Eric Mazur has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, skied down Mont Blanc, gone back-country skiing in the Rockies. Besides being a dean of applied physics at Harvard, Mazur knows his way around maps, compasses, and GPS coordinates.
But it was on a recent ski-trekking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that he and a group of his students faced life-threatening peril. “We came very close to not making it out at all,” says Mazur.
A combination of near-zero temperatures, bad luck, and regrettable decisions in a massive wilderness area with no cellphone reception turned an overnight outing into a near-disaster. The story of the weekend in the woods is a lesson on how quickly events can take an ominous turn — and how grit ultimately got the group out of a frozen labyrinth.
All six suffered hypothermia and dehydration. Three had severe frostbite that turned gangrous. One was hallucinating. By the time they got to the emergency room at Speare Memorial Hospital in Plymouth, N.H., their body temperatures hovered near 92 degrees. At 90 degrees, Mazur says, the brain doesn’t get adequate oxygen “and that’s the end.”
Mazur has been unable to wear shoes on his frostbitten toes since the February misadventure. He wears open-toed post-op shoes, and three toes on his right foot remain at risk.
They left Fraser’s car in a parking lot off the Kancamagus Highway not far from Loon Mountain in case they decided to take a southern route out the next day — a route Mazur had done only once, the first time he led a group.
This is where Mazur typically would have questioned rangers about the southern trails: Which are broken in for skis? Which bridges are out? But because they were running late, and he thought Fraser had already asked, Mazur did not speak with the ranger, which he would later regret.
They then drove north to the departure point, a parking lot on Route 302, a few miles from Bretton Woods. It was noon when they donned cross-country skis and shouldered backpacks containing food, water, clothes, and sleeping bags that weighed about 30 pounds each. They had reserved bunks for the night at the Zealand Falls hut, run by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Mazur relaxed. The paths were clear, the sun out, the fir and birch glades beautiful, the views spectacular. There was a lot of uphill trekking to the hut, which is at 2,600 feet, but they made it by late afternoon. For dinner, they ate the minestrone soup and pasta they’d packed.
Zealand Falls, one of only two White Mountains huts open in the winter, was at capacity with 36 bunks.
The next morning, they decided to explore the southern trail that would ultimately lead to Fraser’s car. If conditions were too difficult, they could always turn around.
But they didn’t set a point of no return and found themselves bogged down on an unbroken trail in deep snow. Single file, they took turns in the lead positions to break in the trail, but made slow progress. The hut ranger had assured them their hiking plans were solid, crossing the Presidential Range toward Loon Mountain.
“He made it appear like it was a walk in the woods,” says Mazur. That’s pretty much what Mazur thought, too: “The White Mountains don’t look like Everest or K2. I’ve always considered them a little bigger than hills.”
It was 15 miles from the hut to the parking lot near Loon, a full day’s hike under the best of circumstances. But this was February of a record-breaking winter. Many of the blue trail markers on the trees were covered with snow.
And there were many fallen trees, with all six having to take off their skis whenever they had to climb over. Each tree meant a 10-minute delay and “there were dozens and dozens and dozens of trees,” Mazur says.
Then there were the creek crossings: “down six feet and up six feet,” each one a 20-minute affair. “Meanwhile, the clock was ticking,” says Mazur.
Their water containers froze solid. They each had only an energy bar to eat. The trail, when they could find it, had become nearly impassable, unbroken and littered with obstacles.
As the sun set, Mazur still wasn’t too concerned; he’d summited Kilimanjaro using a headlamp. At about 6 p.m., now wearing their headlamps, the group reached Stillwater Junction, where several branches of the Pemigewasset River merge. Once across the frozen river, according to Mazur’s GPS, they would hit tracks.
Instead, they were greeted by more fallen trees and huge boulders. Mazur’s ski binding malfunctioned, so he took off his skis and carried them. His feet were freezing and wet. The temperature, he believes, was close to zero.
At 7 p.m., they were still 10 miles away from the southern parking lot. They were hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. “At that point, the group started to disintegrate,” Mazur says.
Two people wanted to return north to the Zealand Falls hut. But that was a 12-hour hike back. Two wanted to build an igloo-type shelter, but they had no tools, and it would take hours. Mazur and Kelly Miller, a graduate student from Toronto and the only woman in the group, agreed: They had to keep moving south.
At 1:30 a.m., they got to a creek that wasn’t frozen over and was dotted with tree trunks. Fraser led, then Mazur, followed by the others. It would take an hour for all to cross. Shivering on the other side, Mazur told Fraser that he could not stay still, he had to keep moving and would call for help as soon as he got cell reception. Fraser would wait for the others. Each person had a GPS.
The trail descended and Mazur’s skis picked up speed as his headlamp weakened. “Here I am with 30 pounds on my back on an icy trail in the dark, and I don’t know what’s ahead,” he says. “If you fall, it’s hard to get up.”
When his GPS died, he dug out the spare battery, but because of the cold, it would not turn on. By this time, Mazur and the others had been in constant motion for nearly 20 hours, with little water or food.
At 3 a.m., he reached a closed campground, where a map was posted. He still had 2.5 miles to go, but at least he was on the right trail.
Mazur says he never worried that they might not make it out. “But what I didn’t realize was the danger of hypothermia.”
It was 4:30 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 17, when he reached the parking lot.
You can hit the Boston Globe to see how it ends. So I beat on this endlessly here, but this is ripe for yet another beating.
The point where this expedition took a turn for the potentially deadly is when they were trudging along in the dark, wet and exhausted. To my readers, if you ever find yourself traipsing down the trail in the dark, exhausted, dehydrated, cold, hungry and wet, you’ve screwed up. Don’t go past dark. Simply don’t do it.
Give me 30 pounds and I could have packed enough gear to have made it for a week in the mountains. Give me 15-20 pounds and I could have been comfortable that night.
You don’t keep going. You stop with daylight left because you have the wisdom to know that you’re not going to make it back. You ensconce yourself in a shelter of your own making if necessary. If you aren’t carrying a tent, carry a tarp with 550 cord and use trekking poles for support along with trees.
Cut pine bows from surrounding trees to lay down to keep the ground from sucking heat out of your body. Gather wood, and use the 5X rule (gather five times more than you think you need to make it through the night).
If you have a sleeping bag you’ll likely be warm, if not you have the fire. Carry a steel or aluminum container with you and you can boil snow or river (or even puddle) water to make it potable water (and in spite of what you hear know-it-all Cody Lundin say, it isn’t pronounced “pottable,” it is pronounced ˈpō-tə-bəl).
I’ve never understood survivalists who want to teach people to survive with nothing. My philosophy is not to carry nothing. Carry something. That something, as I’ve recommended before, is this: (1) gun, (2) fire starter, (3) small tactical light, (4) container, (5) heavy rubberized poncho (or better yet, tarp), (6) 550 cord, and (7) knife.
With this simple list you can have shelter, fire, self protection, warmth, light, and ability to stay dry. And if you’re going out in the woods, stop and buy a lighter or ferro rod. Do this whether you’re going in the wilderness for one hour, one afternoon, or one week. Do it regardless of how long you intend to be in the wilderness.
How much easier can this be? Don’t go into the wilderness unprepared, and don’t travel after dark.