Perilous Rescues, At a Price

N.H. Fish and Game officers Doug Gralenski, left, and Todd Bogardus help Air National Guardsmen, Michael Fletcher, second left, and Craig Courser during a search and rescue mission on top of Mount Lafayette in Franconia, (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)
By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  February 24, 2008 
NORTH CONWAY, N.H. - An hour after fielding the call last Saturday, the third of its kind in less than a month, Lieutenant Todd Bogardus stood at the edge of a steep trail, barking orders to gathering officers and volunteers in a race to save yet another hiker trapped in the White Mountains.
With winds howling at 40 miles per hour, the sun slipping over the horizon, and temperatures plummeting into the single digits, the leader of the state's rescue team traced the GPS signal from the victim's cellphone. He radioed the coordinates to the National Guard crew hovering nearby in a Black Hawk helicopter, which soon afterward spotted the hiker's headlamp in the high, fog-shrouded snowdrifts of the Pemigewasset Wilderness.
From 150 feet above, the crew in the helicopter lowered a cable carrying a crewman, who snatched up Benjamin Davis, 28, a Suffolk Law School student suffering frostbite. If it weren't for the rescue, he almost certainly would have died.
"I would say he was negligent," said Bogardus, coordinator of the search and rescue team for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, which oversees rescue efforts in the White Mountains.
"His leather boots were inadequate for the hike, and he didn't follow the weather reports. Had he followed the weather, he wouldn't have put so many people in danger."
Since the beginning of the year, Bogardus's team has launched 11 missions to rescue lost, missing, or injured people, two of whom died and at least another four required medical attention after losing their way in the White Mountains.
Such missions, which state officials say are becoming more frequent and more expensive, have raised questions about the responsibilities of hikers who venture into the wilderness at the expense of public agencies. They have also sparked an effort by New Hampshire lawmakers to pass new legislation that would require more lost hikers to repay the state for rescuing them.
From 2004 to the end of 2007, the state spent more than $1 million and devoted about 14,900 hours to rescue 725 people, according to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Of those victims, 28 percent were rescued in 2007.
Last fiscal year, the department spent more than $257,000 on rescue operations and for the first time ended the year with a deficit in its search and rescue account.
State officials and local mountaineers in part blame a growing class of novice adventurers, many of whom gain false confidence from new GPS devices, cellphones, and flashy gear from proliferating outdoor stores such as REI and Eastern Mountain Sports.
In recent years, Brad White, the director of the International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway, has received more and more calls from people in the mountains asking for help.
"People call and say, `I think I'm lost," he said. "They have a GPS system, but they don't know how to use it to figure out the coordinates. Sometimes, when we send the calls to Fish and Game, they say they've figured out they're still on the trail. There are lots of calls these days from people who just want someone to come in and get them, but it just doesn't happen like that."
He and others who have helped rescue lost hikers tell stories of people venturing deep into the mountains without compasses or maps. They rely on GPS devices and cellphones, but then the batteries die. Last Monday, two Virginia men caught in a torrential rain storm and 5-foot-deep snow got lost when they followed their GPS the wrong way. It took rescuers two days to find Alex Obert, 30, and Steven McCay, 29, of Arlington, Va., who were on a 19-mile trek across the Presidential Range in the White Mountains. As the men tried to make their way out of the Dry River Wilderness on the south side of Mount Washington, a helicopter crew found their tracks in the snow.
In a phone interview at his home, Obert described himself and McCay as experienced hikers who had previously trekked in the area and had come prepared with GPS, two-way radios, avalanche beacons, cellphones, and topographical maps. He said they were victims of the extreme weather and had trouble following their GPS, because they kept losing the signal.
"We took everything seriously," Obert said. "But if people are found negligent, I think it's valid they pay the state back. But I don't feel we were negligent."
The New Hampshire House is considering a bill that would change the language of a 1999 state law that allows public agencies to recoup expenses from those who "recklessly or intentionally create a situation requiring an emergency response."
