Emily is an avid hiker who enjoys climbing the mountains of New Hampshire.
History of Hiking with Dad
My dad and I have hiked numerous mountains together through the years. Most notably, summer of 2010, the year I graduated from college, we hiked several mountains. Recently we haven't done mountains quite as strenuous, but we were planning to work our way up to that once again. This article takes place on Monday, August 16, 2021, when my dad and I set out to climb Mt. Major in New Hampshire. Shortly after summiting, my dad encountered a medical emergency. It was an absolutely terrifying experience and we are so fortunate and blessed to have safely gotten my dad off of the mountain and into the hands of those who could help him.
August 16, 2021: The Day Unfolding
At my house my 2-year old daughter was having a meltdown... Dad and I had planned to meet up at 10am to set out for our hike up Mt. Major. I didn't know what to do. I called my mom and tried to bail on hiking. I missed my daughter and wanted to spend some time with her! I remember feeling guilty that I wouldn't be with her all day. She didn't want to go anywhere, or see anyone, and that was a problem since I was going to drop her with her grandmother while Dad and I hiked. We had several busy days prior and actually hadn't been home for more than a few minutes in days. She was content playing with her play-doh, so I let it be, and gave her some time, and then she was good to go! It is so hard to actually get out of the house some days, and remember everything that you need to remember... So I filled my Nalgene with ice water, grabbed some snacks and a sweatshirt and threw them in my backpack, along with my toddler (but not in my backpack), and we were out the door.
12:20pm - We Set Out to Begin Our Hike
I sent a text to my husband that we were starting out to climb at about 12:20pm.
We took many stops along the way as it was very steep. Dad had climbed this mountain before, probably a few times. I had never climbed it and we weren't entirely sure what trail to take. We ended up taking the blue trail.
We both were struggling and frequently took stops. It was really steep. I checked in on Dad a lot and we were taking it easy and slow. We passed many hikers who were also on their way up, and who had stopped to take a break. Two hikers in particular were a man and woman from Chicago. They were resting as well and wondering out loud where the summit was. We got a little further to a beautiful outlook and Dad asked another set of hikers if this was the summit. They said no, but that it was just ahead a few minutes away. We had heard that repeatedly from many people that the summit was only a few minutes away yet we still were taking breaks, feeling tired and taking our time. Slow and steady wins the race.
The summit was just beyond. Dad and I discussed how this certainly was a challenging hike. A kind of "bang for your buck" hike, a hike with great views that can be completed in a fairly short amount of time.
I spotted a small shady spot on the side of the trail where we decided to pause and eat our lunch here. We had our sandwiches and said hello again to the Chicago hikers who thought it was an excellent idea to eat our sandwiches at our little nook. We took some photos and had a leisurely lunch. After lunch we finished the climb to the summit which was less than a minute away by this point.
Around 1:45pm - We Reached the Summit!
We reached the summit. It was bright, sunny and offered 360 degree views. We were both thirsty. I knew Dad was tired and that we didn’t have enough water. I knew he needed water and to sit and rest a bit. He rests more now than in years prior but that is a part of getting older I thought. I wandered over to get a better view and thought Dad was behind me. I then realized he was sitting quite a ways behind me. I took some photos and then was going to join him but he came over to me. He looked tired. He said he needed some water. I took out our last bottle and poured half into his bottle. Dad said he needed to get out of the sun. We wandered back over to the other side of the summit and sat at a bench with a breeze. He said he wanted to sit in the breeze because it felt nice. I checked my social media and took some more pictures. Dad was quiet and didn’t take any photos which is very rare for him. He always likes to take selfies and pictures on our climbs.
2pm - We Began the Descent Down
Around 2pm we left the summit to hike back down the mountain and I texted an image of the view to my husband as we begun our journey down.
On the way down, Dad was continuing to take stops frequently. At first I thought, okay, we’ll just take it real easy, as this was quite the challenging climb. But then he started taking a break after we had hiked only a few steps. I’ve never seen Dad not strong before and I was beginning to worry slightly. I had one mission in mind - to get him off of this mountain.
Shit Got Real
At around 2:20pm, things got very bad.
