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'They all could have died'

Six ill-prepared hikers find themselves in over their heads on Mount Washington

By Erik Eisele

MOUNT WASHINGTON — A rescue of six Canadian hikers from the flanks of Mount Washington Saturday has officials urging visitors to employ common sense before attempting summits.
"Wintertime can kill you 10 times faster than summertime," Lt. Wayne Saunders, of New Hampshire Fish and Game. This group was ill-prepared for the conditions — they had one pair of microspikes, which slip on over the soles of shoes to offer traction on icy terrain, between them. "They all could have died," he said. "I find it very frustrating."

Temperatures on Saturday were around 0 degrees and the wind was blowing at a sustained 50 mph. Rick Wilcox, president of North Conway's volunteer Mountain Rescue Service, was working at his store, International Mountain Equipment.
"We rented out a ton of gear," Wilcox said, boots and equipment for winter hiking. But none of his customers reached the summit — the equipment was back by noon.
"It was horrendous up there," he said. "It just wasn't an above treeline kind of day."
But six hikers, all in their 20s, all from Quebec, decided to go for Mount Washington's summit. Their plan, according to Saunders, was to hike the mountain from the west, and if the weather got too bad they would descend via the Cog Railway.
The cog wasn't running, however, due to the extreme weather, Saunders said, something the group members failed to notice even though they left from the cog parking lot.
The hikers ascended the mountain via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, reaching the summit around 2 p.m. With dark only a few hours away and several members of the group suffering from inadequate equipment, the hikers opted to descend the Mount Washington Auto Road.
As they descended, some members were feeling the effects of the cold, so they decided to call 911.
The initial call reported one person wearing running shoes, Saunders said, which, though inaccurate, gave rescuers an additional sense of urgency. Because the group members were on the road, he said, they were able to approach them using a vehicle.
"That does make life easier," he said.
The hikers continued along the Auto Road, and after they got below treeline they recovered enough to continue descending, at which point they called back to say they no longer needed assistance. Rescuers from Fish and Game and Mount Washington State Parks and Fish and Game were already responding, however, and reached the group at the Auto Road 3-mile marker around 4:45 p.m. The rescue team used a vehicle to give the hikers a ride to the bottom, Saunders said.
While some members of the team had gear appropriate for the conditions, Saunders said, others did not. They all carried backpacks with extra clothing, food and water. Only the more prepared members carried extra clothing, bivvy gear, goggles and flashlights.
No injuries were reported and all were transported to Pinkham Notch to await a relay to their vehicles parked at the Cog Railway.
This is a case, Saunders said, where the local Fish and Game recommendation to Concord will be to charge for the rescue. "This is over the top," he said, considering the weather conditions and the lack of essential equipment.
It is not uncommon, he said, for people to plan holidays to the area and try climbs without giving due consideration to weather and trail conditions. "They just have no concept of what it's like at the top," he said.
This sort of thing is particularly common at the start and at the end of winter, he said, when people don't fully accept they need to prepare for full conditions.

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