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Brownsville Couple Survives Hiking Scare

Ray Barnard and Stephanie Watkins pose for a portrait in Quechee, Vt, on Friday, October 18, 2013. The two were near the summit of Mount Madison when they were caught in a storm and had to be rescued. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

Ray Barnard and Stephanie Watkins pose for a portrait in Quechee, Vt, on Friday, October 18, 2013. The two were near the summit of Mount Madison when they were caught in a storm and had to be rescued. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

Weather along the peaks of the White Mountain National Forest’s Presidential Traverse can be extremely unpredictable. For Ray Barnard and Stephanie Watkins, it was extremely uncomfortable.

Met with hurricane-force winds and heavy rain atop Mount Madison’s rocky summit Oct. 7, the Brownsville couple’s planned excursion to cover the entire 22-mile, seven-peak traverse turned into a need to be rescued.

Soaking wet and unable to follow the trail after dark, Barnard, 28, and Watkins, 27, hunkered down and called for help. They were rescued by two New Hampshire Fish & Game wardens and volunteer personnel at 1 a.m. on Oct. 8.

Sitting next to a pair of large rock in a boulder field for about five hours, the pair used sleeping bags and a tent rain fly to protect themselves, which officials later said may have saved their lives.

“If it was below freezing, we probably would have gotten hyperthermia,” said Barnard, a chef at a Plainfield restaurant. “It was probably 42 degrees and we were soaked. The wind was crazy. We’d fall asleep for a half hour and wake up shivering.”

The pair, experienced day hikers who frequent Mount Ascutney, drove to Madison in the morning and began ascending the mountain’s Pine Link Trail around 12:45 p.m. They’d planned to get an earlier start, but their GPS navigation system brought them 40 minutes off course. Then they had to drive 40 minutes back, a 1-hour, 20-minute detour Barnard said probably cost them the daylight they needed to complete the day’s planned route safely.

The forecast had called for stormy weather, but it wasn’t predicted to arrive until 7 p.m. — by then, the pair had planned to be back below tree line in much tamer conditions.

“It was a sunny day and the forecast said it would become cloudy with a 20 percent chance of rain,” Watkins recalled.

Added Barnard: “With the storm coming at 7, we thought it would be good weather to cuddle. We thought we’d be up over the mountain by then.”

Progress was difficult on Madison’s steep terrain. It took the couple a full five hours to cover about three miles, Barnard said. On Ascutney, they can cover a mile in roughly one hour.

Barnard and Watkins reached a trail junction about 0.3 miles from the summit at 5:45. A sign there warned of the possibilities for severe weather, with instructions not to proceed if conditions seemed precarious.

“It was only sprinkling at that point, barely enough to get the rain gear out,” Barnard said. “If we went one way, it would lead to the Madison Hut (shelter), the other way went to the summit. We ended up going to the summit. It turned out not to be a good idea.”

When they got above treeline, Barnard and Watkins were blasted with an 80-85 mph wind, they said, equivalent to a category-1 hurricane. The rain picked up and the fog increased as the couple struggled to follow cairns marking the trail. Dusk dimmed to darkness, and the wind occasionally pushed the pair off course. The rain flew straight into their faces.

“I got a fat lip from the rain,” said Barnard. “It was pretty incredible. It became clear pretty quickly that we weren’t going to make it over the summit. The options were to walk 3 1/2 miles in the dark (down the entire length of the trail), or 1.2 miles to the Madison Hut. We decided to go the hut, because the most important thing was to get back below treeline.”

Even that proved untenable, as the trail became impossible to navigate in the darkness and fog. Even before sunset, visibility would have been extremely limited in those conditions.

“The trail disappeared,” Watkins said. “Eventually I told (Barnard) to sit down because we had to figure out what we were going to do.”

Though reception was spotty, the pair managed to each call 911.

“God saved the iPhone,” Barnard quipped. “We both called so (authorities) would have both of our numbers.”

While waiting for help, they warmed each other as best they could with body heat and by rubbing each others hands and feet.

While Watkins admitted to “freaking out a little bit,” Barnard said conditions were just warm enough not to panic.

“Even if we had to stay there all night, we would have survived,” he said. “If it was sub-freezing, it would have been a lot different, but we would have walked out before then if that were the case.”

Help arrived at 1 a.m. It was 5 o’clock before they were checked into a motel in Randolph, N.H.

Asked what they learned from the experience, the couple conceded that going a different time of year might be wiser.

“(Officials) said the only mistake we made was doing it in October,” said Watkins. “Winter hiking is winter hiking. You know you’re probably going to see snow and that you have to have a lot of warm gear. In summer, you know you should bring rain gear, but in the fall, it’s just so unpredictable. It can be so much different at the base of the mountain than it is above treeline. It’s a shock to the system.”

The ordeal won’t dissuade the couple from hiking, their favorite hobby. They plan to make a second attempt at the Presidential Traverse next September.

“We can’t wait to go back and kick its (butt),” Barnard said.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.


Letter: Safe Hiking Practices

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

To the Editor: The Oct. 19 Valley News reported two rescues of hikers who were stranded on challenging trails in the Presidentials after nightfall. I celebrate their good fortune of being rescued by New Hampshire Fish and Game wardens and volunteer personnel, including an Appalachian Mountain Club hut worker. The story about the Brownsville couple troubled me for being long …