The 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.”
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.