CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Olivera Sotelo’s 19-year-old daughter was late returning from a solo hike, and she wasn’t answering her phone. Panicking at the trailhead, Sotelo called her husband for help.
“I could not stop my anxiety,” she said.
Emily Sotelo emerged from the woods safely that August day, concerned about a couple she had passed who appeared to be struggling. But three months later, the college sophomore was dead, her body found on another mountain on what would have been her 20th birthday.
Though Sotelo had only started hiking two years earlier, she already summitted 40 of New Hampshire’s 48 peaks over 4,000 feet (1,219 meters), a popular goal that has long attracted hikers to the White Mountains. But she had almost no experience with winter hiking, and officials say she was woefully unprepared for the brutal conditions that killed her.
The name her parents are considering for a nonprofit foundation in her memory includes both a recurring theme of her life and the lessons of her death: The Emily M. Sotelo Safety and Persistence Foundation.
“Emily had a lot of persistence, but you have to balance that with safety,” her father, Jorge Sotelo, told The Associated Press. “You have to run one day to fight another day.”
Good to others
Emily Sotelo was good at everything: music, math, art, athletics. But in a life lit by ambition and determination, she was also good to others, whether providing palliative care to a pet gerbil or directing a reminiscence therapy project for nursing home residents. She volunteered at a Navajo reservation school and worked to reduce drug abuse at Vanderbilt University. She was a trained EMT who wanted to become a doctor focused on public health.
At her daughter’s funeral, Olivera Sotelo described Emily as “a shooting star, so brilliant and bright, that had burned so fast.” In an interview at the family’s home in Westford, Massachusetts, she said her daughter was determined to make the world a better place.
“But I would do anything to have her back even without that impact,” she said.
Determined to summit mountains
Emily also was determined to complete her 48-mountain quest by her birthday. Starting Sunday, Nov. 20, she planned to hike alone for three days, have her mother join her on Wednesday, and celebrate with dinner at the grand Mount Washington Hotel.
She told her mother she had checked the weather, and Olivera Sotelo did too, but only saw the forecast for where they were staying in Franconia. The forecast for the region’s higher summits called for temperatures between 5 degrees and below zero (-15 and -20 degrees Celsius) on Sunday, with wind gusts of up to 95 mph. The forecast for the valley below called for temperatures in the low 30s (below zero Celsius).
“It was cold, but … I didn’t know anything about the mountains or anything else. It did not look bad,” Olivera Sotelo said.
The pair shopped for food that afternoon, and Emily did some school work before setting an alarm for 4 a.m. the following morning. Her mother dropped her off at a trailhead at 4:30 a.m., with plans to pick her up eight hours later.
At 5 a.m., Emily sent a text listing what she wanted for lunch: quinoa, chicken, papaya, coffee, and water. By 11 a.m., it was snowing lightly, and Olivera sent a text asking how the hike was going. There was no response.
Surprised by the weather
The temperature was in the low single digits as search and rescue crews headed up Mount Lafayette that afternoon, and wind speeds remained 40-60 mph through the night, said Fish and Game Lt. James Kneeland.
On Tuesday, searchers found some of Sotelo’s belongings and possible tracks in the snow. But it took them almost two hours to travel 900 feet (274 meters), crunching over small trees packed with ice, and sinking into knee- and even waist-deep snow. A helicopter spotted more tracks, but it was getting dark, and the search was called off for the day.
On Wednesday morning, three teams approached the area from different directions, and just after 11 a.m. one of them found Sotelo’s body near the headwaters of Lafayette Brook, 3/4 of a mile (1.2 kilometers) from the trail.
Kneeland believes that Sotelo lost the trail as the wind and snow started blowing and died trying to get out of those conditions.
“I’m not sure we’ll ever really know the true story,” Kneeland said.
According to Kneeland, Sotelo wasn’t carrying any of the essentials that officials recommend for day hikes, even in the summer. No map, compass, or matches. No flashlight or headlamp, though her parents said she used her phone as a light and had a backup battery pack.
In her pack, she had granola bars, a banana, and water that likely froze very early on, Kneeland said. She wore long underwear but only light pants and a jacket. She had heated gloves and a neck warmer but no hat. Her shoes were for trail running or trekking rather than insulated boots that are recommended for winter.
“I often refer to them as a glorified sneaker,” Kneeland said. “Low on the ankle, no ankle support. Probably what happened is, when you start postholing in snow and underbrush, they get pulled off.”
In late fall and early winter, it’s not unusual for hikers from southern New England to arrive in New Hampshire unprepared for snow-capped summits, Kneeland said. Sotelo’s story, he said, is a reminder to other hikers to not only be prepared, but to be ready to turn back.
“Those mountains, as we often say, aren’t going anywhere,” Kneeland said.
Held out hope
Jorge Sotelo, a gastroenterologist, said that thinking about his patients who made miraculous recoveries kept him hopeful during the search. But Olivera, a psychiatrist, said she knew by Sunday night that her daughter was likely dead.
“I knew. I’m a medical professional,” she said. “People were telling me to hold hope, but I knew better than that.”
Olivera Sotelo, who named her elder daughter after Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson, enjoyed creative writing herself growing up. Since Emily’s death, she has been reflecting on a short story that she wrote as a teen about a mountain in her father’s homeland of Croatia.
“It was just kind of my fascination with something so great, so beautiful, so giving, but then in a moment, the elements changed, and it turned into a beast,” she said. The story was about her own fear, she said.
“It was about how beautiful that mountain is, but how terrifying it is, and that it can swallow a life,” she said.