August 12. 2018 9:00PM

Silver Linings: Rescues rare, but hiking seniors have special needs

By ROBERTA BAKER
New Hampshire Union Leader


The recent high-profile rescue of a 71-year-old Florida man and his slightly younger companion from one of the most treacherous trails on Mount Washington begs two questions: What was this fellow thinking? Are hiking seniors safe?

Despite decades of well-publicized retrievals of elders tackling the Appalachian Trail or New Hampshire’s high peaks, seniors rarely require mountain search and rescue teams, experts say. They tend to be well-equipped, experienced, and careful when venturing into the remote outdoors — backed by knowledge gained from decades of jousting with Mother Nature. When it comes to over-estimating endurance, and failing to pack enough water and snacks, they may be just as guilty as anyone. The difference lies in their vulnerability to injury, and problems from exposure and dehydration, according to rescue workers.

Septuagenarian Arthur Stern and his friend Alice Rubenstein, in her 60s, became marooned on the Huntington Ravine Trail on Mount Washington last month when Stern became physically exhausted; volunteers from the Appalachian Mountain Club and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue and a team from Fish and Game endured 50-60 mph winds and plummeting night temperatures to carry the couple the remaining mile to the summit so they could be brought down on the Auto Road.

They were suffering from hypothermia, wearing shorts and light hiking apparel, with water but scant else in their backpacks, according to reports. Stern stated that he was an experienced hiker.

New Hampshire Fish and Game officials say that situation, for seniors, is an anomaly. “People still hiking in their 50s and older probably began many years ago,” says Kevin Jordan, chief of law enforcement for New Hampshire Fish and Game. “They’re generally better experienced, better prepared, and they make better choices.”

Most of the department’s rescues are for hikers in their 20s and 30s, he says.

Bring along medication

The consistent mistake he sees among senior hikers is not remembering to pack medication because they assume they’ll be down by suppertime, and don’t think about getting stuck or delayed. Beyond that, many fail to prepare sufficiently for hot, humid weather. It’s important to bring high-energy food and enough liquids to replace water lost through perspiration.

“Plan on taking a quart more water — and start earlier and take your time,” Jordan says. “A trail you could do in 60-degree weather changes when it’s 90 degrees.”

The trails snaking up Gunstock, Belknap, and Piper mountains from Carriage Road in Gilford aren’t especially high or challenging, but they’re attractive to hikers of all ages, including families and seniors trekking solo. They promise stunning views of Lake Winnipesaukee, and can be completed on a Saturday morning, leaving the afternoon to do something else. Every summer Gilford Fire and Rescue brings down two to three people, including one over age 55, says Capt. Rick Andrews of the Gilford Fire Department. The typical injury: a twisted ankle or knee because of uneven terrain and improper footwear, including floppy sandals or light-duty sneakers.

Seniors tend to have more problems in hot weather, Andrews says. “As you get older it’s more difficult to regulate your body temperature,” and certain medications make it more difficult to cool off. The solution is to bring more water and sports drinks with electrolytes, and wear lighter or hiking-specific clothes that breathe, releasing heat and allowing sweat to evaporate. Jeans are a mistake because they trap heat and soak up moisture. Finally, “It’s important not to hike as much, as far, or as aggressively as you would in cooler weather, because it’s going to take more out of you,” Andrews says. Also critical is studying maps to become familiar with the route, and to reduce your chances of becoming disoriented or lost.

Hiking poles help

Hikers with balance issues or past knee, hip or ankle surgeries or injuries might consider using hiking poles, which can make mountain trails safer and more pain-free on the descent, says Nancy Ritger, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s manager of huts and programs at Mt. Cardigan in Alexandria, a popular summit with views of Newfound Lake and background peaks. “If you have balance problems, if your knees are sore, poles can make a huge difference going down, but they’re also helpful going up because you can’t always push off your full weight.” A $50 to $75 investment in hiking poles isn’t required when ski poles will do the trick. If you don’t require poles for balance, it’s OK to start with just one she says. The AMC’s Cardigan Mountain Lodge keeps a bin of them for hikers to borrow for the day.

“Know yourself and your capabilities, and find a hiking group you’re comfortable with,” says Chris Roukes, a visitor information specialist for the White Mountain National Forest. “For any hiker at any age, you want to start conservatively and build up over time. Otherwise, you might be miserable.”

Senior passes available

The AMC’s “Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains” book is Roukes’ go-to guide for beginners and seekers of hikes that aren’t too arduous.

His favorite senior hiker special is the “America the Beautiful” senior pass available for ages 62 and up, which costs $20 per year or $80 for life. It’s cheaper than a White Mountain National Forest annual access sticker, which costs $30, Roukes says — and provides unlimited access to all national parks, national forests, US Fish and Wildlife sanctuaries, Bureau of Land Management sites out west, US Park Service lands, and areas controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, including campgrounds — roughly 2,000 sites nationwide.

The pass can be purchased online or at White Mountain National Forest headquarters in Campton (exit 27 off I-93); the White Mountain National Forest Visitors Center in Lincoln (exit 32 off I-93), the Saco District Ranger Station on Route 16 in Conway; and the Androscoggin Ranger Station on Route 16 in Gorham.

Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Roberta Baker would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at rbaker@unionleader.com or (603) 206-1514. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging. This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.