Survival In The White Mountains

BY Herschel Smith
9 years ago

Boston Globe:

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.


  1. On May 27, 2014 at 12:22 am, Amazed Veteran said:

    Captain, I’m thinking, “Do not go into the wilderness unprepared…” Correct?

  2. On May 27, 2014 at 9:02 am, Herschel Smith said:

    Thanks, and I fixed the typo. Changed the meaning of the sentence, huh?

  3. On May 27, 2014 at 8:45 am, Paul B said:

    Mazur might have a nearly legendary list of climbs and feats but I would bet he had never done anything unsupported before. That, in essence, is what they attempted with out carrying the basics for wilderness survival.

    Knife, rope, water and fire and you are ahead of our ancestors who lived the life. Some kind of cover to carry it in and you could make what was needed.

    With a fire arm you can handle just about anything the woods can throw at you.

  4. On May 27, 2014 at 9:58 am, TimeHasCome said:

    As a older than dirt Scoutmaster I would never have run that group so hard . Why all the rush ? Why not stop at 10 hours regroup get a bite to eat and some warm broth in them next to roaring fire ? I love tarps , a driving rain will go through the best of tents .
    I have been in too many scrapes in the woods , you must come prepared . I don’t leave the parking lot for a day hike without 72 hours of gear on my back .

  5. On May 27, 2014 at 10:55 am, Brennan Graves said:

    A good, small axe makes an excellent complement to a good knife. It’s weight well worth the effort.

  6. On May 27, 2014 at 1:32 pm, Unsooper said:

    This reminds me of a story I read last Fall. A couple went for a hike in the Mountains but got lost.They found her barely alive and the husband dead. The two were never more than one half mile from their camp and vehicle but didn’t bring enough water and the temp soared over 100F.

  7. On May 27, 2014 at 7:11 pm, Gunny G Alz said:

    A small jar of honey and peanut butter along with a small jar of boullion cubes doesn’t take up much room and they are packed with energy and hot soup always tastes good at 0F!

  8. On May 28, 2014 at 12:31 am, drhug said:

    Grew up in Montana and actually camped out at 30 below, for the fun of it. But, we never went unprepared. Shelter, fire, food and water. I was young then. I could not do that now, at my age.

  9. On June 18, 2014 at 11:45 pm, neshobanakni said:

    Never push past nightfall. Den up and rest.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

You are currently reading "Survival In The White Mountains", entry #12276 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Survival and was published May 26th, 2014 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

