Fish and Game weighs charges against family that left 80-year-old hiker

The sun was rising by the time rescuers reached the Mount Washington Auto Road with hiker James Clark, 80, of Ohio, who had been left behind by his hiking companions.

An 80-year-old Ohio man rescued on Mount Washington said he was not left behind by his grandsons, as Fish and Game officials have said, but instead told the teens to go ahead to the summit and he would meet up with them later at Pinkham Notch Visitors Center.

James Clark said Sunday night the plan all along was for his grandsons Kevin McNerney, 19, and his 14-year-old brother, Aidan, to go at their own pace, as the group had done the previous two days while climbing the highest peaks in New York and Vermont.

Mount Washington was the third leg of a five-day trip, which nearly resulted in tragedy after the weather turned brutally cold high up on the mountain and Clark was unable to continue.

“If anybody’s at fault, it’s definitely me and not those boys,” said Clark, who rescuers said was in a fetal position and showing signs of hypothermia when he was located on the Lion Head Trail at 1:15 a.m. Friday. “I’m the one who has insisted that they go ahead. So any negligence was on my part.”

Clark spent Friday night at Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin and was released Saturday morning. The family will likely get a bill from the agency to cover the cost of the life-saving operation, according to Fish and Game.

Although separating from a group goes against hiking protocol, Clark said he thought he and his grandsons had planned well for the trip, mapping out their routes and coordinating a spot to meet should they miss connecting on the trails.

“We planned for that,” Clark said. “It would be quicker and they would know where I was all the way up.”

What they hadn’t planned for was the extreme conditions on Mount Washington and how quickly the weather can turn on the highest peak in the Northeast. Clark said their original route was also not possible because the trail was closed and the alternate trail was more difficult than he expected.

“I didn’t know how bad that trail was. I thought for sure I could make it to the top,” Clark said, adding he had planned to take the Cog Railway back down or catch a lift with a car on Mount Washington Auto Road.

Fish and Game officials said Clark’s grandsons had summited and arrived at Pinkham Notch Visitors center when they called Fish and Game at 7:45 p.m. Thursday. Fish and Game said Clark was described as “overdue, not prepared with overnight gear and did not have a cellphone or light.”

Clark was carried on a litter 1.7 miles to the Mount Washington Auto Road, where at 5 a.m. he got an ambulance ride to the hospital.

Fish and Game Department officials did not respond to a request for comment Sunday night.

Clark said he enjoys 20-mile walks a few times a week near his home in Dublin, Ohio, just outside Columbus.

He and his grandsons made it to the top of Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks on Tuesday, he said, but only the teens were able to make the summit of Mount Mansfield in Vermont on Wednesday. Clark said he took a fall on Mansfield and bruised his tailbone, but still felt up to taking on Mount Washington on Thursday.

About a half-hour into the hike, Clark said he told his grandsons to go ahead.

“He told us that he would have been embarrassed for us to see him going slowly,” Kevin McNerney said Sunday. “He didn’t want to feel bad for holding us up.”

McNearney said he and his younger brother were not concerned until they had reached the summit and called around 3:15 p.m. down to the visitors center, where there was no sign of Clark.

“That’s when we first started to worry something wasn’t OK,” McNerney said. “He’s kind of the one that we all look up to as a hiker.”

After a long hike back down to the visitors center, McNerney said there was still no sign of his grandfather; he called New Hampshire Fish and Game around 7:45.

“We knew right away to call search and rescue,” McNerney said.

Conditions on the mountain were cold, with a wind chill of about 12 degrees Fahrenheit and winds up to 60 mph. Although Clark said he was dressed in five layers and felt he was prepared, the cold was more extreme than he expected. After getting no response when he blew a signal whistle, Cole said he hunkered down between two boulders, where his rescuers eventually found him.

“I was very grateful to the rescuers,” Clark said.

Fish and Game Maj. Dave Walsh said on Friday that the trio broke several rules of hiking, including leaving Clark on his own. The agency is reviewing the circumstances of the rescue.

McNerney said conservation officers had mentioned the possibility at the hospital that the family might be billed.

“Bills might be sent,” McNerney said. “We totally understand and we will cover it. There’s no price that you can put on a life.”