Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Hiking Community Saddened By Recent Death

Hua 2 smallThe death of 61-year-old Delaware hiker Hua Davis has both puzzled and saddened her friends in the hiking community.

Davis died of hypothermia Friday in frigid temperatures near the summit of MacNaughton Mountain, which is located about seven miles from the Adirondack Loj trailhead, where her car was found. The mountain’s peak is accessed via herd paths. It is considered the 47th High Peak because it is about 4,000 feet.

The hiker’s body was found at 4 p.m. Saturday by forest rangers on the mountain’s western slopes. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has not provided specific details about Davis’ death, but Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw said she was ill-prepared on this trip. He said Davis was wearing fleece pants and sneakers, despite the temperatures being well below freezing and the presence of deep snow at higher elevations. He said she was wearing a thin outer-shell jacket, two insulated vests, a wool sweater and fleece against her body.

“Those would have been fine had she not gotten soaked, but they were soaked right through,” Whitelaw said about her upper body clothing. “She ended up going through really deep snow. I don’t know if she was bushwhacking or what. … When you combine the temperature, being soaked and her body size, she’s going to going to go hypothermic quickly.”

Davis was about 5-foot, 2-inches tall and roughly 105 pounds, he said, noting she was a lean athletic woman.

Whitelaw said she had a camera with her and that the last photograph was date stamped at 5:12 p.m. Friday from the summit with the MacNaughton sign in the background.

“She looked in good spirits,” he said. “She was happy and smiling. It was a selfie that she took.”

The photograph indicates she had problems on the way down and wound up going through deep snow without snowshoes. Eventually she sat down against the base of a tree, where she went to sleep and had her vitals shut down due to the cold, he said.

Whitelaw didn’t see what was in her backpack but was “told there was nothing of value for an emergency or saving your own life.” He said he was sharing this information to help others avoid getting into this situation.

On social media, some people have also expressed concern for the forest rangers involved with the search because they felt Davis wasn’t prepared for the trip. Returning from the rescue operation, one ranger fell chest deep into freezing water and had to be evacuated. The ranger did recover apparently without suffering any health issues.

Michael Martin organizes hikes for D.C. Ultralight Backpacking and is the author of two Appalachian Mountain Club guidebooks, including Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic. He said Davis was a club member, a friend, and he has gone on many backpacking trips with her.  Martin said he was sometimes the person she contacted after trips to report her safe return. He said Davis was normally prepared and even spent an unexpected night at -15 degrees in the Seward Range last year in a bivy sack and sleeping bag.

“It’s a little puzzling,” he said about her being unprepared. “It sounds out of character honestly.”

Martin did say he has been concerned about Davis going solo in the winter because that made trips much riskier. The D.C. Ultralight Backpacking group only advocates going light in the warmer months, he said, adding that in winter, members carry and use all the appropriate winter gear, including snowshoes.

“As a group, we definitely put safety first,” he said. “Going out in the winter, you have to have the appropriate gear to do that.”

Brian Horst, an Appalachian Trail through hiker, is a co-organizer of the group D.C. Ultralight Backpacking and hiked about once a month with Davis.

Horst said that in 2014, when Davis turned 60, she logged more than 1,000 miles of hiking. She followed that accomplishment by finishing the Adirondack Winter 46 in a single season. She has also hiked the 35 Catskill mountains above 3,500 feet in winter and was an Ultra Saranac Lake 6er, having summited them all in one day.

“Even the most experienced among us were in awe of some of her accomplishments,” Horst said.

An internet post on the Hudson Valley Hikers website shows that Davis finished the Catskill feat on January 31 of this year with that club.  Davis was supposed to meet up with the Hudson Valley Hikers on Saturday to hike the Saranac 6. When she didn’t show, they reported her missing, launching the search effort.

Richard Williams, a member of the Hudson Valley Hikers, went on that January 31 hike up Vly and Bearpen Mountains and said that Davis wore sneakers on that hike, too.  Williams said he’s been on about a half dozen hikes with Davis, all this winter, and she packed extremely light. He didn’t think she was properly prepared for winter hiking when he was with her.

