×

Hypothermia suspected in hiker who died in White Mountains over Christmas

  • Jack Holden is pictured during a hike of New Hampshire's Mount Moosilauke. Courtesy

  • Jack Holden poses at High Point, N.J. Courtesy



Monitor staff
Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The weather turned wet in the White Mountains on Christmas Eve, likely sopping a Massachusetts hiker who had set out alone on a challenging trek into the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

The 26-year-old had adequate experience and equipment to venture onto the remote Bondcliff Trail, said Lt. James Kneeland, the Fish and Game officer in charge that day.

But his itinerary – perhaps taking on as many as three 4,000-footers and 22 miles on one of the shortest days of the year – was one that not everyone could achieve, Kneeland said.

Nevertheless, about 4 p.m., Jack Holden’s parents received a reassuring text message from their son. Through the spotty cellphone coverage, he managed to say that he’d be back in his central Massachusetts hometown of Holden – a 2½-hour drive – by 11 p.m.

But he didn’t return. A search and rescue effort mobilized about 8 a.m. the next day, only to find his body 12 hours later, above the treeline near the summit of Bondcliff.

Holden was apparently on his way back to his car, Kneeland said, although it’s impossible to know exactly what happened.

“The temperature wasn’t all that bad that day,” the lieutenant recalled. “We had a wet snow and then it ended with a wet, drizzly rain. Somehow throughout this ordeal, he got wet, and then as nightfall came, he faced that challenge of wet clothing and dropping temperatures.”

“And then there’s things we’ll never know,” Kneeland added. “Did he get overcome by darkness? We’ll never know that.”

Overdue

Kneeland said he’s used to getting calls for overdue hikers in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, frequently because they’ve been delayed by the length of the hike or the depth of the snow.

So when he received the call about Holden on Christmas morning, he first deployed a single conservation officer on a snowmobile, hoping to meet the hiker while he was descending the final, vehicle-accessible 4½ miles.

By noon, Holden hadn’t showed, which prompted Kneeland to call for backup. With three conservation officers and himself at the scene, he assembled the best force possible for the depleted staffing of the holiday.

“Basically, we had no one working in the northern half of the state” except the team searching for Holden, he said.

Kneeland stayed at the base, and his three conservation officers began to hike into the mountains, laden with heavy packs filled with equipment. The wind had blown snow drifts as tall as 2 feet in some places, he said.

It was 8 p.m. and the temperature had dipped to near zero by the time they found Holden’s body, Kneeland said, in a barren area unshielded from the wind. The officers set up shelter below the treeline and carried Holden down the next day.

Hypothermic

Kneeland said the trouble with wet conditions is the threat of hypothermia, because the clothes on your back can “sap your body heat away.” As the condition becomes more severe, movement can become slowed and confusion sets in.

When Holden was found, his outer jacket was put on upside down, Kneeland said, which “leads me to think hypothermic conditions.”

“He had some other clothing,” Kneeland said. “If he could have gotten on some dry clothing, it makes all the difference in the world, but if you’re too cold to get that to happen, then you’re going to be in trouble.”

Based on Holden’s itinerary, Kneeland said he believes the hiker was at least trying to reach the summits of Bondcliff and Mount Bond – a round trip of about 20 miles – but he may have also tried for a third peak nearby, West Bond.

Holden didn’t bring a sleeping bag or tent, Kneeland said, and would have had about nine hours of daylight.

The combination of solo hiking in winter weather presents one of the most dangerous situations that hikers can encounter, Kneeland said.

“I think it’s one of the lessons we try to teach, you know, try to hike with a partner. If you start to have problems, the other person hopefully notices them ahead of time and you deal with them,” he said, adding, “I realize not everyone has that luxury.”

But hikers don’t always take heed of those warnings, he said.

“I don’t like it, but I must admit, while we were at the trailhead yesterday, several people struck off alone,” he said.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)