They entered Franconia Notch State Park on the afternoon of June 11 with no gear, proper footwear, or even an idea of where they were going.
Jason Feierstin, 22, a resident of Lowell, and Dylan Stahley, 25, a resident of Windsor, New Hampshire, veered off the trail and attempted to rock climb, a decision that left a hiker stranded at the top cliffs and the other lying under a ledge, trying not to fall.
The resulting hours-long rescue led to criminal charges against both men, a turning point in New Hampshire officials’ efforts to curb irresponsible hiking behavior that puts rescue teams at risk.
“The safety of rescuers is paramount in the execution of search and rescue missions,” Lt. James Kneeland of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department said in a September press release. “When people put themselves in dangerous situations unnecessarily or ill-prepared, and put rescuers at risk, they must be held accountable.”
Feierstin and Stahley didn’t know the area and didn’t have the right shoes for such a steep and dangerous place, “much less ropes, harnesses or climbing gear,” according to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
The hiker stuck on the side of the mountain called 911 for help, telling dispatchers the couple were “exploring”.
Colonel Kevin Jordan, chief of law enforcement for the Department of Fish and Game, decided to criminally charge the two men with ‘endangering another of serious bodily harm’ – a first in 30 years with the agency, according to The Boston Globe. Jordan did not immediately return Boston.com’s request for comment.
“The absolute purpose of indicting these guys – one of the main purposes – was to let people know that if you are this negligent, if you show this blatant disregard for human safety, there is a consequence for that and that is important”, Jordan says the World. “It’s a little warning shot.”
On August 9, Feierstin and Stahley pleaded guilty to reckless driving in exchange for lesser charges. They were fined $200 and fined $48.
Their case has reignited the debate on the risks and costs of rescue missions. New Hampshire law allows the Department of Fish and Game to charge negligent people the cost of their rescue. The department also sells Hike Safe cards for $25 (or $35 per family), and cardholders are not responsible for rescue fees except under certain criteria.
Rescue costs can add up: From fiscal years 2009 to 2019, NH Fish and Game conducted 1,890 search and rescue missions at a total cost of $3.1 million. These figures correspond to approximately 190 missions each year, with an average cost of $1,635 per rescue.
A dozen hikers are billed for the cost of their rescue in an average year, Jordan told the World. In the past fiscal year, NH Fish and Game spent more than $240,000 on hiking and drowning rescues, the newspaper reported.
There has been a massive increase in visitation to national forests during the pandemic, according to research from the University of New Hampshire, and with the onset of fall, Kneeland told the World he expects to see the number of rescues continue to rise.
In its September press release, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department encouraged visitors to enjoy the White Mountains, with an important reminder: “You are responsible for yourself, so be prepared.
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