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September 30. 2012 1:19AM

Rescuers braved torrential rains, 80 mph winds to get hiker


Members of three local volunteer search and rescue teams joined New Hampshire Fish and Game officers on Sept. 18 for an almost 14-hour effort in torrential rains and 80 mph winds to rescue injured hiker Ed Bacon on Franconia Ridge. Here some of the more than 50 rescuers involved prepare the litter for a 3.9 mile carry-out down Falling Waters trail that involved several dangerous stream crossings and ended at 3:20 am. (Courtesy)
FRANCONIA — When engineer Ed Bacon was dropped off that night at the Liberty Springs trailhead, he was looking forward to a five-day solo hike up in the mountains.

He didn’t know it would take more than 50 strangers to get him back down.

Bacon, 59, a Michigan resident, started up the mountain about 10 p.m., walking for a couple of hours “to get into the forest,” where he camped for the night. His planned route was a loop from the trailhead to the Liberty Springs Campground, across Franconia ridge to the AMC Greenleaf Hut, and then over to Lonesome Lake Hut and back to the trailhead.

Bacon had hiked that loop several times and came prepared with rain gear, extra clothing, water, food, and other hiking essentials.

“I’ve been hiking since I was old enough to carry a pack,” he said.

After his night in the woods, he spent his second night at Liberty Springs Campground. The following morning he got up early to continue his trip.

Bacon said he had seen a weather report the night before forecasting rain about 1 p.m. accompanied by very high winds.

“I’ve been in 60-mph driving sleet before; I saw that up near Madison once,” he said. “So I knew what I was getting into.”

The climb itself started relatively easily. “It was pretty nice. There was some fog down in the valleys, and there was a high cloud cover.”

At 10:30 that morning, the rain started. A little later, the rain cover on his pack “on its own accord came off and flew away in the wind.”

He’d also slipped on some loose gravel earlier and slid down the trail about 10 feet, hitting his pack on a rock and losing his tent. When he came to a waist-high ledge, he couldn’t step up, so he jumped up on it backwards.

When he tried to turn around to stand again, he felt a sensation he recognized from several years earlier — his artificial hip had dislocated and his leg was dangling uselessly.

He slid back down the ledge and dragged himself about 20 feet to get a cellphone signal. His first call was to 911; he and the operator tried to figure out his location.

Then the call dropped.

“At that point I said, ‘Maybe I better call somebody else,’” Bacon said. He pulled out his map for the number to the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

Reaching the injured hiker

Lt. James Kneeland, New Hampshire Fish and Game District 3 chief, was in a meeting when he was notified of a hiker in trouble at 1:30 p.m.

Kneeland said the first report was the hiker thought he was between Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette, but rescuers didn’t have GPS coordinates.

“Obviously, that was part of my dilemma in starting this thing,” he said. “He was on Franconia Ridge and knew he was, but he didn’t know specifically which part of the ridge.”

Kneeland called out 14 area Fish and Game officers and contacted Sugar Hill Fire Chief Allan Clark, who is also the founder of the Pemigewassett Valley Search and Rescue Team.

PVSRT responded initially with 18 volunteers who met up with the Fish and Game officers at the Bridle Path trailhead in Franconia Notch.

“We average about 20 missions a year — a combination of carryouts and searches,” said Clark. “These guys and women are certainly well-prepared; they love to hike, they do it all the time, they have all the right equipment and they’re obviously fit.”

The plan was to locate Bacon and bring him down the Bridle Path trail, so rescuers headed up toward the path toward the Greenleaf Hut.

Fish and Game Conservation Officer Robert Mancini remembers carrying the litter up the Bridle Path and across the ridge.

“It felt like small rocks were hitting you in the face the rain was blowing so hard,” he said. “The visibility was very low, not due to fog or anything like that, but because it was very difficult to lift your head up with the wind blowing in your face and the raindrops were beating so hard.”

Mancini carried his regular 30-pound pack in front of him. On his back, he carried the 30- to 40-pound litter folded in half.

“Carrying that litter is kind of like carrying a kite. It’s probably a good 14 to 16 inches over your head, and it’s large and square, maybe 2-and-a-half feet wide,” he said.

“In those conditions, it just really felt like a sail at times. If you got a good wind gust, it would blow you right off your feet.”

As the group was heading up the trail, Kneeland also called Appalachian Mountain Club’s hut manager, James Wrigley, who called the club’s Greenleaf Hut. AMC volunteer Justin Gay loaded up radios and emergency equipment and headed out within a half-hour of Wrigley’s call, only to be turned back by the weather.

“There were extremely high winds, a lot of rain and cooler temperatures, and he was up on Lafayette and getting blown over by 80-90 mph winds,” Wrigley said. “We talked on the phone, and I told him to turn back.”

When Gay returned to Greenleaf Hut, other AMC volunteers had arrived. Everett Moore and Ben Kinne, after discussion with Wrigley, decided to try to locate Bacon.

