In blizzard conditions, without rescue beacon 'they'd all be dead'
CONWAY — Rescuers plucked four lost hikers off the side of Mount Washington late Sunday in conditions that could have easily have turned out tragic, one of two rescues on the mountain over the weekend.
The four were part of a Bloomsburg University trip. After reaching the summit Sunday afternoon they became disoriented during the descent and were only found after rescuers braved extreme conditions and located an emergency beacon the group had activated.
"It was right on the edge," Mountain Rescue Service president Rick Wilcox said on Monday. Members of his team were buffeted by harsh winds and facing whiteout conditions as they made their way through the dark across the Alpine Garden. Without any way to communicate with the victims, he said, the searchers only had the SPOT rescue beacon coordinates to go on.
"If they didn't have the SPOT they'd all be dead," he said.
"This was a colossal team effort," U.S. Forest Service Snow Ranger Christopher Joosen said in a statement. "This rescue effort, in some of Mount Washington's worst weather, was an enormous success that saved lives within the missing group."
The four were part of a group of 15 from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, according to a U.S. Forest Service statement. They left Pinkham Notch early Sunday morning, making it to Lion Head mid-morning, where five people opted to descend. The other 10 continued, summiting at 12:30 p.m.
As the group descended, according to the Forest Service, conditions began to deteriorate. Four hikers found themselves separated from the larger group: Wayne Ebling, 59, of Cressona, Penn., Rhea Mitchell, 22, of Danville, Penn., Andrew Snyder, 22, of York, Penn., and Kelly Sloan, 33, of Bloomsburg, Penn. They had missed a critical trail junction above treeline and found themselves disoriented as winds built to 65 m.p.h., cutting visibility and creating ground blizzards. The four tried to dig into the snow for shelter, called 911, and activated their SPOT emergency locator beacon.
Fish and Game was notified of the emergency beacon's activation and contacted the Forest Service. The two agencies worked together to coordinate teams in the face of the difficult conditions. Some of the region's strongest mountaineers and most experienced rescue groups battled wind gusts to 95 m.p.h., below-zero temperatures and horrendous visibility to locate the lost party.
"It was brutal," Wilcox said, even for his team members. But Mountain Rescue Service volunteers joined Forest Service rangers and Fish and Game conservation officers to scour the area above the Tuckerman Headwall. Some of the searchers went up the Lion Head Trail and worked their way over, while others went up the Auto Road in State Park snowcats and cut across the Alpine Garden. "It was a great team," Wilcox said, and despite the conditions they persevered.
The searchers found the victims huddled under a rock. One victim was unable to move due to hypothermia, so the rescuers deployed a special bag for warming victims in the field and brought the victim's core temperature up enough to begin evacuation. The team lead the hikers out across the Alpine Garden to the waiting snowcats, assisting them as they walked.
The rescue ended at 3:30 a.m. Monday when the snowcats offloaded the victims to waiting ambulances at Route 16.
This rescue took massive cooperation, Joosen said, including help from New Hampshire Fish and Game, Mountain Rescue Service, New Hampshire State Parks, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Harvard Mountaineering Club, the Mount Washington Observatory, Friends of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center and the Mount Washington Auto Road. "Lacking any of their contributions this mission may have ended very differently."