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After ‘horror show’ hiker rescues, N.H. asks whether criminal charges are the next frontier

The Boston Globe 10/1/2022 Shannon Larson
Hikers made their way up a steep section of trail in New Hampshire's White Mountains this summer. © Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff Hikers made their way up a steep section of trail in New Hampshire's White Mountains this summer.

Sloping peaks rose into a clear afternoon sky and hikers basked in the late-spring sun. Tentative newcomers and seasoned backpackers made their way through the White Mountains along a vast network of trails, deeply beautiful yet potentially hazardous.

It was, in other words, a routine Saturday in these parts. Until James Kneeland’s phone rang.

Kneeland, a lieutenant with New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Department responsible for overseeing hundreds of rescue missions each year, had grown accustomed to hikers venturing into the mountains with minimal precautions, especially during the pandemic, when a surge of novices had embraced the outdoors with little appreciation for its dangers. It had strained the capacity of rescuers, a hardy band of government employees and volunteers, and placed them in precarious situations time and again.

But through it all, he hadn’t seen anything like this egregious case of the ill-prepared blundering into harm’s way. And it would represent a breaking point, prompting New Hampshire officials to take a defiant stand against irresponsible hiking that has rippled through the mountaineering world from the Cascades to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Two men in their 20s had set out on a hike in Franconia Notch State Park the afternoon of June 11 as if strolling through their neighborhood. They wore short-sleeved shirts and shorts and brought no extra layers. They carried no food, no water, no equipment.

“They had nothing,” Kneeland said.

Here’s what to know before hiking the New Hampshire mountains

Given the temperature was in the mid-70s that day, that might have been a relatively small risk. But after starting on the Greenleaf Trail, a meandering path up the rugged landscape of Mount Lafayette, they veered off course and began bushwhacking through woods, then tried climbing Hounds Hump, an alpine crag popular with rock climbers, without equipment or mountaineering skills.

It was a baffling miscalculation, rushing heedlessly into unforgiving terrain, that placed them in danger almost immediately. They became separated, and as one hiker managed to reach the top of the cliff face, the other became stuck on a ledge, terrified he would fall if he moved at all.

At 2:15 p.m., the man who was trapped called 911. He could not say where he was or how he had gotten there. He said he could see the highway and thought they were somewhere on the Hangman Trail on Alpine Mountain. Neither exists in New Hampshire.

“It was just a horror show from start to finish,” said Colonel Kevin Jordan, the fish and game department’s chief of law enforcement.

As Kneeland oversaw the team of conservation officers and volunteers tasked with rescuing the wayward pair, he received 53 calls from the trapped hiker over the next two hours, begging for help to come before he fell. Rescuers below could hear his frantic cries, and in time they were able to coax him to move carefully into a more visible position. Using a drone to survey the rock face, they pinpointed his location. Climbers then rappelled down to lift him to safety, just as the sun was starting to set.

One of the rescuers, a professional rock climber, later told Kneeland he would never take the route the hikers did, even with a harness and rope.

The hikers offered little explanation and no apology for their misadventure, and the hiker rescued at the top quickly asked for an attorney. When Kneeland told Jordan about the ordeal, Jordan made a decision on the spot. For the first time in his 30 years with the agency, officials were going to charge the men criminally for placing “another in danger of serious bodily injury.”

After years of providing a safety net to errant hikers, it was time “to send a public message,” he said.

“The absolute goal of charging these guys — one of the primary goals — was to let people know that if you are this careless, if you show this blatant disregard for human safety, there’s a consequence for that and it’s a significant one,” Jordan said. “It’s a little wake-up call.”

As the number of rescues and the risk involved increased in recent years, New Hampshire officials did not hesitate to charge ill-prepared hikers for the cost of rescue missions. But the financial deterrent only went so far and frustration steadily mounted. There was a consensus among officials that a line had to be drawn.