Shortly after 6 p.m., Bacon heard the whistle from the pair.

Fish and Game officers reached Bacon a short time later and attempted to radio GPS coordinates to Kneeland.

“It probably took half a dozen attempts for me to understand because of the wind,” said Kneeland.

“There were three of us down at the command post at that time, all of us listening on a different radio, writing down what we thought we heard for coordinates; we came up with a different number almost every time.

“Finally, we thought we heard it right and we plotted it, and it ended up on the trail, and we took that to mean we had the right number finally.”

That success was short-lived, though. The new information showed instead of being between Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Lincoln, Bacon was actually between Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Haystack.

“We realized it was going to be an easier route to come down the Falling Waters trail with him,” Kneeland said. “That meant I already had a good charge of volunteers heading up the wrong trail.”

He stopped everyone going up the Bridle Path at Greenleaf Hut and sent them back down to the trailhead. Some went home from there, but most turned around to start up the Falling Waters trail to assist with the carry out.

Those hikers who had climbed the Bridle Path and were already past Greenleaf continued on to Bacon’s location, a total of 14 people to begin the carryout down the mountain.

The trip down

By 7:35 p.m., Bacon was bundled into the litter, strapped down, covered with blankets and then with a rain tarp.

With six people carrying the litter — three on each side — the group started down the trail, rotating teams as the litter bearers grew tired.

By this time, Kneeland knew they were going to need more manpower. He called the PVSRT again, and they sent seven more volunteers.

He also called the Mountain Rescue Service, based out of Conway. Team leader Joe Lentini used an electronic system to call the group’s members with details.

Members responded by phone, and the information was gathered on a website, so Lentini knew he had seven volunteers coming.

Meanwhile, the skeleton team carrying Bacon was trying to get below tree line as quickly as possible.

“It was labor intensive, it was exhausting,” said Mancini. “We usually can carry the litter for maybe four or five minutes at a time, but toward the end of our stint, just trying to get Mr. Bacon down, it seemed as though we were carrying the litter for a minute and a half and needed to change arms at a minimum.”

By 10 p.m., they had traveled 30 minutes beyond Shining Rock, a short distance down from the summit of Haystack.

“In two and a half hours they made it probably about a mile and a quarter, maybe a mile and a half,” said Kneeland. “And then other folks started filtering into the mix.”

As the latest PVSRT and MRS volunteers arrived at the parking lot and started up the trail, they noted streams were rapidly rising from the torrential rains.

MRS members began scouting locations where they planned to use ropes on the way back down. Some rope systems were used to provide a rope “railing” for hikers to hold as they crossed the thigh-high streams.

Other systems secured the litter as rescuers stood in the streams and passed the litter hand to hand or served to lower the litter down steep rock faces.

“All of our team members are either professional guides or extremely serious climbers,” said Lentini. “These are techniques we use all the time.”

For the next several hours the volunteers struggled to squeeze the litter and its bearers through the narrow trail, down steep rock faces and over raging streams.

“It was extremely slippery, it was a very steep rocky trail and people were cold, wet, and tired — you’re looking at the potential of people slipping and getting hurt,” said Lentini.

Luckily, bumps and bruises were the extent of injuries that night and the soggy, exhausted group finally reached the parking lot at 3:30 a.m., about 14 hours after the call for help was made.

Bacon was loaded into an ambulance and taken to Littleton Regional Hospital, where he underwent a closed reduction procedure later that day to put his hip back into place.

Back at home in Northville, Mich., Bacon said, “The one thing I’ve learned from this is you want to think when you’re going out on a bad day, not about what’s going to happen if everything goes right, but if something goes wrong how hard is it going to be for those guys to come and get you.”

“The one thing I would change if I could have was to talk somebody into walking with me,” he said. “And maybe to not go up that day at all.”

“I regret that I put them through so much work and, especially for the people coming over the summit to me initially, into danger.”

Bacon said he donated his unused AMC hut deposits to the AMC search and rescue fund.

He and his wife have also decided to donate a week’s worth of his wages to the various rescue groups, after he finds out whether he will be fined by the Fish and Game department.

“The fact that I have an artificial hip might come into it,” he said. “That’s what they told my wife.”

Kneeland said besides his 14 Fish and Game officers, the rescue involved 32 volunteers from PVSRT and MRS, plus five from AMC.

He hasn’t finished figuring the cost of the rescue, but said it couldn’t be done without volunteers.

“It’s amazing to me that they continue to come when I call,” Kneeland said. “They aren’t getting paid, they come out of the goodness of their heart.”

“All of our volunteer groups in the state make such a huge impact for us, without them we would not be able to carry out the missions successfully that we do,” said Mancini.

“And I know I speak for all of my fellow officers at Fish and Game when I say this is part of our job, but it’s also a source of pride.”

For more information on safe hiking and the 10 hiking essentials, go to www.hikesafe.org.

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Kristi Garofalo may be reached at kgarofalo@newstote.com.

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