A late-afternoon storm caught two hikers on an exposed section of the Pine Link Trail on the summit of Mt. Madison in New Hampshire the afternoon of October 7, 2013, leading to the need for a rescue, according to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
Raymond Barnard, age 28, and Stephanie Watkins, 27, both of Brownsville, Vermont, were making their way across the summit of Mt. Madison when they were caught by one of the severe storms that ravaged New Hampshire’s North Country. Heavy rain, propelled by winds approaching 90 mph, soaked the couple and their gear, causing them to have to take shelter amongst rocks in the trail. Dense fog reduced visibility to near nothing, and temperatures began to drop. Faced with uncertainty about the exact location of the trail and being extremely cold and wet, the couple called 911 for help at approximately 7 PM.
Conservation Officers from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department were notified of the situation shortly after 7 PM. A rescue party consisting of two Conservation Officers and two members of the Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue Team (AVSAR) subsequently ascended Mt. Madison via the Valley Way Trail (a distance of almost four miles) and began to search the Pine Link Trail near the Madison Springs Appalachian Mountain Club Hut.
Shortly after 1:00 AM, rescuers located Barnard and Watkins along the Pine Link Trail, approximately a quarter of a mile from Madison Springs Hut. Barnard and Watkins were found to be very cold and wet, but were able to converse with rescuers and put on dry clothing. The couple had utilized sleeping bags and a tent rain fly to protect themselves while waiting for help, an action which may have saved their lives.
Barnard and Watkins were ultimately able to walk out under their own power, following rescuers across Pine Link Trail and down the Valley Way Trail to the Appalachia Parking Lot on Route 2 in Randolph. The rescue party arrived safely at the trailhead at approximately 4:40 AM. Barnard and Watkins were very grateful for the help and thanked rescuers profusely for all that they had done.
Some aspects of this incident help emphasize the need to be prepared when venturing into New Hampshire’s backcountry at this time of year. Both Barnard and Watkins described the weather that they were caught in as the worst that they had ever seen. Rain gear that functioned well under normal conditions soaked through, leading to much discomfort and an enhanced chance of becoming hypothermic. The couple was prepared for a multi-day hike with sleeping bags and a tent. These items are crucial in a prolonged exposure situation, and in this case played a major role in the outcome of the rescue.
Due to the location in the mountains, the signal from the cell phone used to make the rescue call was not strong enough for 911 to get an accurate GPS coordinate for the location of the caller. A coordinate was obtained, but showed a location miles away from where Barnard and Watkins were found. This happens frequently in the mountains, where cell coverage is often spotty at best. Barnard and Watkins had been paying attention to trail signs and landmarks, which was ultimately the best information used to find them.
With the coming of winter, groups such as the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and Randolph Mountain Club (RMC) have closed up many of their backcountry shelters and reduced staff at others. At this time of year, hikers should not count on the ability to get indoors or have other resources readily available. This particular seasonal factor means that rescue response times are going to be longer and that the need for self sufficiency will be greater.
Additional tips on essential hiking gear and notes on preparation can be found at New Hampshire Fish and Game’s website or at http://www.hikesafe.com.