Harsh winter leads to more rescue missions in N.H., taxing the rescuers
The number of search-and-rescue missions in the White Mountains, driven by a harsh winter and unprepared hikers, is on pace to surpass last year’s total by a big margin, according to New Hampshire Fish and Game officials.
Colonel Kevin Jordan, the department’s law enforcement chief, said his short-staffed force is likely to respond to as many as 200 missions this year, compared with 173 for the last fiscal year that ended June 30.
“We’re getting a ton of them because people aren’t prepared for the winter conditions we’re finding,” Jordan said.
Last week, for example, a Manchester, N.H., hiker was evacuated from Mount Lincoln after a three-day search that used more than 30 people in its final day.
“We literally picked him off of Mount Lincoln in a helicopter,” Jordan said. “He had a pulse of 40 and was literally hours from death.”
Deep snow still blankets many places above 4,000 feet, rescue officials said. Despite up-to-date information about conditions that is posted at trailheads and mountain huts, many hikers and climbers ignore the warnings, Jordan said.
The remaining snow makes this time of year dangerous for novice and occasional hikers, Jordan and other rescue officials said. Some climbers with less experience who travel from southern New Hampshire and Massachusetts, perhaps unaware of what lies above, can start their hike in dry conditions at the trailhead and later face knee- to waist-deep snow.
“They find it hard to believe,” said Lieutenant James Kneeland, who heads the advance search-and-rescue team for the Fish and Game Department.
Jordan said about two-thirds of rescue missions are for hikers and climbers, usually because they are lost, injured, exhausted, or overdue to return. An additional 13 percent of missions are dispatched for sportsmen, fishermen, and people on vehicles, he said.
With only 32 people assigned to the department’s regular field force, an unpredictable and heavy workload can quickly become exhausting. Eight openings are unfilled, the colonel said.
“Sometimes, you barely get your pack off and you get a call the next day,” Jordan said. “If you get a severe winter, you’ll get a lot of rescues.”
The Appalachian Mountain Club tries to spread the word.
“Our staff and volunteers talk with people every day about the importance of proper planning and preparation when heading into the backcountry,” said Rob Burbank, a spokesman for the organization. “That includes getting the weather report, learning about trail conditions, carrying essential safety gear, and dressing to stay warm, dry, and protected from wind.”
Kneeland said heavy rain over the weekend is likely to cause streams to flood and turn conditions even more hazardous for hikers.
“They will get caught behind some streams they cannot safely cross,” Kneeland said.
New Hampshire is the New England leader in search-and-rescue missions by a wide margin, state officials said.
The Fish and Game Department conducted 1,023 of them between fiscal years 2008 and 2014.
The state has 4.8 million acres of forest, which covers 84 percent of its land area and makes New Hampshire the second-most forested state in the country, behind Maine.
New Hampshire once tried to charge some hikers for rescues, but that effort was ineffective, Jordan said. Now, registration surcharges on all-terrain vehicles, snow machines, and boats help defray costs that can reach $50,000 per rescue if aircraft are involved, Jordan said. A program of voluntary contributions from hikers also fills some of the gap.
The missions are arduous and come without warning, and volunteers often are needed to reinforce the state’s teams.
“It’s very difficult at this time of year to conduct rescues,” Kneeland said. “Every day seems to be a Saturday,” he added, referring to the day that often is busiest for rescue teams.
“We’re just always ready,” Kneeland said. “When the phone rings, it’s never anything good.”