For the fourth time this year, someone who hiked into the Sandia Mountains didn’t return.
Search and rescue crews searching for frequent hiker James Whitehead, 70, discovered his body at the bottom of a steep incline late Wednesday, said Bob Rodgers, the search and rescue resource officer for New Mexico State Police. He was found just south of the Sandia Peak Tramway near the Crest Trail, Rodgers said, and his body was brought off the mountain Thursday afternoon.
Whitehead’s death comes the same day another experienced hiker, 40-year-old Bryan Conkling, was found dead on the mountain. Conkling is suspected of having fallen while hiking La Luz Trail.
Last March, Maya Spencer, 17, died in a fall near the Sandia Crest parking lot, and in May, Brittany Johnson, 24, was found dead at the bottom of a cliff a quarter-mile south.
All four lived in the Albuquerque area.
This is a distinctive uptick over the past couple years, Rodgers said. Search and rescue reported one death on the mountain in 2013 and one in 2014.
He can’t say why there’s been an increase in fatalities, but he cautioned hikers to take care with the area, especially La Luz Trail.
During the search for Johnson, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Lt. Pete Golden cautioned against underestimating the mountains.
“The Sandia Mountains are often underestimated for the difficulty of the terrain, because it’s so close to Albuquerque, but it’s still a mountain range,” he said.
Rodgers said La Luz Trail gets a lot of traffic from Albuquerque residents and visitors, and people tend to think it’s going to be an easy hike.
“It’s a very dangerous trail,” Rodgers said. “It’s very technical at times. It’s not just an easy walk in the park.
All of the recent deaths are believed to be the result of falls off the mountain.
Spencer was hiking with friends and slipped on snow and ice that still blanketed the area while looking for a better view from the mountain in late March, police said.
Johnson’s car was found on the crest in mid-May, and search and rescue teams found her body three days later at the bottom of a cliff not far from the Crest Trail.
Conkling was on a solo overnight hike up La Luz Trail when he was reported missing Sunday.
Early Wednesday, his body was found about two miles down from the crest, about a quarter-mile off the trail.
His body showed signs of a fall, Rodgers said, but the Office of the Medical Investigator has not submitted an autopsy report.
The Office of the Medical Investigator has not determined how Whitehead died, Rodgers said, but he was also found at the bottom of an incline.
“In both these cases, they were probably just freak accidents,” he said, especially since both men were experienced hikers and knew the trails.
“I don’t know what Mr. Whitehead had with him,” he said. “People who hike on a regular basis are typically very well-prepared.”
Search and rescue is frequently called out on searches for hikers who most often are unprepared, get lost or find that the hike is much longer and more arduous than anticipated. And in almost all those cases, rescuers find them or they find their way out.
Yet, this week, tragedy struck two experienced hikers.
Whitehead moved to the Albuquerque area from California more than 10 years ago, said Anita Bart, his ex-wife.
Bart said Whitehead was a retired nurse and had been with the military police in Vietnam as well as a police officer in Oakland.
She said he moved to New Mexico in 2004 and remained very close with her son – his stepson – who lived in the Albuquerque area and assisted with the search efforts.
Whitehead’s stepson, Ben Noyce, said Whitehead lived in Sandia North and he went hiking several times a week.
“We’d see each other every couple weeks,” he said. “He’d come down and see his two granddaughters. He was a family man, liked rescuing dogs, and loved the outdoors.”
Whitehead’s girlfriend reported him missing Tuesday evening after he didn’t return from a hike at the Ellis trailhead near the Sandia Crest, Rodgers said.
His vehicle was found at the Ellis trailhead, and his dog, an English bulldog named Temple, was running around in the parking lot, he said.
Noyce said he helped with the search and rescue effort after learning Whitehead was missing.
“I received a phone call Wednesday morning when he was reported overdue,” Noyce said. “Considering the dog never leaves his side, when he was found at his car, I was worried.”