the White Mountains called Bondcliff, famous for its jutting rocks and panoramic views. He would be back by 10 or 11 p.m., he texted his parents.
Sally Holden didn't worry. Jack had been at home in the forest since he was a Cub Scout. He had been an Eagle Scout and spent time in the Yukon in Canada. On Saturday, he had a pack full of gear, including a locator beacon he could activate if he got in trouble. On Christmas, his family planned a big brunch and dinner.
But Jack Holden never came back to his parents' house in Jefferson, in Central Massachusetts. The rescue team that followed his footsteps on Christmas Day from the Lincoln Woods trailhead for about 9 miles to Bondcliff found his body at the summit just after 8 p.m. Sunday, officials said.
His jacket was unzipped and upside down, as if hypothermia had beset him, leaving him confused. He had not deployed his beacon. He may have thought he could save himself.
"It's the deepest grief we've ever known," Sally Holden said in a quiet voice during a phone interview Tuesday. "I don't know anyone in the world who was loved so deeply and by so many people."
Jack Holden almost always hiked alone, his mother said, climbing all the mountains in New Hampshire's Presidential Range and summiting the highest peaks in nine states as part of his quest to stand on the tallest point of all 50.
On Christmas Eve, Holden planned a roughly 22-mile hike, hitting the peaks of Bondcliff, Mount Bond, and West Bond, before heading back, according to New Hampshire Fish and Game Lieutenant James Kneeland.
The temperature hovered around 30 to 35 degrees, Kneeland said, and 3 to 4 inches of wet snow fell, turning to drizzly rain as the afternoon wore on. But Holden had proper equipment: winter hiking pants, a head lamp, crampons, layers and layers of fleece, a puffy jacket, the shell jacket rescuers would later find he had put on upside down.
When Holden sent his family the text message, he reported no problems, Kneeland said — though with spotty reception, it was not clear if the text had been sent earlier in the day and did not go through until 4 p.m.
While officials will never know for sure, Kneeland said it is likely Holden had made it all the way out to the far point of his trek and was on his way back when he got into trouble. Holden had likely gotten wetter and wetter as the day wore on, Kneeland said. As darkness fell along with the temperature, hypothermia probably set in, he said, though the cause of death will be determined by an autopsy.
Holden never made a distress call, Kneeland said, and it did not look like he had hunkered down in the spot where rescuers found his body, either. He was likely still moving when he fell, trying to get himself off the summit. The tree line, below which he would be able to find more cover, was only a few hundred yards away from where his body was found.
Hypothermia sneaks up on hikers, said Rick Wilcox, former president of Mountain Rescue Service in North Conway, N.H. Wilcox, who still works for Mountain Rescue, and his team have performed about 500 rescues in the White Mountains over the past 40 years, he said, and were asked to help find Holden before the young man's body was found.
Hypothermia begins with shivering, he said, but eventually the body stops trying to warm itself. The blood to the brain cools. Judgment falters. Sufferers grow confused and sometimes remove clothing. They feel no cold or pain.
But a distress call likely would not have rescued Holden, Wilcox said.
"Technology doesn't save you," Wilcox said. "You can make a call, you can activate a spot device — your rescue can be six, eight, 10 hours away."
Jack Holden, whose given name was John, was recalled Tuesday as a gentle and generous young man. For his Eagle Scout project, he collected soccer equipment to donate to a struggling town on Cape Cod, where kids would not have had a soccer season without his generosity.
He'd earned his degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in finance, but so enjoyed working for an after-school program and refereeing kids' soccer that he had recently decided to become an elementary school teacher instead of a businessman. He was supposed to start at Fitchburg State University in February.
He loved his family's rescue dog, a mixed-breed named Rocky, and was close with his family.
And he was always up to some adventure. He snowboarded and skied. He traveled all over Europe and spent 72 days on a leadership training program in the Yukon in 2011.
Sally Holden can't understand what happened Sunday. Her son was so experienced, so responsible. He had so many plans for the future.
When rescuers found Holden, it was too late at night to move him. The temperature was dropping toward zero, and he was exposed on the windswept rock. So they set up a tent under the trees and spent the night on Bondcliff with his body, the Pemigewasset Wilderness spread out below them.