A pair of hikers departed Pinkham Notch headed for the Mount Washington Summit at 9:00 AM. At 3:00 PM, USFS Snow Rangers were notified that the hikers had called 911 via their cell phone. One of the pair was reported to be vomiting and unable to hike, while the other had no reported issues. The pair accurately relayed their location, the Lion Head trail several hundred feet below its junction with the Tuckerman Ravine trail, at 5,600 feet in elevation. One Snow Ranger responded to the incident from the Summit, via auto road vehicle transport by Mount Washington State Park staff. One AMC Hermit Lake caretaker proceeded to the scene on foot from Hermit Lake. Both arrived at 5:00 PM, by which time the subject had ceased vomiting and presented fatigue as a chief complaint. Following the provision of food and water, the subject felt strong enough to proceed on foot to the Mountain Washington Summit for vehicle transport down the auto road.
Analysis: The party stated that they had received information on potential trails to the Mount Washington Summit from the AMC Pinkham Notch front desk staff. Through this information and their own judgment, they concluded that the Winter Lion Head route would be a reasonable ascent and descent option. The hikers did not have crampons, an ice axe, and mountaineering boots as we recommend for this route, but were able to ascend the steep mixed conditions of snow, ice, mud, and wet rock on the Winter Lion Head route. Given the timeline of their day, we can assume this was quite a challenging experience for the pair.
For the relatively warm conditions of the day, the party had sufficient clothing to keep warm. Their sneakers, cotton, and lack of an insulated puffy jacket would have greatly increased the potential consequences of the incident had the weather been more in keeping with the harsh conditions the mountain is famous for.
They brought relatively small amounts of food and water, though, and continued uphill until almost out of both. The subject of the incident appears to have been primarily a victim of the “bonk”, which is to simply deplete the body’s stored sugars faster than they are being replenished by eating. Further, the party left themselves with little food to fuel their descent. Inexperienced hikers are quite prone to this issue, overlooking the massive caloric demands of ascending and descending 4,000 feet on foot in challenging wintry conditions. The amount of food one eats in a relatively sedentary day can easily be half or less than the food needed when strenuously hiking for long durations. It’s important to remember that frequent food and water intake is equally crucial to maintaining physical strength though a full day. Think eating every hour rather than every few hours.
Maintaining the strength to move yourself through the mountains, and all the way back to the car, is absolutely crucial to avoiding incidents like this one. While the subject suffered no injuries, inclement weather combined with the not uncommon delay or lack of rescue response could have created a dire situation. While we’re always happy to help you to safety, never count on a rescue. Your body is the best means of transportation in remote environments, and proper fueling is crucial to maintaining this ability.