“I saw her coming to some hikes with very little in her pack,” he said. “So the minute I heard something had went wrong with her, the first thing I figured that happened was she wasn’t prepared. And it seems to be exactly what happened. I don’t think she was very good bushwhacker by herself. I don’t think she should have been out there by herself.”

Williams said that Davis had a similar incident in October 2015 when she was solo hiking North Dome and Sherrill mountains  in the Catskills. That day she got rained on and had to be helped out of the woods by fellow hikers after getting cold and possibly hypothermic. He also said Davis didn’t have the navigational skills suitable for bushwhacking, and she used an iPhone instead of a map and compass when he was with her.

“She was a very smart, very intelligent woman, very happy woman,” he said. “I thought she was wonderful. I loved her, but I have to say she put other people at risk, and she would still be here today if she did the right thing, but she didn’t. I’m very saddened by losing her.”

Hua 1 small

Martin and Horst said that Davis will be widely missed in the hiking community. She was a member of many hiking clubs and had a great appreciation for the natural world, they said.

“For such a small person, she had such a large presence,” Horst said. ”There were so many groups that she was a part of and people’s lives that she touched. That huge exuberance and that love of life is something we’re all going to miss.”

Martin said Davis was especially fond of photography and would often point out things she considered beautiful in the woods.

“I don’t think I’ve met anyone who has lived more in the moment than her,” he said.

In 2014, Davis was awarded the spirit award by the Freewalkers, a fitness adventure club. Davis said she came to the U.S. as an immigrant from China at the age of 42. “I had no friends. My only daughter was in China. I had no job, no money, and no English.”

Davis attended community college and eventually earned degrees in nursing and got a job as a nurse practitioner. While she was going to school, she worked as a house cleaner, gardener, babysitter, waitress, massage therapist and had several nursing assistant jobs. “Anytime, I look back from where I came, the most important thing is not only what I’ve achieved in my healthcare career, but also the friendship I’ve shared with so many wonderful people I have met along the way. I’ve learned that love and compassion are the riches that I am most proud of in my life.”

One of the reasons she won the Freewalkers spirit award was for her charm, according to the organization’s website. In a question-and-answer session on the website, she was asked if her background had anything to do with her approach to people.

“According to my mother, I was born a genetically happy person,” she said. “On the day of 10/30/1996, I came to the U.S. from China. I was a first generation immigrant – someone looking for a better life, and opportunities for personal achievement. I came from a culture that lacked a basic standard of living. I am still amazed how much time I can spend on things that I like to do, without worry about making a basic living. So, free time may be more precious for me than others.”

This post has been updated twice. First with comments from Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw and additional background on Hua Davis. The second updated included info from Richard Williams.

Photos by Karan Girdhani: Hiker Hua Davis, who died in the High Peaks over the weekend.


Mike Lynch

Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues.

Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine.

From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake.

Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at mike@adirondackexplorer.org.




32 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Very odd. Perhaps she had proper gear in a bigger pack and stashed it at lower elevation to make a quick scramble to the top thinking the snow would be manageable. Post-holing through deep snow can wear anyone out very quickly, and if the temperature was dropping, hypothermia likely took over leading to disorientation even more bad decisions. Given the right circumstances, it can happen to anyone.

  2. Paul says:

    Wearing Sneakers? that seems very strange given her experience?

  3. Kevin "MudRat" MacKenzie Mudrat says:

    Good article, Mike. I’ve really been scratching my head about this as well.

  4. Richard Williams says:

    Whar everyone is missing is that this happened to Hua in the Fall when she hiked North Dome and Sherrill in the fall alone lost her outer layer and became hypothermic, and was saved by two other hikers who came apon her, this incident was written about in the ADK forum.

    • Taras says:

      First, my condolences to her family and friends.

