Unprepared Katahdin Hikers Burden Baxter Park Staff

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 10/25/04

The park doesn’t require reimbursement by those rescued. Caverly suggested to the trustees that they might consider it in the future to apply to individuals "who say they have a right to go" hiking in hazardous weather conditions.

On the night of July 18, 2004, rain and fog shrouded Katahdin, and three women – one of them 81 years old – hovered in the dark on the mountain’s high plateau.

Loretta Copeland of Ocala, Florida, was so tired from the 5.2-mile hike up the Hunt trail to the 5,267-foot summit that she couldn’t make it back down. Her 65-year-old companions, Nancy Keegan of West Palmetto, Florida, and Patty Faith from Altoona, Pennsylvania, were not able to leave her. A lone hiker who happened to come across the trio, decided to stay with them for support.

The rangers at Katahdin Stream campground were notified by returning hikers that Loretta Copeland needed help. Searchers proceeded up the trail for two-and-a-half hours. At 11 p.m., they still hadn’t found the women and turned back because the weather made it too risky to continue.

Rangers were enroute again by 7 a.m. When they finally located the women, they placed Copeland on a stretcher. The evacuation off the mountain took six hours. Copeland was transported by ambulance to the Millinocket hospital and kept overnight for observation.

On September 1, a party that included 82-year-old Fleetwood Pride Jr. of Belfast was caught by surprise in bad weather on Katahdin’s steep Knife Edge. Rain, high winds and falling temperatures stranded them there, but the hikers had a cell phone and reported their plight. A team reached them with sleeping bags, tents, a portable stove and warm liquids. After getting warm and eating, all the hikers but Pride descended to Chimney Pond with the rescuers. Ranger Rob Tice stayed with Pride, who was airlifted off the plateau the next morning by the 112th Maine Army National Guard Unit from Bangor.

Another 81-year-old woman who climbed Katahdin was so exhausted by the hike that, like Copeland, couldn’t make it down. She spent the night somewhere on the mountain and walked down by herself.

The search and rescue efforts were highlighted by park director Buzz Caverly at the October 15 meeting of the Park Authority because "it was amazing" to have people in that age category on Katahdin. "Older people decided it was time to conquer Katahdin, without realizing you don’t conquer the mountain," he observed.

Dan Martin, one of the authority’s three members and head of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, responded that his agency is "seeing the same thing" with search and rescue of more older people outdoors. "These are people in their 70s, 80s, early 90s," he said. "They give out . . . are ill-prepared." It’s especially difficult for searchers to find lost seniors who have made "tragic mistakes" and paid with their lives, Martin said.

Baxter Park had 33 search and rescues during the regular 2004 camping season. Two people died – one of them on Katahdin. Caverly estimated that 100,000 people visited the park this year and that 50,000 of them climbed Katahdin, the state’s highest mountain. Thirty-three incidents may not seem like a high number, given park use level, he said, but search and rescue is increasingly costly to the park.

The park’s fiscal 2004 budget included $36,000 in a contingency account to pay staff overtime for search and rescue. Caverly said this year’s incidents ate up a lot of those funds. The costs to the park would be much high if not for the critical contribution of volunteer search and rescue organizations. Also, the Air National Guard does not charge for helicopter evacuations. The Guard absorbs the cost because they treat them as training operations.

The two fatalities in the park this year were Roger Cooper, 51, of Bangor, who was killed by a 500-pound boulder falling on him on the Cathedral trail, and Dennis Schultz, 65, of Rockport, who died of a heart attack while at Kidney Pond campground. Among the other incidents requiring search and rescue were: fatigue, dehydration, lost and/or campers and hikers, and injuries from hiking and falling. The most common problem was exhaustion and dehydration and wandering off the trail – problems that rangers view as preventable.

"People look at Katahdin as a piece of cake [to climb]," Caverly told the park trustees at the fall meeting at Kidney Pond. But the mountain is formidable, and hikers of all ages should take it seriously and follow "good Boy Scout rules," he said.