Dylan Stahley, 25, of Windsor, N.H., and Jason Feierstin, 22, of Lowell, were charged with reckless conduct. In August, they pleaded guilty in exchange for the charges being reduced from a misdemeanor to a lesser violation. They were fined $200 and received a $48 penalty assessment. Neither returned Globe requests for comment.

The extreme circumstances of the rescue, and the charges that followed, have made headlines and reignited the debate about how to deal with costs and risks of search and rescue missions, especially in a state known for its love of the natural world and its belief in personal responsibility. Spirited discussions of the ethics of assessing fines or criminal penalties have raged on social media and hiker forums across the country.

“Some people think that if people are more aware that they will be responsible financially for a rescue operation, that people may be more conservative in what they do while they recreate,” said Wesley Trimble, a spokesperson for the American Hiking Society. But others worry that hikers who find themselves at risk may hesitate to seek help, fearing “penalties and financial responsibility,” he said.

While the American Hiking Society has not taken an official stance on the issue, the charges in New Hampshire have intensified a national conversation about the responsibility of people who take to the great outdoors.

The steady rise in novice hikers has led to more accidents, he said. Rescue teams have been overwhelmed with calls, raising questions about safety and funding.

“I think this case in New Hampshire is just one more kind of step” in the debate, Trimble said.

New Hampshire is among a small number of states — including Maine, Vermont, Oregon, Idaho, California, and Hawaii — with laws that allow officials to bill people for the cost of rescues in certain scenarios. It’s also seen as being the most aggressive in pursuing such claims, which critics have described as punitive and potentially dangerous.

In an average year, about a dozen hikers are billed for the cost of being rescued, Jordan said. In the last fiscal year, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department spent more than $240,000 on hiking and drowning rescues.

“There’s a lot of people moving in that direction because they’re all fed up with it. It costs the states a lot of money and there’s no accountability for it,” Jordan said. “So we get calls from all over the country asking how it works. And it works well for us.”

Three of the major volunteer search and rescue teams in New Hampshire — the Mountain Rescue Service, Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, and Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue — declined to comment on the issue, instead deferring questions to state officials.

The surge in hikers since the pandemic is well-documented in the Granite State. On any given day, cars with license plates from Missouri to Rhode Island to Connecticut fill parking lots at trailheads, Jordan said. As families with young kids in tow and city dwellers less accustomed to the threats of nature seek refuge in the mountains, officials and outdoor groups have emphasized safety by chronicling the details of accidents and rescue missions — often adding stern recommendations to plan ahead.

As more hikers explore the White Mountains, calls for help climb, too

Around 200 rescue missions have been completed annually in recent years. This September alone, hikers had to be rescued after they were stranded off-trail in the darkness, sustained injuries that prevented them from going further, or became separated from their group.

But some hikers with decades of experience believe that extreme cases deserve severe consequences.

Count Scott Taylor, 63, among that group. A hiker since boyhood, the deputy chief of the Sanbornton Fire and Rescue Department is familiar with rescues and how fraught they can become. It was the death of someone he knew well — a volunteer named Albert Dow who was caught in an avalanche on Mount Washington in 1982 while trying to rescue a hiker — that first stirred the debate about who should be held liable for the burden of mountain rescues.

When people willfully ignore guidelines or dismiss warnings about hazardous conditions, they are putting the lives of others at risk, he said. Volunteer teams and conservation officers, he noted, are “stretched thin” and lacking resources as it is.

“I certainly am hoping it sends a message” to other hikers who make poor decisions, he said of the charges. “I guess I find it upsetting because people think they are invincible.”

The mercurial weather in the mountains poses a greater danger as fall settles in, and Kneeland expects the number of rescues — which have picked up in the past couple of months — to rise further still.

“It’s just one that I felt like we had to do in order to hopefully protect the volunteers and the rescue folks down the road from reckless behavior,” he said. “I think that I finally had had enough.”

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