      Someone has confirmed the individual using the moniker “WaWa” was Hua Davis and she was assisted by other hikers during a cold and rainy bushwhack to North Dome & Sherrill in the Catskills last October.

      http://www.adkhighpeaks.com/forums/forum/hiking/general-hiking-information/search-and-rescue/458632-high-peaks-fatality?p=458935#post458935

      There is also mention (elsewhere) of her having spent an unplanned overnight in the Sewards late last year. On the same forum, an individual reported meeting someone in the Sewards matching her description, and similar circumstances, but it’s not confirmed it was Ms. Davis. However, the correlation is high.

      The events surrounding the MacNaughton incident do not appear to be as “out of character” for her as has been suggested. Past incidents suggest she operated with a very narrow safety margin and had toed the line of survivability before.

      Complacency is an existential threat; growing too comfortable with risk is an occupational hazard.

  5. August says:

    My thoughts are with her family and those who went to find her. I was up high that night, too, though not as high as she. I was on my way down around sunset and can confirm there was a particular brand of cold that night. At one point I was able to stop to warm my feet in a small patch of sun on the trail, but then the sun fell below the horizon, the trees started popping louder than I’ve heard in a long time, and it got cooold. For reference, I had a cashmere base layer and a thick wool sweater on under a baxter state parka, hood up, wool long undies, wp/wp insulated pants, good wool socks, very good boots, my warmest wool trapper. I wasn’t wet at all and had all this on while hiking. I’ve never hiked in such a warm set-up and I work outside all year here. Very, very sad. No one should die alone.

  6. Boreas says:

    Not to be insensitive, but after reading about several of her recent close calls and given her age, one could speculate she may have been starting with some changes in mental faculty. Sometimes even medication changes can contribute to fuzzy thinking and poor decision-making.

    • Graham says:

      Seems unlikely. This was unequivocally who she was, very much in the moment.

      • Boreas says:

        Graham,

        Then she was very lucky to make it this long before bad luck caught up with her. It’s a shame she didn’t learn from her previous bad experiences. But perhaps that was her goal – try to cheat nature as long as she could. Her choice to make, unfortunately she almost took a Ranger down with her. Hopefully her story will help illuminate the potential perils of minimalist hiking and help others to learn from the tragedy.

    • ponzy says:

      Im a friend of Hua. I tried to be not sensitive as well but your comment with her sanity in question, is beyond moronic comprehension of everything. That is how she is, who she is, how she hikes sans the “ill-preparedness” (in my opinion). You guys all think ya’ll have the right to use her death to stress the importance of safety and being prepared in the wilderness. Then YOU’ve won! She died. Use her DEATH and hopefully youll be able to prevent something like these ever happening again. My only wish is hopefully you all try to know the person first and think 10x before you put someone who recently died in vain die twice. She might woke up and slap your butthead and shove it in your arse (wishfull thinking :). Respect and Peace y’all.

      • Beth Rowland says:

        Ponzy, I’m so sorry for your loss; I hear the ache in your words. Peace be with you.

      • Taras says:

        @ponzy
        From everything I’ve read, Hua Davis was a remarkable person. Her death was tragic. It’s also fair to say it was due to her choices, namely to hike with no margin for error.

        I’m not judging her nor speculating about the given circumstances or her motives. She didn’t die in vain nor for a purpose. She simply died as a consequence of her choices. If this causes others to reflect on their own choices, then maybe Hua’s death will save someone’s life.

