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Rules of survival: When search-and-rescue turns into body recovery

 How the Hell did this happen? Two days after 19-year-old Emily Sotelo was supposedly dropped off in Franconia Notch (NH) at roughly 5:00 AM ET, Sunday, November 20, 2022 by her mother, to hike several mountains alone, the search continues for the young lady.

Photo by Linda Lane

The information from news agencies indicated that Emily started hiking the trails while it was still dark. She was supposedly wearing only sneakers, a coat and workout pants. I can persona;ly attest that the weather in the area was very cold with high wind speeds, and gaining elevation on the trails would only add to the horrendous conditions.

Ms. Sotelo was reportedly a seasoned hiker, but had little or no experience hiking in winter. At the peaks, temperatures on that Sunday dropped to zero degrees with a wind chill of minus-30 degrees. It is beyond my comprehension to imagine a hiker-of-experience tackling that kind of travel - in extreme weather - with only basic clothes and few (or no) supplies. I have hiked all of those trails and would never attempt that type of rigorous goal even with the proper winter equipment.

Photo by Linda Lane

Yesterday (Monday, November 21) my wife and I pulled in to the parking areas which the searchers were using as bases for their operation. Even the most-fit of them, after encountering chest-high snow, frigid temperatures and high winds became totally exhausted as they left the mountains with darkness approaching.

Assuming that the information from Emily's mother is correct, there is no way anyone so unprepared could have survived the first 24 hours on those mountains. Thus the search-and-rescue efforts may now be search-and-recovery.

The prime rule of survival is "Be aware of your surroundings." How could both Emily and her mom not have realized that her clothing was no match for the awful weather conditions at the base of the mountain - let alone towards the peaks. Be assured that the officers of New Hampshire Fish and Game are covering all of the bases in their quest to find Emily Sotelo. They are one of the finest organizations I have ever encountered. However, the chances of finding the young lady alive seems quite slim. 

Search and rescue in the White Mountains is all too common and requires a lot of manpower, time and expense. It often involves people minimizing weather conditions - having too much confidence in their physical abilities - and not wearing, or carrying, sufficient clothing and emergency gear.

I am an experienced hiker in the White Mountains, and there is something truly bizarre about this tragedy. I was outside for a while on the same day that Ms. Sotelo was allegedly hiking mountains, at times in the dark - and dressed in clothing that would have been suspect in summer. I live in Northern New Hampshire, and the weather was close-to-unbearable for me that Sunday she disappeared and I was wearing a down coat and warm hat. 

The search continues for Emily Sotelo today, Tuesday, November 22, 2022. As a hiker, former police detective and resident of the North Country, this tragedy is extremely puzzling to me and to the individuals in my circle. New Hampshire Fish and Game is on it, and I expect a conclusion of some type down the road.


Comments

  1. The hike plan and route seems bizarre as well, or may be just not enough information released to public to make sense of it. Was she going to do a loop? If so, was she going to come down by the flume slide? And it's not wise to drop someone and not wait there or leave a car for them in case something changes and the hiker decides to turn back for any reason or finishes the hike earlier than planned pickup, with limited cell coverage in these parts.

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    1. While it has been years I know that route well and while we don't know everything, she got dropped off (hell, I used to hitch hike to trailheads), and left a plan of her route. Both are not uncommon and waiting 6-8 hours for someone to complete a hike in a parking lot is not something most people would do. Solo hiking even in summer is not something to take lightly, and I would always recommend you take the necessary gear to survive a night outside, which in winter would mean shelter, a sleeping bag, extra clothes, food/water, and ... (the 10 essentials). But people make mistakes, think their abilities are greater than they are, and sometimes get overconfident, especially young people. Sadly, while I doubt this will have a good outcome I still hope it does. I had some close calls on hikes including one around this time of year where I hadn't even told anyone where I was going other than hiking and got through it. Let us all hope this young lady just ends up with a hard lesson learned an a cautionary tale to tell everyone when this is over.

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  2. Well said, I can't imagine any mother dropping their 19 year old daughter off at 5:00 a.m to hike the NH mountains. I came up through there Sunday and the weather was brutal, the wind cut right through. Something tells me there is more to this story than what we know.

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    1. I have thought this from the very first moment I found this all out. I'm not even a hiker or familiar with trails but I'm smart enough to know that things can change with the weather in the blink of an eye especially in the mountains. Also I'd never in this day and time drop my daughter off to hike by herself.