Some people aren’t prepared for the challenge of the terrain and the time it takes to summit the mile-high peak.
Photo: Paul & Marielle Gareau

Some people aren’t prepared for the challenge of the terrain and the time it takes to summit the mile-high peak. A June 28 incident underscored the kinds of risks hikers take. A party of 13 campers and counselors from a Maine summer camp started their Katahdin hike at 7 a.m. but didn’t reach Baxter Peak until 3 p.m., a relatively late arrival. They were slow because they had decided to hike only as fast as the slowest hiker. However at this point in the afternoon, nine of the hikers left the group to cross the Knife Edge before descending to Chimney Pond. The remaining four headed off for the Hamlin Ridge trail. For unknown reasons they changed their minds and descended the closed Cathedral trail. That trail was posted against use because of the rock slide that took Roger Cooper’s life.

Three of the hikers were 15 years old, and slowest of them had cerebral palsy. Eventually, two of the faster teenagers went ahead, leaving their slower companion and a counselor behind. At 10 p.m., the counselor and camper were still on the trail, and they had to stop because of the dark.

At first light, about 4 a.m., the pair started down again, and in a couple of hours the camper stopped to take a nap not far above Chimney Pond. The counselor left him and hiked into the campground to let the ranger know what was happening. The park’s mountain patrol hiked up to meet the camper. While no one was injured, park director Caverly said in his incident report that the "situation of a tired person with cerebral palsy descending a trail closed due to possible instability of [rock] was cause for significant concern throughout the night."

The next month Dennis Schultz’s death on July 16 was the start of four days of an "exhausting sequence of events" search and rescues, according to Caverly. Stretcher cases were the worst, he indicated, because they require 12 to 24 hours of time and up to 60 people for evacuation.

The park doesn’t require reimbursement by those rescued. Caverly suggested to the trustees that they might consider it in the future to apply to individuals "who say they have a right to go" hiking in hazardous weather conditions.

Alec Giffen, a park trustee and head of the Maine Forest Service, agreed with that reckless individuals should "bear responsibility for their actions". Giffen believes that people view Mt. Washington in the White Mountains National Forest more dangerous than Katahdin. Many more people have died on 6,288-foot Mt. Washington, with some of the planet’s most ferocious winds, and those deaths have received much more publicity. The recorded number of deaths on Mt. Washington since 1849 is 134. There have been 22 deaths on Katahdin since 1926, according to Baxter Park files.

Steve Rowe, chairman of the Park Authority and Maine’s attorney general, questioned whether hikers were more wary of climbing the Cathedral Trail on Katahdin after Roger Cooper was killed. Chimney Pond campground ranger Rob Tice said there was "heightened awareness" but that Cooper died because he "happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Rachel Therrien, a member of the park’s Advisory Committee, observed that people of all ages may be taking greater risks on mountains because "society is promoting extremism and no fear. We need to begin to get strong thinkers on this [issue]," she urged. Therrien encountered two hikers at Roaring Brook campground last summer who were about to ascend Katahdin. They had driven all night to reach the park after summiting Mt. Washington hours earlier. Their goal was "to do" both peaks in 24 hours, she said.

Rod Hanscom, also an Advisory Committee member, commented that the notion one "would ‘do’ Katahdin like you ‘do’ Bar Harbor" is alarming. "I see it getting worse than better," he said.

The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is responsible for search and rescue on Mt. Washington, and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) is one of a dozen volunteer assistance groups. They haven’t seen an increase in search and rescue efforts for seniors – on Mt. Washington or in other parts of the state.

Capt. Marty Garabedian of the fish and game department said there were 115 search and rescues in New Hampshire last year, and the ages of the individuals "were spread out across the board." He didn’t have a breakdown of incidents to know how many involved Mt. Washington. The state spent $263,979 on all search and rescue operations for fiscal 2004.

Stretcher cases are the worst because they require 12 to 24 hours of time and up to 60 people for evacuation.

AMC spokesman Rob Burbank checked around for recent incidents on Mt. Washington and said there’s no evidence that older seniors are getting into trouble on the mountain more than younger people. "We do know that cell phones are used in an increasing number of incidents," he said, adding that while calls hasten rescues, technology can give people a false sense of safety outdoors.

Burbank emphasized AMC’s effort to educate people about taking good care of themselves outdoors and learning to be self-reliant in the backcountry. Capt. Garabedian pointed to the state’s Hike Safe Program as an important educational effort.

In 1999, the New Hampshire legislature passed a law that holds "reckless hikers" responsible for paying the cost of their rescue. Recklessness is defined as causing one to be lost or injured and resulting in a costly and dangerous rescue. The money collected by the state goes to training and purchase of equipment of volunteer search and rescue groups.

Go to archive of Phyllis Austin Reports for Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org).