"People doing dumb things have to be held accountable," said Dennis Abbott, chairman of the New Hampshire House's Fish and Game Committee, which will vote on the bill in coming weeks. "They're not just putting themselves in harm's way. They're putting a lot of other people in harm's way, and there needs to be some responsibility."
The proposed new language, which Abbott expects will become law this spring, would lower the threshold for the public to compel repayment. The bill changes the language of the law from "recklessly" to "negligently" prompting an emergency response. For those who don't pay, the bill would allow the state to suspend the person's driver's license and other state licenses.
The difference, he and others said, is that "reckless" implies someone who becomes aware of a substantial risk and consciously disregards that risk; a "negligent" person is someone who fails to become aware of the risk that a reasonable person should have been aware of.
It is much harder to prove someone was reckless. For example, Bogardus and other officers said it would be much easier to make the case that Laurence Frederickson, 55, of South Sutton, N.H., and James Osborne, 36, of Manchester, N.H., were negligent when they set out on a 9-mile hike on Feb. 11 along the Franconia Ridge Loop without emergency gear, such as a protective bivouac to survive subzero nights and sudden whiteouts, despite a poor weather forecast. They eventually ran into a wall of snow, wind, and subzero temperatures, which left Frederickson dead and Osborne suffering hypothermia and severe frostbite. Like the other searches, the rescue cost the state thousands of dollars.
"They were certainly not fully prepared for an emergency situation, and when an emergency situation came about, they did not have adequate gear to help them survive," Bogardus said. "They failed in proper planning, in not assessing weather patterns."
Osborne, who was admitted to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., declined to comment. Frederickson's relatives could not be reached.
Over the past decade, the state has had little success in recovering costs from reckless hikers. Fifteen people or groups repaid the state $23,780, less than half what the state says it paid for their rescues, according to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
Another approach, which has worked in the past, is what Rick Wilcox, the state's dean of mountaineering, calls "mandatory donations."
Over the last 30 years, Wilcox, president of Mountain Rescue Service and owner of International Mountain Equipment in North Conway, estimates he has helped organize about 450 rescue missions, including one effort in 1981 that ended with the death of a member of his rescue team. Since then, when he finds obvious negligence, he lets survivors know that donations to the Mountain Rescue Service, composed of about 50 volunteer mountaineers, should be in order.
"It's one thing to break a leg and need to be carried out, but if you ignore weather reports and go without night gear, that's stupidity, and in those cases, I think a mandatory donation is appropriate," he said.
Some mountaineers on the rescue team don't think the law should change.
They wonder where the negligence line would be drawn; would someone hiking in jeans or with old equipment be considered negligent?
"You can't keep hikers to a higher standard than people on the street," said Silas Rossi, a guide in the White Mountains who has helped rescue those whose plans went awry. "Accidents happen, no matter how prepared you are."
But state officials argue the expense, danger, and manpower needed for mountain rescues make them different from emergency situations in everyday life. As calls for mountain rescues have increased in recent years, they insist the law must change.
Among the supporters of the new bill is New Hampshire Army National Guard Staff Sergeant Matt Stohrer, who served on the last three helicopter rescue missions in the White Mountains.
Last Saturday, after the call came over the radio from Bogardus, he was lowered from the helicopter hovering over Benjamin Davis into 6 feet of snow and 80-mile-per-hour winds from the blades of the Guard's Black Hawk.
"I would describe these missions as more dangerous than getting shot at in Iraq," said Stohrer, who spent two years there.
On the ground, Stohrer detached himself from the cable and detonated a smoke grenade marking his position on the mountain with billows of red. He screamed over the roar, ordering Davis to walk through the snow toward him immediately.
Davis did not return repeated calls, and his mother declined to comment when reached at their home in Pennsylvania.
Stohrer said Davis struggled through the chest-deep snow in bare feet, because he had taken off his wet boots during the night in an attempt to dry them.
"They're putting all the rescuers' lives at risk," Stohrer said, "and I don't think that's right."
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.