THE SIGNS ARE SUPPOSED TO remind hikers of their vulnerability. Especially those who, emboldened by cellphones and global positioning systems, set off into the Presidential Range in New Hampshire's White Mountains carrying little else besides day packs stocked with PowerBars. The message, in black lettering on yellow, is blunt: "STOP. The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad." And each year, many people do stop, long enough to pose for a picture. Some photographs are uploaded to Flickr and other websites - including one of a pink-faced man gleefully acknowledging the warning with upraised middle fingers. A caption reads, "Tom showing the White Mountain National Forest what he thinks of their sign."
Todd Bogardus, the search and rescue leader with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, is accustomed to such cavalier attitudes. For a new breed of hikers, he says, high-tech gadgets have replaced common sense, even though cellphone service is spotty in the mountains, and many people do not know how to operate their GPS devices. "Technology is good when it's used with proper basics and education, but it also gives a false sense of security," says Bogardus. "They figure, 'This is the weekend I took off , and, by God, I'm going to climb that mountain.'"
He is talking about hikers like Tom, who probably returned home unscathed. Most of the 5 million visitors to the 800,000-acre national forest each year do, even if they have spent less time preparing to navigate its wilderness trails than they would their local supermarket. "People don't start the day thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to get hurt,' " says Rebecca Oreskes, spokeswoman for the national forest. "They might not have the proper equipment, and they underestimate how difficult the White Mountains can be. They're starting from the valley, where it's 80 degrees. They're in shorts and T-shirts, and they get up high, and there's sleet. It's a really different world."
ABOUT TWO HOURS NORTH OF BOSTON, INTERSTATE 93 CURVES SOFTLY to reveal the indent of Franconia Notch, etched by Cannon Cliff on one side and Franconia Ridge on the other. It is so seemingly benign, so accessible. Seventy million people live within a day's drive.