26th MEU (10)
Abu Muqawama (12)
ACOG (2)
ACOGs (1)
Afghan National Army (36)
Afghan National Police (17)
Afghanistan (704)
Afghanistan SOFA (4)
Agriculture in COIN (3)
AGW (1)
Air Force (40)
Air Power (10)
al Qaeda (83)
Ali al-Sistani (1)
America (22)
Ammunition (247)
Animals (225)
Ansar al Sunna (15)
Anthropology (3)
Antonin Scalia (1)
AR-15s (354)
Arghandab River Valley (1)
Arlington Cemetery (2)
Army (84)
Assassinations (2)
Assault Weapon Ban (28)
Australian Army (7)
Azerbaijan (4)
Backpacking (2)
Badr Organization (8)
Baitullah Mehsud (21)
Basra (17)
BATFE (181)
Battle of Bari Alai (2)
Battle of Wanat (18)
Battle Space Weight (3)
Bin Laden (7)
Blogroll (3)
Blogs (24)
Body Armor (23)
Books (3)
Border War (17)
Brady Campaign (1)
Britain (38)
British Army (35)
Camping (4)
Canada (17)
Castle Doctrine (1)
Caucasus (6)
Center For a New American Security (8)
Charity (3)
China (16)
Christmas (14)
CIA (30)
Civilian National Security Force (3)
Col. Gian Gentile (9)
Combat Outposts (3)
Combat Video (2)
Concerned Citizens (6)
Constabulary Actions (3)
Coolness Factor (3)
COP Keating (4)
Corruption in COIN (4)
Council on Foreign Relations (1)
Counterinsurgency (218)
DADT (2)
David Rohde (1)
Defense Contractors (2)
Department of Defense (204)
Department of Homeland Security (26)
Disaster Preparedness (5)
Distributed Operations (5)
Dogs (12)
Donald Trump (27)
Drone Campaign (4)
EFV (3)
Egypt (12)
El Salvador (1)
Embassy Security (1)
Enemy Spotters (1)
Expeditionary Warfare (17)
F-22 (2)
F-35 (1)
Fallujah (17)
Far East (3)
Fathers and Sons (2)
Favorite (1)
Fazlullah (3)
FBI (36)
Featured (188)
Federal Firearms Laws (18)
Financing the Taliban (2)
Firearms (1,695)
Football (1)
Force Projection (35)
Force Protection (4)
Force Transformation (1)
Foreign Policy (27)
Fukushima Reactor Accident (6)
Ganjgal (1)
Garmsir (1)
general (15)
General Amos (1)
General James Mattis (1)
General McChrystal (44)
General McKiernan (6)
General Rodriguez (3)
General Suleimani (9)
Georgia (19)
Google (1)
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (1)
Gun Control (1,548)
Guns (2,225)
Guns In National Parks (3)
Haditha Roundup (10)
Haiti (2)
Haqqani Network (9)
Hate Mail (8)
Hekmatyar (1)
Heroism (4)
Hezbollah (12)
High Capacity Magazines (16)
High Value Targets (9)
Homecoming (1)
Homeland Security (3)
Horses (2)
Humor (69)
Hunting (21)
ICOS (1)
IEDs (7)
Immigration (101)
India (10)
Infantry (4)
Information Warfare (4)
Infrastructure (4)
Intelligence (23)
Intelligence Bulletin (6)
Iran (171)
Iraq (379)
Iraq SOFA (23)
Islamic Facism (64)
Islamists (97)
Israel (19)
Jaish al Mahdi (21)
Jalalabad (1)
Japan (3)
Jihadists (81)
John Nagl (5)
Joint Intelligence Centers (1)
JRTN (1)
Kabul (1)
Kajaki Dam (1)
Kamdesh (9)
Kandahar (12)
Karachi (7)
Kashmir (2)
Khost Province (1)
Khyber (11)
Knife Blogging (5)
Korea (4)
Korengal Valley (3)
Kunar Province (20)
Kurdistan (3)
Language in COIN (5)
Language in Statecraft (1)
Language Interpreters (2)
Lashkar-e-Taiba (2)
Law Enforcement (6)
Lawfare (13)
Leadership (6)
Lebanon (6)
Leon Panetta (2)
Let Them Fight (2)
Libya (14)
Lines of Effort (3)
Littoral Combat (8)
Logistics (50)
Long Guns (1)
Lt. Col. Allen West (2)
Marine Corps (277)
Marines in Bakwa (1)
Marines in Helmand (67)
Marjah (4)
Media (66)
Medical (145)
Memorial Day (6)
Mexican Cartels (39)
Mexico (58)
Michael Yon (6)
Micromanaging the Military (7)
Middle East (1)
Military Blogging (26)
Military Contractors (5)
Military Equipment (25)
Militia (9)
Mitt Romney (3)
Monetary Policy (1)
Moqtada al Sadr (2)
Mosul (4)
Mountains (25)
MRAPs (1)
Mullah Baradar (1)
Mullah Fazlullah (1)
