Missing hiker found dead in Franconia Notch State Park

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 11-23-2022 4:25 PM

The fate of a Massachusetts woman who died alone in the White Mountains while trying to accomplish a hiking goal is a sad reminder of one of the biggest dangers in the backcountry, sometimes called “summit fever.”

The term describes how the goal to reach the peak of a mountain – or collection of mountains – by a certain time can overwhelm a hiker’s common sense, keeping them from turning around when the weather gets dangerous or problems arise. It can be particularly dangerous when hiking alone, without a partner to debate the decision.

According to officials, Emily Sotelo of Westford, Mass., was trying to reach the summit of all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers before she turned 20 on Wednesday. She set out alone before dawn on Sunday morning from the Lafayette Place Campground, with the goal of summiting several of the peaks along the Franconia Ridge, including Mount Lafayette, Little Haystack Mountain and Mount Flume, then getting picked up by her mother at the Flume Gorge parking lot by 3:30 p.m.

Sotelo never arrived at the parking lot, triggering an extensive search by numerous rescue crews who sometimes encountered waist-deep snow. Her body was found Wednesday on the northwest side of Mount Lafayette, indicating she had made it up just the first of the peaks.

Her route using the Franconia Ridge Trail is a popular day-long hike in good weather but winter conditions arrived in the White Mountains this month, making the trail icy, snowy and much more treacherous.

Rescue officials said Sotelo, an experienced hiker in good weather, was not prepared for winter in the North County mountains. She was wearing just a jacket and athletic pants with sneakers on her feet, and carrying a “small amount of food” in a backpack and a water bladder. She did not have any means of starting a fire and apparently carried little if any further protection such as extra clothing, and her only source of light was her smartphone, officials said.

Rescuers from New Hampshire Fish and Game and volunteer search-and-rescue organizations combed the region after Sotelo was reported missing Sunday afternoon. Crews said they encountered deep snow and faced heavy winds and blowing snow.

On Tuesday afternoon, rescuers found tracks and items belonging to Sotelo near the headwaters of Lafayette Brook. Her body was located around 11:30 Wednesday.

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Sotelo was a sophomore at Vanderbilt University, majoring in biochemistry and chemical biology.

The White Mountains are infamous for deceptive conditions that have lured scores of hikers to their death in the past century. Although they are relatively short by the standards of many mountain ranges, their location at the confluence of continental weather patterns means that conditions can change quickly, taking hikers from pleasant conditions in a parking lot to near-Arctic gales after just a few hours of uphill work.

Reaching the summit of all 48 peaks that are at least 4,000 feet tall is a popular goal for New England hikers.

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