        • ponzy says:

          I uderstand that Tara, thank you Beth, and im all cool Boreas.
          its just so tragic and devastating and shocking news.
          Sad but real life truth… Theres no actual “standard gear” in a hikers pack. Maybe not enough for most hikers and maybe too much from others as well. We assess everything based on your abilities, experience, trail condition, weather forecasts, mileage, elevation gain, food, h20, bailout options, e kit….etc etc…. Its a risk everyone takes in the outdoors… Some say it could be prevented had she brought extra gear, extra clothings. That is TRUE — and SHOULD BE ENCOURAGED But what I dont like coming off the internet (in my opinion) is how could they judge someones decision if she “knew” right there and then that she packed exactly she only needed safely on that last dayhike. I guess its only human nature that we only see a mistake of someone if something bad happened…. Everyone of us make a decision based on our self assesment. Theres no real “right” assessment if something bad like this happens, theres always someone or something that needed to be blamed. And poor her, they made out an example out of her death. She who became W46er in one season… I knew her. And i know she is capable of doing the right choice given the right circumstances in front of her… And sadly it turned out not enough….,may she rest in peace.
          Thats just my point…. I think its not right to call and judge her as “ill prepared”… She just got caught in the wrong place @ the wrong time…. Poor her, i still cant believed shes gone… We were just planning to do our 3rd mt katahdin trip this year to include spending days @ acadia national park….

          Peace and RESPECT to all of you. Have a happy and safe hiking guys.

          • Boreas says:

            Ponzy,

            I understand. Many people like to ride on that razor’s edge for the sheer exhilaration of the experience, and I admire that. And if they are taken from us early, they are taken doing something they love, not hooked up to tubes & wires in a hospital. Her last photos showed she was in a ‘good place’ and her passing was about as peaceful as it can get. I am envious. Again, sorry for your loss and for rubbing any salt to your wounds.

          • Taras says:

            @ponzy

            With all due respect to you and Hua’s memory, the sad fact is she made conscious choices that led to her demise. I understand it is painful to hear that but there is much evidence to support it.

            The following information comes from the DEC Rangers, the Medical Coroner, and her family (recent article posted on AdirondackDailyEnterprise.com)

            She left her snowshoes in her car.
            She had no map or compass nor the skills to use them.
            She chose to navigate a bushwhack exclusively with a smartphone (which failed en route).
            Her pace and progress were slow (11 hours, Loj to MacN); she chose to summit rather than retreat.

            Her tracklog from that fateful day:
            https://www.endomondo.com/users/4948160/workouts/681901371

            You’ll notice I’m not dwelling on some long list of “survival gear”. She might very well have lived had she not handicapped her chances by failing to acquire basic navigation skills and use her snowshoes for a winter bushwhack. She made her trip needlessly difficult and hazardous.

            Post-holing up a slope is very hard work and at some point her slow pace and progress ought to have signaled ‘time to retreat’ but she chose to continue to a point past exhaustion.

            Saturday’s weather and conditions were the same as Friday. On Saturday, a group of hikers from Quebec did the same hike without incident. Many were truly “experienced” hikers and bushwhackers. They navigated by map and compass, with a GPS for backup, wore snowshoes, summited MacNaughton, and returned to the Loj in under 11 hours. They passed Hua’s footprints (post-holes) but did not follow her route. They saw the DEC helicopter; they spoke to the Rangers.

            As for W46er, that’s a fine achievement but only an introduction to the challenges of winter bushwhacking. Most of the 46 can be hiked with minimal navigation skills (following signs and markers) and many peaks often have packed trails. Winter bushwhacking presents a blank slate and demands an ability to understand navigation (following a line on an iPhone is not “navigation”).

            As for the Single-Season aspect, that’s also a fine accomplishment but all it means is one is physically fit and has time to hike 46 peaks in one winter. I’m a SSW46er, I know several others SSW46ers, including a gentleman older than Hua, who just completed 7 consecutive SSW46er rounds. SSW46 is notable but not that uncommon. Like Hua, I hiked the GRT and I can assure you that none of that matters when it comes to bushwhacking.

            I never met Hua but, from her photos and comments on Meetup, I gather she was an energetic and fiercely determined person. Her loss is a tragedy especially because it could have been avoided through greater awareness of the challenge she faced.

            BTW, if you think the folks here are being critical, you should read her family’s comments. Tough love.

            • ponzy says:

              Quite honestly humbled when a new friend forwarded me the news,,just realized who am I to react with all these buzz with her while her whole family suffered a great loss… I looked at her as an inspiration that I myself having a hard time to look clearly on the facts…… You are all true that this COULD have been prevented had she made the right choice… I dont know…….