“Em, I’m getting kind of lightheaded," Dad said to me. I told him that we could sit down and I quickly got close to him to try to help him, but then he followed this statement by saying “Em, this is bad, Em, this is bad." He looked like he may pass out right there and I feared him blacking out and falling against the hard rock.
I was really scared but remained calm. Initially I heard myself let out a curse word, as in "what the f*** am I supposed to do!?" This was obviously a rhetorical question.
My dad is always strong, but has allergies to pollen, mold and other things. On our last hike to Mt. Kearsarge he mentioned a burning in his lungs and he seemed to think it was attributed to the high pollen.
Dad looked unsteady as he got down from the rocky part we were on and found a flatter area where he proceeded to lay down on the ground.
I glanced up the trail to try and spot any hikers who could potentially help us. But at the same time unsure if we did in fact need help. Was he dehydrated? I kept saying his name because he was closing his eyes and I wanted to make sure he was breathing and conscious.
A few minutes later Dad started coming around and he began to not feel as lightheaded. We were able to move to the other side of the trail where it was flatter and he could lean up against a large rock with his legs stretched out in front of him. At first he sat with his ankles awkwardly crossed, and then with his legs sprawled out on the ground. I gave him my Nalgene as he had ran out of water. I rummaged through my first aid kit not knowing what I was looking for, but just scrounging for anything that may possibly help him.
He said he was feeling better but I wasn’t sure. I wanted him to be better but I was worried to get up and start walking again and to have another problem. I was looking over my shoulder and thinking how could I get some help but there was nobody around.
Then, at last, I saw two people come into view coming down from the summit. I was worried they were going to bypass us entirely as they looked like they were giving us space and possibly going down a different part of the trail. Just then, they started walking towards us and started a conversation directed at my dad, casually asking him, “are you doing okay?”
I looked at the man and woman and if I could ask my eyes to relay a message it would have been to please help my dad...he is very, very not okay.
Dad hesitated a moment. I think the hikers realized the severity of our circumstances. They asked Dad if he needed water and he said yes.
They gave Dad plenty of ice cold water and made small talk for a few minutes. Dad was looking better after drinking and resting. He was talkative again. Dad voiced his appreciation to them numerous times and talked about the mountains he and I have climbed together in previous years.
The two hikers introduced themselves to us as Kim and Eric, from Connecticut, who were on vacation for a week up here in New Hampshire. They were doing some hiking and exploring, and Eric said they would be going to explore Gunstock this week as well and it had been years since he had been there as a child.
Kim asked if it would be okay if they stick around for a bit and hang with us. Dad and I both agreed that this would be great and if they were okay with it then yes, please do. Kim then asked me specifically if it would be okay if they chill with us and mosey on down the trail behind us just to make sure we safely get off the mountain. Can you believe complete strangers did this for us?
We sat a few more minutes and Dad was really looking better and coming around. We thought he had been dehydrated. We decided to start walking a few more steps and see how we do.
It was during this time at around 2:45 pm, I texted my husband a message that something just happened but I wasn't sure exactly what. I explained the situation and emphasized that I was scared, but that Dad was okay and alert, resting and drinking water.
We walked a few more steps, Dad and I parallel on the trail with our newfound hiking buddies behind us. Dad was walking slow and I quickly had to reset the pace and slow down. Soon thereafter Dad began to not feel well again and was lightheaded. We paused and sat down again on a rock. That is when we jointly made the choice to call for help.
Help is Coming
At 3pm, I dialed 911. The operator picked up and I stammered some nonsense words “I’m hiking with my dad and he needs help." Of course that was very vague so I clarified a bit. The operator asked: What kind of help? Where are you?
"Blue trail, 1/4 mile down, Mt. Major."
The 911 operator told me to make sure Dad does not eat or drink anything else. They asked me if I had any aspirin on us, which we did not. They told me to call back immediately if anything changed with him.
I updated my husband and my mom as well. I told my mom that something had happened while hiking on the descent of our climb. Dad is alert and rehydrating and sitting with some kind hikers. Previously, Dad was feeling lightheaded and needed to lay down on the trail. I called 911. I will update further when I can.