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    2. I think she quickly realized she could not proceed, even if her clothing was perfect for conditions, which it was not, she needed spikes on her shoes. She would not have gotten far. My fear is she came back to the parking lot soon after mom dropped her off and would have jumped in anyone's car to warm up. Someone picked her up or offered her a ride and she has been abducted. Maura Murphy has still not been found and the killer if the Canadian woman in Pinkham Notch back in 2000 was never found and is still at large. It is more probable than her getting very far on the trail in those conditions. If on the Mt still there is no hope, if adducted there is at least hope she may escape her captor.

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    3. There are two unsolved incidents from the President area one missing girl one murdered woman. All cameras in stores and in the area need to be pulled, and I'm sure have been I am very certain the FBI are involved. There is a killer out there still. Everyone should be looking for her everywhere not just in that trail system. Very scary. Never hike alone never. Especially unprepared and part of prep should be a firearm or mace.

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    4. I'm curious as to who you're speaking about being murdered? Was that ever on the news or was it recent?

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    5. Louise Chaput was murdered 21 years ago while hiking in the Pinkham's Notch area. Killer never found.

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  3. This is a real tragedy. I live in the town next to where Emily is from and I'm a Winter hiker of the NH 4k footers. I don't recommend people come down Flume in the Summer let alone Winter. Even coming down Falling Waters in Winter can be treacherous without crampons. That's why most go up Flume or Falling Waters and come down Bridle path. If she didn't even have microspikes I can't imagine her getting that far, but sadly I've seen many young people hiking the Lafayette loop in sneakers when there's still plenty of snow and ice. The Last Traverse by Ty Gagne should be required reading for anyone considering Winter hiking in the high peaks of NH.

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  4. My thinking is that Emily never went up the trail to begin with. This is a case of a run a way who used the excuse of hiking to get away from Mom.
    Mom supported that she saw her go up the trail, and then took off. Emily seeing that her mom has driven away, turns around and heads back to the parking lot to wait for a ride to escape. Giving her plenty of time to get a away to where ever she wants to be.
    As any experienced hiker would know sneakers, exercise pants is not for winter hiking. And no large backpack for extra food, water, clothing, etc...
    They need to see if her phone is on or off, if it's on, ping it to locate it and that will provide more information.
    Or is this a Hoax ??? Of some sort, as we all know people do that sort of thing these days for attention.

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    1. She was desperate the finish the last 4-5 of her 48 before her 20th birthday tomorrow. That to me says she had it in her mind she was making those five peaks, not running away. How far she made it is a different story, but I highly doubt she made it to any peaks in sneakers.

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    2. I'm sure the sar team/cops would already be pinging her phone. Kinda basic.

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  5. Excellent feedback. Runaway or hoax are two possibilities. Unfortunately, the info we have is limited, but one things seems almost certain - that Emily never went up that trail.

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    1. I think you are absolutely right.

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    2. And obviously since they found her IN the mountains you all were incredibly wrong with your boneheaded ‘theories’ that she never went up and ‘ran away’. So ridiculous.

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  6. Shame on everyone speculating so much. It's like you're having fun playing detective. I'm seeing so many people pointing fingers at the mother, who is likely going through the worst days of her life right now. It's not at all uncommon for people to be poorly prepared. It's not a conspiracy, just tragic human error. I did a steep hike in sandals last month like a dummy, it happens.

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    1. I WAS a detective. Yes, this may be simply "tragic human error", but of the catastrophic degree. A wasted death - family left mourning - rescuers in great numbers risking life and limb to locate the still-living, or deceased, subject of the search. Hiking in sandals? You are part of the problem!

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    2. She never had Sandles on what the hell are you talking about? She had on sneakers that were designed for hiking. Some shit detective you are if you can’t even figure out what shoes she was wearing from basic news reports.

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    3. Uhm, the original commenter said she hiked in sandals, no one was referring to Emily at that point. Clearly YOU weren't reading everything.

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    4. Thanks for that! We are dealing with an imbecile. You wrote what I wanted to say.

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  7. I'd like to know if there is any traffic cameras or ATM cameras that place her mother's car in the area. I sincerely believe this young lady never hiked on Sunday.

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    1. There are camera towers with plate scanner technology on 93 around there in a few locations

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    2. Emily and her Mother were staying in a hotel room up there this week.

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  8. on some online newspaper, a day ago when I first saw this story about Emily Soleto missing, the comments included something sort of like: (1) her mother may have killed her and this story is to mislead the police.

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  9. a comment I've seen more than once on this story on online news, is that if the mother dropped her off at 5 a.m. and saw her go up the trail, that is unbelievable because it is too dark outside at 5 a.m. So, exactly how dark is it at 5 a.m. at the beginning of the trail, at that elevation, where her mother claimed she saw her heading up the trail? How many miles is it from the mother's house in Massachusettes to the beginning of the trail in New Hampshire, and how long does it take to drive that far?