              I sure hope none of this will ever happen again…..

              • Taras says:

                I’m very sorry you lost a dear friend and I too hope her death will stand as a lesson for others. However, she is far from the first person to underestimate the challenge and I’m afraid others will die as well.

                If social media can do one thing to honor her death, it would be to recognize her mistakes (not excuse them) and pause for self-reflection. What skills do I need to acquire to avoid making the same mistakes? Strive to become better. I think Hua would’ve liked that.

      • Boreas says:

        Ponzy,

        Sorry if I offended you – or anyone for that matter. I wasn’t speaking of her sanity – I was speaking of gradual mental changes that happen as people age – just like physical changes. I am in healthcare and see it every day in my patients and myself, as I am the same age as she. was. It seems the last year of her hiking may have started to show those changes with a couple very close calls. If you read the rest of my posts you should be able to see I wasn’t preaching from a pulpit. As I said earlier, it can happen to anyone. Sorry if I offended anyone.

        • ponzy says:

          Pls accept my apology. I may have “read” your comment the wrong way. I still do think something could have went wrong besides the fact everyones commenting re: her clothing choice. I also want to commend to the heroic efforts of the SAR team that day. And also would like to share the article wrote by Peter Stark:

          http://www.outsideonline.com/1926316/freezing-persons-recollect-snow%E2%80%94first-chill%E2%80%94then-stupor%E2%80%94then-letting-go

          And wishfull thinking she could have been saved…..

          • ponzy says:

            Just read your comment again that i havent read above…. Its not luck. its a tragedy and no sane hiker would want to endanger himself/herself let alone involve someone elses with their actions. (“almost took a ranger down with her”) ? Come on! Just give her a break!

            • Scott van Laer scottvanlaer says:

              You may defend your friend as a wonderful person, I have no doubt she was but her reckless nature in which she hiked can not be defended. This tragedy was the most preventable I have ever seen in the backcountry. It wasn’t one, two or three mistakes that she made that led to this tragedy. It was dozens! It is only pointed out here so people can learn from it. Your comment… “She just got caught in the wrong place @ the wrong time” is completely incorrect and minimizes the power people have to prepare properly and execute proper decision making.

    • gebby says:

      I wonder if any in her hiking group ever pointed out to her that she was taking tremendous risk out there?

  7. Kirk Cornwell says:

    I know people with “issues” who bring that to the woods with ultra-preparedness. The issue here, with respect, is putting others in danger because of an “ultra lite” attitude. (I hate “water weight”, but I carry some.)

  8. Bill Ingersoll Bill Ingersoll says:

    I never met Ms. Davis, nor do I know enough about her to pass judgment on her as a human being. No one deserves to die alone on a mountain, cold and wet. Her friends and family have my sympathies.

    But Hua Davis’s case points out that being “experienced” is not the same as being “skilled.” Her death was not accidental. There were no freak weather events that came out of nowhere and caught her by surprise. The conditions last week were very seasonable by March standards. Everything that she encountered were conditions she could have planned ahead for, according to every account I’ve read.

    So despite all of her accomplishments, she was inept at solo winter hiking. The fact she was winter hiking in sneakers(!!!!) is just the first bullet point in a long list of errors. Her death was a direct result of her poor choices and lack of basic skills. Period. It’s not the Internet that passed judgment on her–MacNaughton Mountain did, and she failed.

    My theory is that she was being enabled all these years by the people she hiked with. No need to carry all that extra stuff in your pack if you’re hiking with a group, because someone will always have what you need. Get soaking wet hiking solo in the Catskills, and strangers will come along at the exact right time to help you back to your car. Things always seemed to work out for her, in her experience, and she probably never conceived that it was possible to be alone in a wilderness. And I would guess that few of the people who hiked with her, or who encountered her on the trail over the years, confronted her about her lack of preparedness.

