Man whose body found in White Mountains on Christmas latest in troubling trend of lone hikers
Officials say the young man was familiar with the mountains but unprepared for dangerous winter conditions.
A young man whose body was found in the White Mountains on Christmas Day marks the latest in a troubling trend of untrained hikers taking to the mountains alone without anticipating dangerous and often unpredictable conditions, officials said.
Guopeng “Tony” Li, 28, of Salem, N.H., loved the outdoors, but was inexperienced with winter conditions, according to New Hampshire Fish and Game. Li’s death, one of a recent series involving young people, serves as a reminder to the public about the importance of safe hiking practices, including wearing appropriate clothing and hiking with a partner, officials said.
“Very rarely do we go after multiple hikers having a problem,” Lieutenant James Kneeland said. “It’s usually a single, lone person trying to make decisions on their own, and their decision-making is altered because of the stress of the situation.”
While tragic deaths of young hikers have drawn more attention in recent years, officials said, there has not been an increase in fatalities. Li’s death marked the 21st hiking fatality of the year for New Hampshire, making 2022 consistent with the past four years, which saw an average of roughly 22 fatalities per year, officials said.
Li, who was originally from the Hebei province in China, set out to hike the 8.6-mile Bridle Path/ Falling Waters loop shortly after 11 a.m. on Christmas Eve, according to Fish and Game officials. A family member in China was tracking him throughout the day, so when he went offline around 6:15 that evening, his family reported him missing, officials said. The sun set shortly after 4 p.m.
Kneeland said family described Li as “inexperienced,” a lover of the outdoors who enjoyed skiing and had hiked the White Mountains in the summertime, but was ill prepared for below-freezing temperatures and dangerous winter conditions.
“He did have some [ice] traction devices… but [as] for spare or extra clothing, he had really none at all,” Kneeland said. “He was wearing goggles, but… we could not find any kind of a light source that would’ve aided him after dark. Simply just finding the trail markers without a light in pitch black is next to impossible.”
Kneeland said he believes Li was trying to navigate the trails using a cellphone, without a compass or paper map as a backup. When Li’s phone died, Kneeland added, it probably “led him to go off-trail.”
The pandemic-era surge in outdoor adventures has drawn increased attention to the hazards of hiking unprepared, as officials in the region have tried a range of efforts, from warning signs to criminal charges, to deter reckless behavior and prevent beginners from stumbling into danger. However, other outdoor advocates say park and state officials should take greater responsibility for educating new hikers about potential risks and best safety practices, particularly in cases of inclement weather.
Charyl Reardon, president of the White Mountains Attractions Association, said her organization began posting more safety information after a young hiker was found dead on Mount Lafayette in November, on what would have been her 20th birthday.
“It’s tragic,” Reardon said. “Not only for the families involved, but for the rescue crews and their families.”
Reardon said that since the pandemic, her organization has noticed an increase in hikers seeking fresh air and safe recreation. But many of those hikers are new to the hobby, and don’t realize how quickly the weather can change. Sometimes the trailheads are barren of snow, but harsh elements may be hiding a few hundred feet up the path.
“People see these amazing photos on Instagram and say, ‘I am physically fit; I can do that,’” she said. “But it’s more than climbing a mountain. It’s facing conditions in the wintertime.”
At the time that Li was hiking on Saturday, the high temperature was five degrees below zero, National Weather Service meteorologist Derek Schroeter said. With the wind gusts present near where he was hiking, the wind chill was close to 30 degrees below zero.
Even year round, the weather can be unpredictable, Schroeter said. Multiple storm tracks tend to converge over New England, and the close proximity to the ocean can enhance the strength of the storms.
“Oftentimes, when these accidents happen, the person can be misled,” he said. “At the trailhead, it’s warm enough where you feel like you can hike in a light shirt and pants . . . but as you ascend in elevation, it can feel like a very different place.”
Li appeared to be wearing ski gear, Kneeland said, which protects against the cold, but does not account for the extra sweat that builds up while hiking.
“You need to get that moisture away from your body,” Kneeland said, “so you really want to pay attention to layering when you’re going to be doing a lot more exertion.”
In June, a hiker died of hypothermia on Mount Clay after texting his wife that he would die without a rescue. That day, Fish and Game officers said they received multiple calls from high-elevation summits in the Presidential Range from cold and wet hikers, asking to be rescued.
In July, a 65-year-old Missouri man died on the mountain after a group of hikers attempted to revive him with CPR. Then, in August, a 46-year-old man from Quebec died after collapsing feet from the summit of Mount Washington while hiking with his adult son.
But as the weather grows colder, conditions worsen in the Whites.
In November, Emily Sotelo, the Westford woman who died on what would have been her 20th birthday, faced dangerously cold and snowy conditions that forced her to turn back after reaching the top of Mount Lafayette.
Earlier this month, a Randolph man died on Mount Willard after falling off a cliff while taking photos amid icy conditions.
Calls for help among inexperienced hikers increased during the pandemic, according to officials. And the recent string of hikers injured or killed at high elevations prompted staff at the Mount Washington Observatory to post more than 100 new warning signs at trailheads around the mountain range, alerting people to possible changes in weather conditions near the summits. But it was a “horror show” of reckless behavior, as one Fish and Game representative previously said, that prompted the department to take criminal action against two hikers who placed each other and rescuers in danger in early June when they ventured off-trail with no food or water and tried to climb a rocky cliff without appropriate gear or skills.
“The absolute goal of charging these guys … 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,” Colonel Kevin Jordan, the department’s chief of law enforcement, told the Globe in September. “It’s a little wake-up call.”
Despite rising concern, hiking rescues and fatalities in recent years have remained fairly consistent with pre-pandemic numbers. As of mid-December, the Fish and Game mountain team have conducted 168 rescues this year, a slight decrease from last year, when the team performed 183 rescues. There were 173 rescues in 2020, and 168 in 2019, according to officials.
“In [total rescue] missions, we’re maintaining fairly steady numbers. And with some of these recent fatalities, we’re quickly approaching our average,” Kneeland said. “Unfortunately the last couple have been a 19- and a 28-year-old… [and] with the age, they’ve gained a lot more notoriety, which makes it sound like there’s been a lot more.”
Kneeland said he hasn’t observed any new patterns in the demographics of recent hiking accidents, but that “most hiking victims vary in age from the mid-20s to the 40s and 50s.”
But the trend that has stayed consistent for years, he said, is the high percentage of people who die while hiking solo.
“If you’ve never done it before, go with a guide,” he added. “These are very survivable situations with experience.”
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