An 80-year-old hiker who was rescued trying to reach the summit of Mount Washington could end up footing the bill for the emergency services, New Hampshire officials said Tuesday, amid efforts to raise awareness about the dangers of the popular tourist destination.
Authorities may even file criminal charges in the case, after two relatives left James Clark behind, Maj. David Walsh of the state’s Fish and Game Department said.
Walsh said he wasn’t aware of anyone ever being charged criminally in a case like this, but he could not say what the charges might be or even who might be charged, noting that officials were in the early stages of their consideration.
Clark was found Friday immobile in the fetal position with signs of hypothermia hours after telling his two grandsons to go on without him. Clark was treated at a hospital for non-life-threatening injuries and released Saturday.
“This probably wouldn’t have happened,” if the group had stayed together, Lt. Mark Ober of Fish and Game said.
Mount Washington is notorious for its erratic weather, particularly its high winds. A 231-mph (371-kph) gust on the 6,288-foot (1,916-meter) mountain in 1934 remains the highest wind speed ever observed by man. Two people who were hiking in the area have died in recent days.
Clark didn’t have the right clothing or gear to make the ascent in freezing rain, Ober said. As a result, the agency will likely recommend to the attorney general’s office that Clark pay for the cost of his rescue, taking advantage of a law that allows the state to recoup rescue costs when it determines that a person acted negligently.
Fish and Game has recommended that nine people be billed this year and 25 in 2018. Bills can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the number of people involved and the length of the search. Ober could not say how much Clark might be charged.
“People think it’s a walk in the park,” said Ober, noting there have been 150 deaths around Mount Washington since the 1800s.
“They don’t understand that it could be 70 degrees (21 degrees Celsius) at the base and it will be 12 degrees (minus 11 degrees Celsius) with blowing wind and snow potentially at the summit.” he continued.
Clark, of Dublin, Ohio, told the New Hampshire Union Leader that he blamed himself for telling his two grandsons to go ahead without him. They ended up reaching the summit and then returning a different way. With no sign of Clark by evening, the pair called search and rescue officers.
When rescuers found Clark on Lion Head Trail, they gave him dry clothes and warmed him up in a sleeping bag before carrying him about 2 miles (3 kilometers) to the nearest road. From there, an ambulance took him to the hospital.
Kevin McNerney, 19, told the newspaper he would understand if his family is billed, saying “there is no price you can put on a human life.”