I kept swatting mosquitos off of Dad's head and legs. Dad seemed alert and relieved that help was on the way. I think he knew something was wrong, but wasn't sure what.
Help arrived in the form of 10 or so men and women to help evaluate, treat and carry Dad off the mountain. They started by putting electrodes on his chest and taking his vitals and giving him aspirin and other necessary medication. They told Dad that he had suffered from a cardiac event. I didn't know this. No one said anything about his condition to me; they merely asked me for his information which I supplied.
Next they loaded Dad into the stretcher, strapped him in, and they began the journey down the mountain with about 4 people on each side carrying him with slings and switching out people periodically. More crews came up to meet them bringing more water and additional man power. One passing hiker even helped carry Dad a portion of the way. He only stopped assisting because his canine hiking companion was thoroughly confused and had continued on up the trail without him.
I asked one of the paramedics walking beside me who wasn't actively carrying Dad, for an update. He told me that he wasn't sure if I had been told, but that Dad did have a cardiac event. This was a mind blow for me... I asked what hospital they would take him to but he, as well as all the other paramedics I asked throughout the descent were not sure yet. They all said it would be a hospital that had availability in their cardiac unit.
On the downward climb I tried to stay out of the way, carrying Dad's hiking boots in my hand and keeping watch to ensure Dad's chest was rising and falling. The emergency personnel chatted Dad up a bit on the way down to keep him comfortable and engaged. It felt like a long road down but longer for Dad who had his eyes closed to make the ride less nauseating. Upon reaching the bottom of the trail, first responders reported Dad as unconscious because his eyes were closed but he in fact was conscious and alert.
After the long trek down the mountain, we then reached a flatter and much wider final section to take us back to the parking lot. Two ATVs were waiting for us to transport us the remainder of the way down the mountain. Dad and I were transported onto one of them with myself in the front seat, helmeted and buckled in, and Dad on the stretcher right behind me. Dad sat with emergency personnel, one on each side of him, and I could see him and check in on him from where I was seated. Dad handed me his wallet and keys and he asked me to sit in the ATV with him a moment before we headed down the mountain. I climbed in. All he wanted was just to know that I was there, and checking in on me. This didn't feel quite real. Dad and I were hiking together just a short time ago and now he was laying here on a stretcher on an ATV. I kept thinking now and for the next several weeks...is this real? When will this be over? I smiled at Dad and held his hand. I reassured him that I would figure out which hospital he was going to (still wasn't known) and I would see him very soon.
The driver of the ATV did a great job of avoiding the large boulders for a fairly smooth ride. When we made our way to the bottom, I felt a bit like a celebrity. There were tons of crews there, but also lots of hikers just waiting to make sure Dad was okay. I heard a few people all inquiring about Dad and the status of his health. People we didn't even know! And Kim and Eric were at the base as well! I would say that this is where the Mt. Major Rescue story ends...but after this leg of the journey, what came next was a truly terrifying next two weeks.
Note: Dad is doing great, and I'm only able to write this now that he is doing well, recovering and getting stronger each day.
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!
Alton Fire, Alton Police, NH Fish and Game, Gilford Fire and Lakes Region Search and Rescue all responded to help get my dad off of the mountain and into the hands of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s helicopter to be taken to Concord Hospital.
Down at the base lots of people were asking me for contact information. I didn't really get to talk to Dad too much prior to him getting in the helicopter but I did let him know I was there and that I would see him soon at the hospital.
I should have left sooner and headed straight to the hospital. I lingered a few minutes to make sure Dad was in good hands. Then I sat in Dad's car and when I heard the helicopter start up and it got really loud and windy, I began my journey en route to the hospital. I headed out, waved to Kim, I had already talked to her a few minutes prior, and turned right out of the parking lot. Then I pulled over on the side of the highway as I realized I didn't really know where I was going and hooked up my GPS, reconfigured Dad's mirror and seat settings although I left his music channels on for most of the ride to the hospital. I called Mom, told her Dad is on his way to Concord Hospital and that my husband would be over soon to get our daughter and that she could head to the hospital and I would be there shortly. It felt so surreal and still does. I was driving Dad's car without him, when we had been in his car together just this morning. We were talking about random things including houses that have septic and a foreign exchange student he once had living with them way before I was probably born. Is this real? I had lot of these Is It Real moments today and the next two weeks.
