When I arrived at Gray Knob Sunday afternoon my friend Juliane, the caretaker for the RMC hut (or cabin as she calls it), had a note on the board to the effect of, "hiked up Spur trail to look for someone." I was surprised she hadn't been back by sunset, and after stepping out for a few minutes, I walked in on her quickly gathering up supplies for a possible rescue. Rope, crampons, ice axe, food, water, clothing.
Having arrived at Gray Knob around 5:30 and done nothing but snack and get water from the spring in nearly 2 hours, participating in the rescue sounded like potential fun, in lieu of doing nothing for the rest of the night, and at the very least an excuse to do some more hiking. Of course I had a relatively raw "trail dog in training" with me, so I was hesitant to volunteer or ask if I could come along, but Juliane mentioned that if I was interested to head over to Crag Camp.
I quickly repacked my pack to head over to Crag. I actually wasn't really intending to summit anything harder than Adams 4 since this was really just a training hike for Colvin and a chance to socialize him at the shelters, so I left my ice axe at home with the idea that if it got to the point I needed the axe then I wasn't going to continue with an untested young dog; otherwise I was fully prepared to go above treeline and assist. Colvin was the wild card, he'd never been above 3000ft, never been above treeline, never hiked entirely at night on unmarked terrain, and never been in 40+ mph winds in below freezing temperatures with limited visibility.
I hiked the 4/10 mile to Crag, but I still wasn't completely sure what happened, who was in need of rescue, or where the person was. The reports were he fell about 200 yards from Thunder Storm Junction, which seemed odd because it isn't all that steep in that immediate area. I believe from piecing things together that he began his fall from a point 200 yards below Thunder Storm junction on the Gulfside Trail, most likely on the edge of the ravine.
In any case, at the time they (Al, Juliane and the RMC) were under the impression he had fallen to above or just below the headwall of the King Ravine, having been up Spur towards that area a few times over the years, I felt like it would be fine to join Juliane and Al (an RMC official). Al was out hiking for the day when the rescue call came in, and he decided to put a headwall rim rescue together before the weather deteriorated. Since we were already at 4400 feet we had a sizable time advantage on AVSAR and Fish and Game teams who were ascending from Appalachia 3000ft below, over possibly unbroken trails.
Of course, Al wasn't prepared for an above treeline rescue either, but thanks to the benevolence of the people staying at Crag Camp he was able to assemble everything needed without any effort at all. If the world was filled with hikers, climbers and mountaineers, it would be a very Utopian society.
By the time we all were at Crag Camp, which is on the edge of the King Ravine at about 4400ft, the weather was beginning to deteriorate as forecast. The goal was to hike up and see if we could reach the stranded hiker from above. With Colvin along, and me lacking an ice axe for descent into or around the edge of the ravine, I figured I'd hike up as far as it seemed safe and turn around as conditions dictated.
Ultimately we made really good time to about 5000ft where Colvin got a bit scared, and the conditions just weren't favorable for a 7 month old dog with no alpine experience. I flashed my headlamp to let them know, and they stopped for a second to clear things. I descended down with Colvin over the wind blown crust, but we quickly lost our tracks due to the winds. I could actually see the headlamps at Crag from my location, so I pulled out the compass, took a bearing and subtracted 10*. The reason I subtracted was I did not want to walk into the ravine, and Crag lies on the edge of the King Ravine, meaning if I headed directly for it I'd be in deep shit. Somehow we actually intersected the Spur Trail at treeline where the wind hadn't blown our tracks away, I really wasn't looking forward to bushwhacking through the spruce without snowshoes had we not hit the trail.
Once back at Crag I could see the headlamps of the New Hampshire Fish and Game SAR team approaching from below. They were at this point about 1/3-1/2 way up the Great Gully of King Ravine, which at many times is an NEI 1-2 technical ice/snow climb. I'm not sure what the late seasons deep snow conditions made it at this time, but it's still more than an easy walk up, and I was certainly impressed at how quickly they were ascending.
Juliane and Al hadn't gone up much further, and got down to Crag about 10 minutes after Colvin and I did. The conditions were rough for them above 5000ft, with the combination of strong winds and spindrift causing limited visibility.