Mullah Omar (3)
Musa Qala (4)
Music (25)
Muslim Brotherhood (6)
Nation Building (2)
National Internet IDs (1)
National Rifle Association (89)
NATO (15)
Navy (30)
Navy Corpsman (1)
NCOs (3)
News (1)
NGOs (3)
Nicholas Schmidle (2)
Now Zad (19)
NSA (3)
NSA James L. Jones (6)
Nuclear (62)
Nuristan (8)
Obama Administration (221)
Offshore Balancing (1)
Operation Alljah (7)
Operation Khanjar (14)
Ossetia (7)
Pakistan (165)
Paktya Province (1)
Palestine (5)
Patriotism (7)
Patrolling (1)
Pech River Valley (11)
Personal (72)
Petraeus (14)
Pictures (1)
Piracy (13)
Pistol (4)
Pizzagate (21)
Police (615)
Police in COIN (3)
Policy (15)
Politics (964)
Poppy (2)
PPEs (1)
Prisons in Counterinsurgency (12)
Project Gunrunner (20)
PRTs (1)
Qatar (1)
Quadrennial Defense Review (2)
Quds Force (13)
Quetta Shura (1)
RAND (3)
Recommended Reading (14)
Refueling Tanker (1)
Religion (459)
Religion and Insurgency (19)
Reuters (1)
Rick Perry (4)
Rifles (1)
Roads (4)
Rolling Stone (1)
Ron Paul (1)
ROTC (1)
Rules of Engagement (75)
Rumsfeld (1)
Russia (37)
Sabbatical (1)
Sangin (1)
Saqlawiyah (1)
Satellite Patrols (2)
Saudi Arabia (4)
Scenes from Iraq (1)
Second Amendment (595)
Second Amendment Quick Hits (2)
Secretary Gates (9)
Sharia Law (3)
Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahiden (1)
SIIC (2)
Sirajuddin Haqqani (1)
Small Wars (72)
Snipers (9)
Sniveling Lackeys (2)
Soft Power (4)
Somalia (8)
Sons of Afghanistan (1)
Sons of Iraq (2)
Special Forces (28)
Squad Rushes (1)
State Department (23)
Statistics (1)
Sunni Insurgency (10)
Support to Infantry Ratio (1)
Supreme Court (38)
Survival (167)
SWAT Raids (57)
Syria (38)
Tactical Drills (25)
Tactical Gear (13)
Taliban (168)
Taliban Massing of Forces (4)
Tarmiyah (1)
TBI (1)
Technology (21)
Tehrik-i-Taliban (78)
Terrain in Combat (1)
Terrorism (95)
Thanksgiving (12)
The Anbar Narrative (23)
The Art of War (5)
The Fallen (1)
The Long War (20)
The Surge (3)
The Wounded (13)
Thomas Barnett (1)
Transnational Insurgencies (5)
Tribes (5)
TSA (24)
TSA Ineptitude (13)
TTPs (4)
U.S. Border Patrol (5)
U.S. Border Security (17)
U.S. Sovereignty (21)
UAVs (2)
UBL (4)
Ukraine (10)
Uncategorized (95)
Universal Background Check (3)
Unrestricted Warfare (4)
USS Iwo Jima (2)
USS San Antonio (1)
Uzbekistan (1)
V-22 Osprey (4)
Veterans (3)
Vietnam (1)
War & Warfare (409)
War & Warfare (40)
War Movies (4)
War Reporting (21)
Wardak Province (1)
Warriors (6)
Waziristan (1)
Weapons and Tactics (78)
West Point (1)
Winter Operations (1)
Women in Combat (21)
WTF? (1)
Yemen (1)

June 2023
May 2023
April 2023
March 2023
February 2023
January 2023
December 2022
November 2022
October 2022
September 2022
August 2022
July 2022
June 2022
May 2022
April 2022
March 2022
February 2022
January 2022
December 2021
November 2021
October 2021
September 2021
August 2021
July 2021
June 2021
May 2021
April 2021
March 2021
February 2021
January 2021
December 2020
November 2020
October 2020
September 2020
August 2020
July 2020
June 2020
May 2020
April 2020
March 2020
February 2020
January 2020
December 2019
November 2019
October 2019
September 2019
August 2019
July 2019
June 2019
May 2019
April 2019
March 2019
February 2019
January 2019
December 2018
November 2018
October 2018
September 2018
August 2018
July 2018
June 2018
May 2018
April 2018
March 2018
February 2018
January 2018
December 2017
November 2017
October 2017
September 2017
August 2017
July 2017
June 2017
May 2017
April 2017
March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006

about · archives · contact · register

Copyright © 2006-2023 Captain's Journal. All rights reserved.