Pam Bales stepped onto the snowcovered Jewell Trail. She planned a six-hour loop hike through New Hampshire’s Mount Washington State Park. She had packed for almost every contingency and intended to walk alone.
A piece of paper on the dashboard of her SUV detailed her itinerary: start up Jewell Trail, traverse the ridge south along Gulfside Trail, summit Mount Washington, follow Crawford Path down to Lakes of the Clouds Hut, descend Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, and return to her car before some forecasted bad weather arrived. Pam always left her hiking plans in her car, as well as copies with two fellow volunteers on the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team.
It was just before 8am, October 17, 2010. She’d checked the higher summits forecast posted by the Mount Washington Observatory before she left:
In the clouds w/a slight chance of showers. Highs: upper 20s; windchills 0–10. Winds: NW 50–70 mph increasing to 60–80 w/higher gusts.
Based on her experience, Pam knew her hike was realistic. Besides, she had two contingency plans and extra layers of clothing to regulate her core temperature as conditions changed; the observatory had described conditions on the higher summits as “full-on winter.”
Pam felt excited as she walked up into snowy paths. At 8:30am, still below the tree line, she took the first in a series of on-the-trail selfies; she was wearing a fleece vest and hiking trousers, and no gloves or hat because the air was mild. The sun shone through the trees and cast a shadow over her smiling face.
Less than an hour later, she took another photo, after she’d climbed into colder air and deeper snows. She now donned a quarter-zip fleece top and gloves. An opaque backdrop had replaced the sunshine, and snow shrouded the hemlock and birch.
Pam still smiled. Above her, thick clouds were dropping below Mount Washington’s summit, where the temperature measured -4°C and the winds gusted about 50 mph in fog and blowing snow.
At 10:30 am, the weather was showing its teeth. Pam added even more layers to shield herself from the cold winds and dense fog. She made her way across the snow-covered ridge toward Mount Washington and began to think about calling it a day. Then she noticed something: a single set of footprints in the snow ahead of her. She’d been following faint tracks all day and hadn’t given them much thought, because so many people climb Jewell Trail. But these, she realised, had been made by a pair of trainers. She silently scolded the absent hiker for violating normal safety rules and walked on.
By 11 am, Pam was getting cold, despite moving fast. She put on an extra top. Good thing I packed heavy, she thought. She decided to abandon her plan. Summiting Washington was just an option. Returning to her SUV was a requirement.
Strong gusts of wind attacked her back and left side. The clouds had transitioned from canopy to quicksand, and the only thing keeping her on Gulfside Trail were the tracks in the snow. As she fought the wind and heavy sleet, her eyes searching for some type of shelter, the tracks made a hard left-hand turn off the trail.
Now she felt genuinely alarmed. She was sure the hiker could not navigate in the low visibility and was heading straight toward the challenging trails of the Great Gulf Wilderness. Pam was stunned— darkness was mere hours away. If she continued to follow the tracks, she’d add risk and time to the itinerary she’d already modified to manage both. But she couldn't let this go. She turned to the left and called out, “Hello!” into the frozen fog. Nothing. She called out again: “Is anybody out there? Do you need help?”
The strong winds carried her voice away. She blew into her rescue whistle. For a moment she thought she heard someone reply, but it was just the wind. She walked cautiously in the direction of the single set of tracks. Her bailout route would have to wait.
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