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    1. The reports are that the mother and daughter were staying in that area at a hotel and that Emily had hoped to finish her 48 before turning 20 on Wednesday. I also cannot understand allowing my child, although technically an adult, to hike in those conditions without being properly outfitted for the task. Everyone knows the Whites are unpredictable and unforgiving so to take off on such an adventure without being properly dressed and having the appropriate supplies is foolish. I sincerely hope they are able to locate her and bring this mess to a close. After all, dozens of searchers are risking their lives for her.

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  10. Maybe met a boy friend. Never went hiking.
    Mother know more than she is saying

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    1. I live in North Woodstock NH which is just several miles from the trailhead. At 5 in the AM it is pitch dark. I simply can’t imagine dropping off my child, with zero lighting, and wishing a happy hike and watching them walk into total darkness. Is it even realistic that someone could begin an ascent in total darkness. How would you even know where the trail is to follow?

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  11. There’s no records I could find of Emily being recorded in massachusetts at all until a few months ago. No graduation/high school mention of graduates, no race mentions even though she was a runner. It’s like she appeared out of thin air. One reference mentioned a high school in Brazil so maybe she very recently moved to the states? That could explain the lack of winter weather hiking experience but still we wonder where she is. I wonder where she came from because there’s not much about her or her family here.

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  12. If you're not a hiker, but you are a middle-aged Mom, you could easily mistake hiking shoes for "sneakers" and climbing pants for "yoga pants". Latest reports indicate she had on long underwear in other words she had layers of clothing on. It's not uncommon for me even on Winter hikes when it's -15F at the trail head to start off in a single layer climbing pant and lightweight jacket as your body will begin to heat up very quickly as you start to climb and you want to avoid sweating if possible. We have no idea what she was carrying in her pack. The clothing and ill preparation doesn't surprise me at all. What does surprise me is that no one has come forward yet (at least it's not in the public view) that saw her on the trail or Franconia ridge. Even though Sunday was cold, that is one of the most popular hikes in the Whites so people would have passed her on the trail. But, if she was wearing a hat and her jacket had a hoody or she had any face covering it would be hard to tell if it was her. I've passed hundreds of hikers on the trails in Winter and everyone is so bundled up you have no idea who you're passing.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback. The same occurred to me, but my hiking on those trails was always in summer/fall - not winter. I have no info that she was carrying a pack, but I may have missed it.

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  13. 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

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    1. Some of the best insight yet. Thanks you. I am very familiar with the Falling Waters trail, but not in winter. You answered a lot of questions and concerns readers had.

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    2. I agree with this last poster. It would be similar if she went up a Old Bridle Path, and there are a few different trails that go off from Lafayette. There has been at least one fatal with a hiker (who was not solo by the way), who had issues with visibility in a sudden squall near Lafayette summit and ended up taking the wrong trail when she and her companion tried to go back the way they came. They were eventually found off of that trail where she and her companion sought shelter. As I recall, they were not found until the 3rd day of searching, but I’d have to look that up.

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    3. This was my Moms best friend and her husband. They were avid hikers. Had done that trail several times. They just thought they had it and weren’t prepared. I do believe it was 3 days. I’ve never looked at those mountains the same since. Especially Lafayette.

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  14. One of the issues I find up here is that NH Fish & Game are forced to spend huge amounts of time dealing with reckless hikers and ATV riders. ATV accidents, lost hikers, rescue missions, recovery missions, etc. They have little time left to protect the fish, wildlife and forests. All of this is relatively new - and disturbing.

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  15. She was found dead this morning of exposure. I don't think there's more to this story than tragic ignorance and stupidity. Hiking the whites so close to winter requires a lot of gear and the ability to know when to turn around.

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  16. Never go into the woods without the necessary equipment to spend a night. It's that simple, so sorry for this totally avoidable loss.

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  17. There is a back story here that we don't know--and may never. One report said she wanted to do all 4,000 footers before her 20 birthday. She must know something. I don't think it is as simple as a neophyte going unprepared into the Whites in winter conditions that would challenge the best equipped. Intentional? Was she really heading up Lafayette and down Flume? Impossible without gear, supplies, and know how. Spikes? Water? Clothing? What the hell was her mother thinking sending her off in these conditions alone with nothing.

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  18. This has been miserable enough for Emily's family without trying to blame it on her mother. Now that we know where she was found, could you please stop speculating and judging? The Whites claimed another life. RIP, Emily.

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  19. People are so quick to jump to conclusions. Go by what is known. Now we know it wasn’t one of these crazy ideas; run away, kidnapping, murderer. It was simply an ambitious young women who was unprepared for the cold elements. I will be interested exactly where she was found, if she fell and was injured, etc.

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