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
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
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
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
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.”
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Last updated on Wednesday, May 4, 2011.
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John Ford (center) and members of his men's group on one of their ski trips.
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