You always think that extreme events happen to other people. Other people have accidents. Other people get lost in the woods. Other people get stuck in really bad situations. So it was with a sense of unreality that I found myself alone and shivering out in the wilds of New Hampshire in February. How could this be happening to me?
It began innocently enough. Our church (First Church Unitarian of Littleton, Massachusetts) has a Men’s Group that has a ski trip to Loon Mountain every year. There were 15 of us who went on this particular trip. We were all guys who were either in the Men's Group, previous members (like me), or friends. We had a very nice time on Friday, eating together and checking in. On Saturday, we split into separate groups. Some of us went downhill skiing at Bretton Woods, some stayed in the lodge, and I went with a group of five that was hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing at a nearby national park. This is a place we have skied at numerous times before, with some nice trails along a river.
Peter and I were the only cross-country skiers, so we went separately from the others. The idea was to go for the easy loop, and return to the Visitors Center before noon. We arrived at the trail head and immediately set off down the trail. I’m normally a pretty careful person, and like to have a map of where I’m going. This time, unfortunately, I didn’t stop to get one. When we reached a fork in the trail, I thought that either branch would bring us back to the Visitors Center. It turned out, though, that the branch I chose led us out to a long loop around Owl’s Head Mountain, with no civilization for many miles around.
After a few miles of this, Peter wanted to return back the way we had come. I was still convinced that the trail would lead back to the Visitors Center eventually. I was also worried that I wouldn't have the strength to backtrack all the way. So we parted company. I should say at this point that it is a very bad idea to split up in dangerous situations unless absolutely necessary. I could have spared everyone a lot of grief if I had just gone back with Peter.
However, I pushed on, following some old snowshoe tracks, expecting to see some sign of civilization just around the next bend. I continued on until about 6:00 PM, when abruptly the tracks ended. I was eight miles from the Visitors Center, exhausted, and it was getting cold and dark. I knew I was in serious trouble!
I had come across a tentsite, "13 Falls", that had some platforms for tents and an outhouse. It was the only shelter for miles around. I couldn’t think of anything to do at this point, other than to hunker down in the outhouse and wait for rescue. It was too late to start back, and I was too exhausted to try. The following six and a half hours were a nightmare of shivering, slamming the door (to attract attention), and doing everything I could to stay warm as the temperature dipped below zero.
During this ordeal, all kinds of things were going through my mind. I knew the Men's Group had an idea of where I was because Peter could tell them where we parted company, and they might see the signs in the snow that I left. I knew the guys wouldn't quit until I was found. I knew that they would do everything they could. This was really important to me, and kept me going. I just had to hold out until they got to me. When the wait grew longer, though, I first got angry. Why hadn't they found me yet?! Then I was worried that they wouldn't search during the night, or that they had missed my signs, or even that Peter had never made it back. Finally, I resigned myself to somehow toughing it out until morning.
What I didn't realize at the time was the level of concern and dedication of the men in the Men's Group, and some of the folks back home. Even before it got dark, Eric, Jim and Mike were back at the station starting to get seriously worried. They contacted the right people to get the search started, and they called Andy, one of our buddies back at the lodge, to start a marathon phoning session. This started a really tough night of waiting and hoping by all involved. Andy shared some of his experience of that night with us.
“I had three friends at the Visitors Center, nine friends on the slopes, two lost in the mountains and I’m all alone in a condo worrying for the safety of my friends. I lit a candle for them and started to pray and think. Please let them be all right. What can I do from this end to help? I stared at my cell phone practically begging it to ring. Some time around 5:30 I got a call from Mike. ‘Peter made it back. He left John on the trail. John thought the trail would loop around. He told the rescue team where he and John split up.’ Finally some good news, Peter was safe. I stared at my candle and said a silent prayer of thanks. If John can keep his wits about him everything should turn out all right.”
It was 12:30 AM when they finally found me. Two of the searchers from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, Gregory Jellison and Jeremy Hawkes, had followed my tracks, and found me sitting in the outhouse. This is not normally where one would like to be found, but I was plenty happy to see them!
These guys were amazing. Greg and Jeremy gave up their entire night, lugging fifty pound packs, and hiking many miles through the woods without any complaints. They were always encouraging, letting me go at my own pace, and helping me as much as they could. They provided extra clothing, food, beverages, and some warm Jell-O. When my stamina finally gave out completely, they even towed me on my skis the rest of the way out. Even so, it took until about 7:15 AM before I was back, safe and sound (and sore!)
The guys in the Men’s Group were also pretty amazing. I expected them to be concerned, but I never expected them to basically camp out at the Visitors Center, refusing to leave until I was found. Even then, Mike wouldn’t leave until I had made it all the way back. Nobody got much sleep, and everyone greeted me warmly with lots of hugs when I returned to the lodge. My biggest regret was causing so much anxiety for so many people. My biggest learning, though, is the knowledge that I am loved, a valuable member of the community. This is something I knew to a certain extent, but this was a powerful confirmation of the fact. As Andy said, “The weekend did not turn out as planned. We didn’t have as much fun as we thought we would have. My friends are safe though. That was something I took for granted until now. This weekend was supposed to be a celebration of our friendship. Instead it was a test of it. We passed with flying colors.”