At this point I was pretty numb. I stopped off at McDonalds, used the bathroom and didn't really think too much. I just felt numb. I got to the ICU well before Mom did and called my brother, filled him in but he was at work and there wasn't much he could do at that moment so he didn't come by. Mom arrived and she looked a bit numb as well.
Visiting Dad at the Hospital
For the 9 days that Dad was in the hospital, my mom and I went together each time. Some of these visits were very good. But some were freaking hard. I said to my mom on one of the visits "Do you think he is going to be ok?!" and I started to bawl. The hardest day for me was the day after his heart attack. Monday, the day it happened - I was so, so relieved that he had help and that people were taking care of him, and that it wasn't just me on top of a mountain trying to save his life. But then Tuesday came. Then I learned that Dad had a serious heart attack and would need open heart surgery. I saw Dad Tuesday night and had a little tear come down. I told Mom I cried a little and would try not to do that again. On Wednesday I felt guilt really bad. How did I not know that something was wrong with my Dad? And why didn't I just cancel and not go hiking that day? On Thursday, I was feeling super great, and very hopeful. It always helped when my Dad was in a hopeful and happy mood which he was on this day. He had complete faith in his surgical team, and everyone really in the cardiac and ICU departments. Friday was his surgery day and he felt ready for it. His body was stabilized and the doctors were waiting for certain things to happen prior to doing the surgery and the surgeons were happy with how things were progressing. Then Friday came. Shit got real again. My mom cleaned and cleaned and cleaned the house some more, so she did great to help get her through. Then she bought healthy new foods and cleaned out the pantry of the not healthy ones. But Friday was tough, watching the clock constantly and awaiting the next phone call with an update.
At 4pm we finally got a phone call that the surgery was complete and we were told it was a 6-bypass surgery. Holy crap. Dad's surgeon said he was happy with how things went and how Dad is doing, and he emphasized that this was a very serious surgery and that it will take time for recovery.
I grabbed my purse and was ready to go. Then Mom reminded me that the doctor said they still needed some time to finish getting things ready. So we waited some more. The waiting was driving me insane. Finally, we reached the hospital and we got to see Dad but of course he was mostly still under anesthesia. His breathing tube was still in but he was beginning to wake up. The nurse told me I could talk to him and hold his hand but he couldn't speak because of the tubes. So I held Dad's hand, told him I loved him and that I was there but that he couldn't talk because of the tubes. He looked uncomfortable and frustrated, like he wanted to talk but couldn't. So I stopped talking and just held his hand. Looking at Dad like that took the wind right out of me. My Dad. Come Back to Me! Looking at the machines, and all the tubes, and his incisions. The nurse was standing by checking his vitals and monitoring him and entering stuff into her computer. I handed her a Get Well card for Dad and felt so small. She said "I know it's a lot....seeing him with all the tubes and everything, but he is doing great!" This made me feel good, but still the sight of him and all he had been through with this surgery, and with the mountain climb, I lost it a bit. I started bawling and sobbing and was a real mess. She gave me a little pat on my shoulder. I thanked her and left, then used my mask to wipe the huge mess of moistness off my face.
I enjoyed going with Mom everyday to see Dad, albeit the circumstances it was a special time with my Mom. Because of Covid we couldn't go in together. So she would go in first; usually briefly for 20 minutes but as Dad got better and stronger, some of the visits would be 40 minutes or so. So that would be quite the lengthy visit between her and I and that could tire Dad out quite a bit. So sometimes I could only see Dad for a minute, especially if he didn't sleep well the night before. But he always said "no, don't go yet, I'm glad you're here" and asked me to hold his hand.
Losing Faith and Finding it Again
I lost faith some time ago and I really don't know when. But I know that after the events that happened on Monday, August 16th when I asked everyone I knew for support and prayers for my dad, they didn't blink an eye. They didn't know the circumstances but reached out to do whatever they could to support us. I'm trying to find faith again and I really don't want to lose it. I feel like this traumatic event has given me the gift of knowing that God is Good and God is Real.