BRETTON WOODS, N.H. — A young girl chatters to her mother as they descend Mount Pierce, her voice as bright and bouncing as her footsteps.
“You’re amazing!” she calls out to a slower couple she passes on the trail.
Until then, the couple has been focused on the physical effort of hiking, the precision required to step just so onto the rocks and around the roots. Motion, yes. Emotion, no.
But just for a moment, watching the girl disappear from view reminds them of their daughter.
How could it not?
No one would blame Jorge Sotelo and Olivera Bogunovic if they stayed as far away as possible from New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Less than a year has passed since their oldest daughter Emily died cold and alone on Mount Lafayette in her quest to hike all 48 of the state’s mountains taller than 4,000 feet (1,220 meters).
Though she had only a handful of peaks left, Emily had almost no experience with winter hiking, and officials say she was woefully unprepared for the brutal conditions that killed her. After an intensive three-day search, her body was found Nov. 23 on what would have been her 20th birthday.
Within weeks, her family decided to create the Emily M. Sotelo Safety and Persistence Charitable Foundation. On July 29, hundreds of hikers plan to participate in “Emily’s Hike to Save a Life,” a fundraiser organized by the foundation and Hiking Buddies, a nonprofit that educates, prepares, and connects hikers. Dozens of teams will hike in the White Mountains and elsewhere, with some aiming to summit the remaining 4,000-footers on Emily’s list.
Her parents will be on Mount Lafayette, retracing her last steps.
In life, Emily pushed her mother out of her comfort zone and inspired her to become more giving, Bogunovic said. The hike is a continuation of that.
“It’s going to be a very emotional experience, but also a sense of accomplishment, that we accomplished what she wanted to accomplish, and in some ways, she does live on,” she said. “To build on what she had plans for ... I think makes it a little bit easier to handle the tragedy.”
Until they started preparing for the fundraiser, Bogunovic imagined hiking was “just a walk in the woods.” She had no idea how strenuous it would be.
“I thought, ‘Oh, it’s nothing, I'll just run up that mountain and down,'” she said. “It was really an awakening for me.”
The couple started with flat terrain close to their home in Westford, Massachusetts, before working their way up, literally, to more challenging hikes. After tackling Mounts Monadnock, Pemigewasset and Kearsarge, they attempted their first 4,000-footer, Mount Pierce, in late June. They didn’t reach the summit that day but succeeded on their second try a few weeks later. While experienced hikers typically finish the 6-mile (10-kilometer) trek in about four hours, Sotelo, 57, and Bugonovic, 56, spent close to 10 hot, humid hours on the mountain that day.
“At the beginning, I was thinking that you can take the mountain with the proper determination but then after attempting hiking a couple of times, I realized that determination is not going to make it,” said Sotelo, a gastroenterologist who practiced by climbing stairs at work. “You have to train for that.”
Accompanying them was Andrew Barlow, the moderator of the Hiking Buddies NH 48 Facebook page. Unfailingly patient, he talked the couple through trickier sections of the trail, answered Bogunovic’s frequent questions about how much elevation they had gained and told jokes along the way. “You haven’t stopped complaining since you got here” was one punchline, but the novice hikers had no complaints.
“They've never shown signs of exhaustion or anything like that. I'm sure they feel it, but they're good at hiding it,” Barlow said. “It's been a long process, but they've been great troopers.”