Hiker’s parents are retracing her final steps to raise money for safety education programs

By HOLLY RAMER

Associated Press

Published: 07-22-2023 6:56 PM

A young girl chatters to her mother as they descend Mount Pierce, her voice as bright and bouncing as her footsteps.

“You’re amazing!” she calls out to a slower couple she passes on the trail.

Until then, the couple has been focused on the physical effort of hiking, the precision required to step just so onto the rocks and around the roots. Motion, yes. Emotion, no.

But just for a moment, watching the girl disappear from view reminds them of their daughter.

How could it not?

No one would blame Jorge Sotelo and Olivera Bogunovic if they stayed as far away as possible from New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Less than a year has passed since their oldest daughter Emily died cold and alone on Mount Lafayette in her quest to hike all 48 of the state’s mountains taller than 4,000 feet.

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Though she had only a handful of peaks left, Emily had almost no experience with winter hiking, and officials say she was woefully unprepared for the brutal conditions that killed her. After an intensive three-day search, her body was found Nov. 23 on what would have been her 20th birthday.

Within weeks, her family decided to create the Emily M. Sotelo Safety and Persistence Charitable Foundation. On July 29, hundreds of hikers plan to participate in “Emily’s Hike to Save a Life,” a fundraiser organized by the foundation and Hiking Buddies, a nonprofit that educates, prepares, and connects hikers. Dozens of teams will hike in the White Mountains and elsewhere, with some aiming to summit the remaining 4,000-footers on Emily’s list.

Her parents will be on Mount Lafayette, retracing her last steps.

In life, Emily pushed her mother out of her comfort zone and inspired her to become more giving, Bogunovic said. The hike is a continuation of that.

“It’s going to be a very emotional experience, but also a sense of accomplishment, that we accomplished what she wanted to accomplish, and in some ways, she does live on,” she said. “To build on what she had plans for ... I think makes it a little bit easier to handle the tragedy.”

Until they started preparing for the fundraiser, Bogunovic imagined hiking was “just a walk in the woods.” She had no idea how strenuous it would be.

“I thought, ‘Oh, it’s nothing, I’ll just run up that mountain and down,’” she said. “It was really an awakening for me.”

The couple started with flat terrain close to their home in Westford, Massachusetts, before working their way up, literally, to more challenging hikes. After tackling Mounts Monadnock, Pemigewasset and Kearsarge, they attempted their first 4,000-footer, Mount Pierce, in late June. They didn’t reach the summit that day but succeeded on their second try a few weeks later. While experienced hikers typically finish the 6-mile trek in about four hours, Sotelo, 57, and Bugonovic, 56, spent close to 10 hot, humid hours on the mountain that day.

“At the beginning, I was thinking that you can take the mountain with the proper determination but then after attempting hiking a couple of times, I realized that determination is not going to make it,” said Sotelo, a gastroenterologist who practiced by climbing stairs at work. “You have to train for that.”

Accompanying them was Andrew Barlow, the moderator of the Hiking Buddies NH 48 Facebook page. Unfailingly patient, he talked the couple through trickier sections of the trail, answered Bogunovic’s frequent questions about how much elevation they had gained and told jokes along the way. “You haven’t stopped complaining since you got here” was one punchline, but the novice hikers had no complaints.

“They’ve never shown signs of exhaustion or anything like that. I’m sure they feel it, but they’re good at hiding it,” Barlow said. “It’s been a long process, but they’ve been great troopers.”

The fundraiser was announced in April with a goal of collecting $50,000, but by early July, more than $75,000 had been raised. Hikers have committed to raising at least $250 each, and non-hikers who donate at least $150 can attend a post-hike celebration at the Bretton Woods ski area. Hiking Buddies plans to use some of the money raised to offer free “buddy certification” training and safety courses for new hikers ages 17 to 25. Emily had joined the Hiking Buddies Facebook group a few months before she died, but had not participated in any of the group’s organized hikes, Barlow said.

“It just touched us that much more deeply, the fact that one of our own had died,” he said.

Among those participating in the fundraiser is Donna Lannan, 66, of Concord, who plans to hike Mount Eisenhower. A retired physical therapist who has been hiking in New Hampshire for 40 years, she said she signed up for the fundraiser to honor Emily and to support the volunteer search and rescue crews who risk their lives to save others. She was hiking in the White Mountains the day after Emily disappeared.

“It was very moving and upsetting to know that someone that young, by themselves, had experienced that kind of ending,” she said. “It was very emotional for me, just feeling badly for this young woman and her family.”

Emily’s parents will head up Mount Lafayette on July 28 and spend the night at an Appalachian Mountain Club hut. The next day, they’ll continue to the summit, where they will meet up with their younger daughter, Michelle, who plans to hike the two other peaks Emily had on her itinerary the day she died.

The months without Emily have been difficult, her parents said, and they’ve become hyper aware of other hiking accidents.

“Every time something happens, we think of her,” Jorge Sotelo said.

But he also thinks about Emily when he sees families and children having fun, like the cheerful young girl who passed them on Pierce. Bogunovic, meanwhile, said the encounter made her think about an older woman who reached out to her after Emily’s death to say Emily once encouraged her to keep going during a difficult hike.

“She did have that spirit,” she said. “It did remind me.”

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