CONWAY — Officials are defending a $7,000 bill the state handed a Massachusetts woman for her rescue after she got lost in the White Mountain National Forest last year, but the rescue volunteers who led her out of the woods call it unjustified.
"She just had some bad luck," said Steve Larson, one three members of the North Conway-based Mountain Rescue Service who led Julie Horgan off Mount Jackson. She had spent the night in zero-degree temperatures enduring 50-mile-per-hour winds near the summit of the 4,052 foot mountain.
"We all expected a much worse scenario than what we found," he said. "She was in much better shape than I would have been had I gone through what she went through."
Horgan, 62, of Milton, Mass., was aware inclement weather was forecasted for the higher summits on March 26, 2011, the day of her hike. but she wasn't especially concerned. She had 14 years experience, she said, and had done the hike before nine times, including several winter ascents.
"This was really just supposed to be an easy day hike," she said. The forecast was a consideration, but "above treeline for Mount Jackson is literally five minutes."
She made her way to the summit without issue, but when she turned to go down something went wrong.
"I thought I was on the right trail," she said. "I thought it was covered in snow."
But she wasn't. As she worked her way down to the trees the trail she was following petered out. Blowing snow covered her snowshoe tracks. "I couldn't for the life of me find the trail," she said.
By 2:45 p.m. she realized she was lost. She called the Appalachian Mountain Club's Highland Center on her cell phone, she said, and asked if someone could come up so she could find the trail. The AMC contacted the Department of Fish and Game.
"When the AMC said we called Fish and Game I said no, please no," Horgan said, but a conservation officer was already on the way up to try to connect with her. She was told to stay where she was, so she did.
The searchers got to the top of the mountain around 8 p.m. "By that time it was dark, very very windy," Horgan said. She couldn't see or hear anyone, leaving her no better indication where she was. "So I spent the night."
She had enough clothing to endure the well below freezing temperatures, and she found a spot among the trees that was relatively sheltered.
"My head never got cold. My hands never got cold. When I did get cold I did jumping jacks," she said. "I spent the night and I was OK."
In the morning, around 9:45 a.m., she looked up to see a National Guard helicopter fly overhead. It was part of the search for her, she figured, so she waved. About four minutes later three local mountaineers who are members of the volunteer Mountain Rescue Service appeared. "We just walked down," she said.
"It was pretty brutal. We were certainly anticipating some injuries," Alain Comeau, one of the three rescuers, said at the time. "It was a surprise to find her in good health. She was well equipped. She did everything right."
The state, however, did not see it that way. Horgan had the gear and the skills to survive hostile conditions, Maj. Kevin Jordan of the Department of Fish and Game's law enforcement division said, but "that's a separate action than what got her into this situation."
What got her into the situation were a series of errors in judgment, he said. She did not heed weather warnings, bring adequate navigation equipment or pack extra food. "The whole situation could have been avoided completely."
The bill Horgan received would have been for $7,471.74, Jordan said, to offset the Fish and Game Department's expenses, but Horgan donated $500 to the New Hampshire Outdoor Council, an organization that supports search and rescue groups around the state. The state applied that donation to her bill, leaving Horgan a $6,971 balance.
"That comes from the expenses for the rescue to go and get her," Jordan said.
It does not, however, include the cost of the National Guard helicopter, he said, or the services of the multiple volunteer groups that responded. It covered the cost of the 12 Fish and Game conservation officers who responded, he said. The department had people above treeline all night.
The Sun has requested a copy of the bill, along with other documentation on Horgan's rescue, under the state Right To Know law. The chief of law enforcement for Fish and Game said in a letter it will take at least 60 days to review the request.
Volunteer rescuers and others, meanwhile, said the state is trying to balance the Fish and Game search and rescue budget on the backs of hikers who simply suffer accidents.
"This is all a desperate attempt to extract money from hikers and climbers," said Rick Wilcox, the president of Mountain Rescue Service. "We don't think think they're going in the right direction by billing the type of hiker this lady represents."
"They are continually lowering the bar," Steve Larson said. It used to be someone had to exhibit reckless behavior to get charged for their rescue. Horgan got lost on a day hike and survived an intolerable night.
"She was in a terrible place, and it was freezing cold," he said. "All she needed was to be shown the way."
Even Jeb Bradley, the avid hiker and Republican state senator who represents most of the Mount Washington Valley, has questions.
"Any hiker who needs to be rescued should be prepared to pay," he said, but the bill should be a standard fee around $800 or $1,000. "I'm not exactly sure why she's being charged the full boat here."
"They have to be reckless and negligent before they're charged," Maj. Jordan said, which Horgan was.
"Am I negligent because I got lost?" Horgan said. "I guess that's the question."
In the past, according to Wilcox, the reckless and negligent designation was reserved people like the Appalachian Trail through-hiker who got so drunk and stoned he collapsed on the trail.
"Sixteen people had to drag him out," Wilcox said.
"I can agree with the law with the original intention," he said, but "I think they crossed the line with this lady."
Horgan's rescue and bill, however, is only a symptom of the larger struggle for Fish and Game faces. Hikers and climbers make up just over half the rescues the department responds to, many of which are expensive and time consuming, but unlike fishermen, hunters, snowmobile operators and ATV drivers, hikers don't contribute to the search and rescue fund, an account that has seen growing deficits year after year.
"These are the people demanding the lion's share of the rescues," Jordan said, and yet they aren't paying for them. There is no license required for hiking. There are no registration fees for hiking boots. Licenses fees and registrations are what fund the Fish and Game search and rescue budget. "Therein lies the problem."
Rescue volunteers understand the problem, but they worry about the implications of that approach.
"We don't want people to feel threatened if they call for help," Wilcox said. Concerns about being handed a bill could persuade people to wait until it's too late, which could turn more rescues into body recoveries.
And that wouldn't help anyone. The department does not charge for searches that end in a body recovery, according to Jordan, even in cases of gross negligence.
The department implored the legislature not to "put us in a position where we have to do that," he said.
But without billing hikers, however, where will the money come from?
"The state of New Hampshire spends a lot of money encouraging people to come up here," Larson said. The state relies on the tourism dollars generated by those visitors. "These rescues should be the cost of doing business."
That's a funding method Jordan also would like to see implemented.
"The fair answer is rooms and meals," he said. "That's where the money for this should come from."
But Bradley, who has looked at that possibility, disagrees.
"What other program do we want to cut?" he said.
This year the legislature allocated $50,000 of the general fund for the search and rescue fund, he said, in recognition of the problem. "It was a first step," he said.
But the account is still looking at a deficit well in excess of $50,000, according to Jordan. In 2011 it was overspent by $166,992. That leaves the department trying to make up the difference with bills. "Make no mistake," he said, "this is not the answer."
"I know what the answer is," he said, referring to the rooms and meals tax, "I just don't know how to get there."
Wilcox, meanwhile, doesn't want to see rescue bills hurt the relationship between the state and the hikers who make up the volunteer groups that support rescues in the White Mountains, a relationship that goes back four decades in Mountain Rescue Service's case.
"It's a super system," he said. MRS volunteers have responded to 500 rescues since the group was formed. "How about a bill on that?"