    As a frequent trip leader, I have on a few occasions hosted people who (in my opinion) had no business being in the woods, given their physical abilities and level of preparedness. Ms. Davis seemed to have the physical ability to do the hikes she wanted to do, but not the skill or equipment. Had she shown up for one of my winter meetup hikes in sneakers, I hope I’d have the wherewithal to bar her from the trip.

    • Bruce says:

      Bill,

      You’re so right. I like your “experienced” vs. “skilled” reference, it reminded me of something in my own life. I started fly fishing in the early 70’s, and by the 90’s, I’d had some 20 years under my belt. Some friends and I decided to become Certified Fly Casting instructors in our club. When I started training, I discovered that although I could fly fish fairly well, I couldn’t really cast a proper flyline, let alone teach anyone. I was experienced, but not skilled.

      The point being that if you’re getting what you think you want out of what you’re doing, you may not even realize there might be a better, safer, or more effective way unless someone takes the time to show you.

      The article said she was a member of several hiking clubs. I have to wonder if these clubs were about ticking off peaks or trails, and could this have been a driving factor? I know I couldn’t wait to tell about my first 100 fish day on a catch and release stream.

  9. Neil Luckhurst Neil Luckhurst says:

    I’ve read much what has been written on this tragedy but the bottom line is cruelly simple. She was woefully inexperienced for this hike. Had no idea what she was getting herself into, not a clue obviously or she would have gone about it completely differently.

  10. Exactly 20 years ago, on March 16, 1996, my husband David and I bushwhacked the trailless Santanoni Range in the Adirondack High Peaks and approached the range up frozen Panther Brook. He broke through the ice up to his knees; it was 8 degrees. Our group of six urged him to change his socks and put on bread bags as insulation between dry socks and wet boots. He thought if he hiked fast enough, he would be fine. We topped 4607-foot Santanoni Peak, then Couchsachraga and finally Panther, decided to pack our tents and hike out and not spend a second night in the woods. At the car he could not remove his boots and ended up with frostbite, all toes black. Luckily his circulation is good and he did not lose any of them! We had only Dix and Hough left to complete the Winter 46, but that had to wait until the following winter. We went on to hike the 48 White Mountain high peaks in winter and he seems to have no problems. But the lesson we learned on that excursion is that you can’t keep wet extremities warm, no matter how energetically you hike. I’ve since compiled four anthologies about 250 hikers and all they learned: Women with Altitude, about the first 33 women Winter 46ers; Adirondack Peak Experiences; Catskill Peak Experiences; and Peak Experiences.

  11. Regarding my previous comment about my husband getting frostbite hiking Panther Brook: I should have added that hiking up brooks is dangerous and should be avoided. In the mid-90s when our group Winter 46ed, many herd paths and approaches to the high peaks were used; these were closed off and a single approach to the trailless peaks was established when canisters were removed in 2001. While compiling my four anthologies, I learned about myriad hazards falling through ice on mountain brooks; Uphill Brook en route to Redfield was notably perilous. Two people we know fell through that brook approaching a waterfall in deep water many miles from any trailhead. These occurrences are described in detail in Peak Experiences, and in Women with Altitude.

  12. Winston says:

    Does anyone know how she got soaking wet? Did she fell in water (through ice?)? Was that the accident that caused her hypothermia? How should one prepare for such an accident?

    • Boreas says:

      Winston,

      It is generally believed she became wet from hiking in deep snow without snowshoes or winter footwear. The wetness likely came from both from the snow and from perspiration from the exertion.

      How to prepare for winter conditions can take up an entire book. But basically, one must know where they will be hiking, anticipate the worst conditions, and prepare accordingly. Hiking alone is generally not recommended. Always have an emergency plan for spending an unplanned night at elevation if an unusual situation should develop – including extra food, water, dry clothing, shelter, and a proper sleeping bag with insulating pad. And above all, leave a detailed trip plan with someone who can initiate a search if you do not check in by a specified time.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *