One of our Be Ready Team members recently sent us this story of what turned out to be a near disaster for them.
We share the story here, with permission, so that you, the reader, may share in this experience and learn from it.
Keep reading, after the story, for some additional thoughts.
“One September, I hiked Franconia Ridge, a popular hiking destination in The White Mountains, with a close friend. It was beautiful. At the top of Mount Lafayette (5,249 feet) we had uninterrupted views of the New Hampshire wilderness in all directions. However, due to poor estimations in the trail length, we almost ended up spending the night in the park by a waterfall without a tent, blankets, or any other camping gear.
We had hoped to get an early start on the trail, but after a two-and-a-half hour drive from Boston and struggling to find parking, we found ourselves setting out on the trail at 11am. Estimates online told us we’d make it up and down the mountains in 4-6 hours. As two people in their mid 20s who hike fairly frequently, we were sure we could match that time.
We were wrong.
We made it to the top of Mount Lafayette around 3 pm. We continued along the ridge – summiting two other peaks – before beginning our way back down.
At 5 pm we began our descent down the mountain. The path was very steep, mostly boulders, and we had to move very slowly to remain safe. We were frequently checking our GPS location on our phones and were disheartened by how little progress we were making. By 6:30 pm we were only a third of the way down. We were beginning to get very nervous.
The sun set at 7:30 pm and, under the trees, it was very dark. We had made our way down the mountain, but still had a significant amount of trail left before we would reach the parking lot. We called 911, who forwarded us to the New Hampshire Fish and Game department. They told us they had other rescues to take care of first and encouraged us to try to make it out of the park using the lights on our phones. They could not promise anyone would make it out to us that night.
We continued forward for a while with the flashlights on our phones. Around 8:15pm, the batteries on our phones had died. We were .7 miles from the end of the trail, but had no light and could not continue.
The last thing I did before my phone died was call 911 so they had an updated position. I told them we were stuck where we were for the night, and mid-call my phone died. We were still never promised a rescue and had to accept we would likely be spending the night in the woods.
We found a safe spot just off the trail. We put our backs to the rock wall behind us, put our backpacks under our heads, and laid down on the ground.
It was very dark. There was a rushing waterfall in front of us. We were worried we wouldn’t see or hear a rescue if it came. We accepted that none would come and prepared to do everything we could to stay safe until sunrise.
It got cold fast. I wore an exercise tee shirt and shorts, my friend wore a sports bra and leggings. She was smart enough to bring a jacket. I didn’t have any extra layers to put on. The temperature was just below 60 at that time, and it was continuing to drop.
Two hours after we accepted fate, we saw a light on the trail. We got to our feet, screamed as loud as we could, and a man called back to us. He made his way down to us and offered to help us off the trail. He was not with a rescue team, just a night hiker who happened to stumble upon us. He led us out of the woods with a headlamp and spare flashlight and we made it back to our car a little before 10pm.
If we had a flashlight, or a portable phone charger, we would have made it out of the woods ourselves. We were unprepared and, as a result, almost had to spend the night sleeping fully exposed to the elements on the ground in a state park in New Hampshire. Please, please, learn from our mistakes and ALWAYS bring a flashlight, pocket knife, portable charger, etc. in the woods when you go for a hike!”
I’ve not had the pleasure of hiking the Franconia Ridge loop, but I have driven in the area and spent a little bit of time day hiking in other areas of the White Mountains. The most popular trails are very well marked, but many of them are not easy and you must be able to navigate them safely, or stop until you can see to do so.
The storyteller is absolutely correct in their plea to always take a flashlight (we recommend a headlamp for hiking) when you are going out for any sort of excursion like this.
In 2018, I was on a business trip in New Hampshire. We had an extra day and decided to do a short day hike up Mt. Willard, supposedly the easiest summit hike in the state.
Just like in the story above, the trail took longer than printed estimates and became quite dark on our descent down the mountain. However, I had my headlamp and was able to continue to the parking area without incident.
For more on what we recommend you carry in your day hike bag, take a few minutes to read our article, The Day Hike Gear We Carry, Every Time.
Thanks again to our storyteller for sharing their experience and the lessons they learned on this trip!
What items do you always carry in your day hike bag? Share in the comments below.
The featured image on this post is an actual photograph taken on the day this story happened. Used with permission of the storyteller.