The hiker, Douglas Soholt from Colorado, was underprepared, without an ice axe or real crampons. From what I understand he did have the very popular Kahtoola Microspikes that some feel are crampon replacements. Unfortunately these don't provide the aggressive traction needed on steep terrain with ice or windblown crust. In reality they are slightly more or less effective than a dogs claws on such terrain. Had he had an ice axe he might have been able to self arrest following the fall, but arresting is a hit or miss proposition dependent on snow conditions and steepness (not to mention practice), real crampons might have prevented the fall altogether, but that isn't a guarantee either.
Although he was fortunate to be relatively uninjured even though he fell several hundred feet (reports state almost 1500ft), which is truly amazing, he was unable to extract himself because he could neither climb up nor down without assistance. With the help of Fish and Game SAR he was able to walk out with only a minor head injury (and probably a big bill from the state of New Hampshire).
“It is still very much winter above treeline. Although many trails above treeline are not viewed as technical terrain, they are very icy. And, as this incident shows, unexpected accidents can have dire consequences," Gralenski said. "Micro crampons have their place in hiking, but it is not on the Gulfside Trail or any other alpine trails near technical terrain. Traditional crampons and an ice axe, not ski poles, should be standard equipment in this area. If Soholt had these two pieces of gear, he most likely would have been able to prevent his fall or self-arrest immediately after the fall. Not having them could have easily been a fatal mistake.”
The underlying warning this incident carries for other hikers is the importance of being prepared for the unexpected in the outdoors. “They were not planning on hiking in technical terrain and packed accordingly.”
- Lt. Douglas Gralenski, NH Fish and Game
As someone who has taken a decent fall from the top of a relatively easy climb, I can't emphasize enough how being prepared for the worst reasonable case is important, while also not taking the ease of the endeavor too lightly. Monday morning, Juliane and I were talking about how these little mountains are genuinely hard even in good conditions despite diminutive elevations, and in winter this is exponentially so for the underprepared. I'm glad the hiker was ok, surviving a fall of 1500ft over the lip of the headwall is just pure luck, he'll have a hell of a tale to tell when he gets back to the land of 14ers!
I've already noticed the forums and news sources buzzing with armchair mountaineers and safety Nazis. Bottom line, he made a mistake in gear selection, he fell on not too steep terrain, then continued falling a long way most likely with the help of slick Gore-tex and got really lucky, he became stranded, and finally he allowed the professionals to come in and extract him safely. No need to shut the mountains down, no need to tell him he's stupid, or complain how SAR volunteers and/or paid professional rescuers are put in harms way by others carelessness. The best thing to do from these mistakes is learn. Microspikes are not crampons, and while an ice axe probably isn't needed most of the time, it's a damn good idea to carry one if you plan to venture above treeline above areas with extended run outs or drop offs.
Ironically it appears Mr. Soholt is a registered guide in the state of Maine, a certified wilderness first responder (WFR), and leads or has lead winter hiking and backpacking trips. Those don't sound like the credentials of someone who doesn't take these outings seriously.
All in all Sunday was a productive day, and thankfully so. Monday morning turned out to be precisely as forecast 30+mph winds, with a mix of rain and sleet. Pure nastiness at it's best. When I woke up to this, after a night of constant winds, I knew there was no chance of hiking up to Adams 4, we were not doing anything but packing our gear and glissading down as quickly as possible.
For Colvin it was his hardest hike yet. Sunday he hiked about 6 miles, which wasn't a best for him (he has done 8), but he also ascended just under 4000ft with a total gain loss of almost 5000ft. In total he hiked 9 miles, and gained and lost 8000 vertical feet over 2 days. It was also his first time above treeline, first time hiking at night, and highest point he has reached. Not to mention his first overnight trip, and he was very well behaved. He ended up sleeping next to me on his own mattress after I traded him my Primaloft jacket for the down sleeping bag he decided was specially designed for Border Collies. In the morning he didn't want me to put the mattresses away. Like Caney, I believe he realizes how special the RMC shelters are for dogs, and how much fun New Hampshire is for an trail ready Border Collie.
Interestingly enough, the first time I met a Border Collie on the trail was in fact in NH at Garfield Ridge shelter in 1998. I was sleeping outside the shelter to get away from the symphony -or rather cacophony- of snoring, and when I got up to pee, the Border Collie decided my bag was abandoned. Upon my return he, along with his beanie baby, were sound asleep inside my bag. As it turned out his human companion was using the fleece dog bag since it was so warm, and now the BC was bag less. I threw him out of my bag but made a note that those were cool dogs! 12 years later they are still the coolest dogs on the trail, and seemingly designed for New Hampshire's rugged terrain!