A sadly familiar story in latest mountain hiker death, right down to the trail they took


Monitor staff

Published: 12-28-2022 4:56 PM

The news out of Franconia Notch this weekend was sadly familiar: A hiker set off in the morning, eagerly climbing the Old Bridle Path up Mt. Lafayette to experience one of the world’s greatest day hikes, but never returned.

This time it was Guopeng “Tony” Li, 28, of Salem. Last month it was Emily Sotelo, 20, of Westford, Mass.

Both hikers badly underestimated winter in the White Mountains, and did not carry extra clothing, multiple sources of light, and enough food and water and winter protection to survive if things went wrong. Both were hiking alone. Both missed a trail – easy to do amid deep or blowing snow as darkness falls – and ended up lost in the woods, eventually succumbing to the cold.

And both had come to experience winter on Franconia Ridge, the miles-long spine of mountains that has drawn visitors for two centuries, rising above treeline to provide unsurpassed views and a sense of wilderness that makes it hard to believe that big cities are a couple hours drive away.

The ridge is so important and so popular that it received a $1.1 million federal grant to help repair and maintain it. It is also deceptive: From Route 3 the peak of Mt. Lafayette looks almost within reach yet the easiest route is a hike that rises two-thirds of a mile with the last portion above treeline, exposed to the winds and storms that give the White Mountains their dangerous reputation.

Li and Sotelo each started out the way thousands of hikers do every year: From the Lafayette Campground on Route 3. They walked up the 2.9-mile Old Bridle Path, so named because it is not as steep as many trails in the region making it accessible to people riding horses in decades past, to Greenleaf Hut.

Greenleaf is one of eight high mountain huts maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club but, like most of them, is closed in winter and provides no shelter.

From Greenleaf Hut they took the steep, rocky Greenleaf Trail, which runs 1.1 miles straight up to the summit of Mt. Lafayette. Virtually the entire Greenleaf Trail is above treeline, with no cover. From the summit, both planned to turn right and go south on the Franconia Ridge Trail, which runs mostly above treeline for more than 5 miles.

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Sotelo, who was an accomplished hiker but had little experience in the wintertime, planned to cross five peaks to Mt. Flume, then rendezvous with her mother at the Flume Parking Lot. She never made it off Mt. Lafayette and in brutal conditions – midday temperatures in low single digits and wind speeds of at least 40 mph – she got off trail and may have been trying to head back down. After five days of searching her body was found near the headwaters of Lafayette Brook, 3/4 of a mile from the trail.

Li’s plan was less ambitious but more common: He was going to do the 8.6-mile Franconia Loop, which involves going south on Franconia Ridge Trail about a mile to Little Haystack Mountain, then descending on Falling Waters Trail back to the campground. This is a classic route: The AMC estimates that the Franconia Loop can see 1,000 hikers a day in summer.

Li was described as an inexperienced hiker and got a late start at about 11 a.m., less than five hours before sunset for a loop hike that takes 8 hours in summer. He made it to the Franconia ridge and halfway down the ridge but lost the trail on Mt. Lincoln. His body was found in the woods at 6:25 a.m. on Christmas morning by Fish and Game conservation officers after a search of some five hours in temperatures near zero degrees.

Li’s tragedy reflects not only the danger of going unprepared and alone into high elevations in the White Mountains in winter, but the limits of technology. A native of eastern China, his hike was being monitored by relatives back in that country who were following signals broadcast from his cell phone. They were the ones who notified New Hampshire officials that something was wrong after they stopped seeing the signal.

Reliance on cell phones for maps, lighting and emergency communication is increasingly common among hikers and is increasingly the source of problems, say rescue officials. If a phone runs out of charge, as happens more easily in cold weather, it can leave people almost helpless.

Fish and Game officials recommend all who want to undertake a winter hike to carry some time-tested safety gear, including extra layers, spare hat and gloves, matches or some other way to start a fire, and a map. Modern equipment like a bivy sack, hand warmers, and a headlamp aren’t always needed, but can prove vital when a hike doesn’t go according to plan. Most of all, bring a hiking partner and be prepared to turn back if the weather becomes too challenging.

Despite the recent deaths, this year hasn’t been any better or worse for outdoor recreation fatalities. Lt. Kevin Jordan told the New Hampshire Bulletin that he estimated around 20 fatalities this year, while the average during the past five years is around 22 deaths.