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Lessons from the tragic death of Emily Sotelo on Mt. Lafayette

 The body of Emily Sotelo, the missing 19-year-old hiker, has now been found on Mt. Lafayette in Franconia Notch New Hampshire. There was never a doubt in my mind that the superb team of New Hampshire Fish and Game would succeed in coming to a logical conclusion to this horrific tragedy.

Major David Walsh said it best, so I will reitterate his thoughts on what went wrong. When hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire:

Be prepared for the unexpected.

Be prepared with knowledge.

Know the weather conditions.

Dress for weather conditions.

Have extra clothes, food, water, head lamps, map and compass.

Know your limitations.

Know when to turn around.

This entire event was so bizarre and puzzling, in my article, I asked for feedback. Except for one response from an absolute imbecile and a few comments from premedonnas, most of what was posted was, "What the Hell was she thinking!" This, from "Anonymous", was the best-of-the-best:

I have been up this route in the winter a number of times and at least half the time have turned back after encountering the conditions on the first couple hundred feet above where the Falling Waters comes out above tree line. For those who have not encountered it, it is impossible to describe how abruptly and how fast conditions deteriorate once you go above tree line. literally in space of a few hundred feet. If a squall comes in and the wind is howling your tracks in the snow are quickly obliterated. Out of all the trails in the Whites, the entrance to the Falling waters is notoriously hard to find to backtrack on in the winter, especially in those conditions. I pay attention and know where it is but still have trouble. Once you hit the ridge the degree of exposure to the west and north west winds is probably as severe or close to the Presdientials since the Franconia Ridge sits as the first high ridge in the whites facing west and north. the stretch between little haystack and Lincoln is brutal. with a 5 am start I doubt anyone else saw her. she may well have made it up the Falling Waters which is real doableto tree line even dressed as she was. My guess is that she got in trouble quickly on the ridge as soon as she crested tree line. the search teams are well aware of this and I am sure they have searched that immediate area well. You would think the helicopter would spot something too since they have had clear weather. It just goes to show how rugged and unforgiving that terrain is. I am hoping against hope for her-she just made a tragic mistake. but it doesn't look good

So well written, and right on. And, written before the girl's body was found, it mirrors what Major Walsh had to say. 

As an experienced hiker, I have previously followed every part of Major Walsh's advice while hiking, generally in better weather conditions than Emily Sotelo faced. Emily followed none of the tips. This was a tragic, but avoidable, event. 

But this continues to occur. I want my NH Fish and Game back - released from the mental and physical burden of searching for individuals that unknowingly put their lives on the line to conquer yet another mountain peak - while mentally and physically unprepared to do so. Will future venturers into The Whites heed Major Walsh's advice? I doubt it. There will be more such tragedies!


  1. I’m an experienced hiker and did that route about 6 weeks ago with my daughter in less than perfect conditions – it was cold, windy and foggy on the summit ridge, and despite my fleece and gortex layers I became mildly hypothermic during the descent from Lafayette to the Greenleaf Hut (but felt fine after a rest and some hot coffee, which is not an option after the hut closes for the season). Six weeks later, the conditions are clearly much more severe. We don’t yet know exactly where she was found, but from the descriptions so far it was somewhere in the headwaters of the Lafayette Brook, presumably N of the Greenleaf Hut. I am guessing it was in the woods - if she had been above the tree line, she would probably have been found sooner by helicopter search. I’m also guessing she went up Old Bridle Path (it seems unlikely that she could have gone up Falling Waters and made it that far) and was overcome by deep snow and cold, perhaps after losing the trail - she started early and was probably the first hiker of the day, and after overnight snow any footprints would be buried. Even in good conditions, it is alarmingly easy to lose the trail in dense woods, as I’ve discovered several times. She was not experienced with winter hiking and may not have realized that cell phone batteries die easily in cold temperatures, so a navigation app would not help. And the exhaustion factor that comes from struggling through deep soft snow is hard to convey to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.

    What a sad story. We can only hope that others learn from it so that some future tragedy may be avoided.

    1. That was a large part of my purpose in writing about the search. Major Walsh made it clear what to do - what to bring - how to prepare. Thanks so much for your analysis. Just what I was looking for.


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