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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Lost Hiker

Air Date: Week of

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Boston (WBUR) public radio host Ted O'Brien was lost in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for three days and two nights. He returns to the trail with host Steve Curwood and gives a firsthand account of his experience as a hiker, lost and found.



CURWOOD: It's a crisp fall day in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where I am out hiking in the wilderness. I'm here to see how someone could get lost for days especially since the trail markings here are obvious.

CHILD: Look, there's a yellow one. I need to stay by the yellow one.

CURWOOD: But over Labor Day weekend these woods were the focus of major search for one of the best known voices and faces of New England. His name: Ted O'Brien.


TED O'BRIEN: Good morning, I'm Ted O'Brien, sitting in for Bob Oakes. Coming up this hour on Morning Edition...

CURWOOD: These days Ted O'Brien announces for NPR member station WBUR in Boston, after a lengthy career as an evening TV news anchor and commercial talk show host. And on the Sunday before Labor Day, he set out for what he thought would be a day hike. He left behind his trail map on the kitchen table so his wife Susan would know where to pick him up. And what would make matters worse: that map's advice that the Attitash Trail would take six hours to traverse. Better mountain guides suggest the trail takes twice as long and warn that it has a dangerous section in the middle where the markings disappear.


CURWOOD: Ted O'Brien says he wants to tell his story so others won't make the same mistakes. So, what did you bring with you

TED O'BRIEN: I had two peanut butter sandwiches, two bottles of water, 4 cheese sticks, was wearing a sweat shirt and heavy short-sleeved shirt under that and heavy T-shirt, these blue jeans, a pair of sandals with thick socks, and a tote bag.


TED O'BRIEN: I started about 8:30, saw an elderly man on the trail who was wearing shorts and a tank top and I chuckled to myself that I was certainly better prepared for this hike than he was, although I'm sure I was going farther. And I said, well, good luck, and I kind of moved on passed, and that was the last person I saw for 50 hours.

CURWOOD: Take us through now that day. You pass this guy, and keep hiking. What happens next?

TED O'BRIEN: I went along for what I thought was a good 7 miles. I went to look for the next leg of the trail, and I could not find it. And I decided to backtrack. And the shadows grew long, and the trail was pretty sketchy anyway, and I frankly wound up loosing the trail.

CURWOOD: He decided to make what he called a dry camp.

TED O'BRIEN: That's where you have no water (laughs), and your mouth tastes like cotton and you bite into a sandwich and can't get the food to go down; it just kind of rolls around in your mouth and finally you have to spit it out. So I pulled together some moss, put the moss together, and I got this piece of a dead tree to pull over me, for some reason. And I shivered, and that was how I got through the first night.

CURWOOD: Susan O'Brien had gone looking for her husband at the spot he was supposed to meet her. By nightfall she had called the authorities. They told her they'd begin searching in the morning if he didn't show up.

SUSAN O'BRIEN: It's the most helpless feeling in the world, when you have a loved one lost. You just hammer it out, hour by hour. Through that first night, I got up every time I heard a noise, because I convinced myself that he was probably late. I think part of your mind splits off, and you try to put the panic or whatever it is over to one side. And the mind is a strange thing, and then you create a scenario to live with it.

TED O'BRIEN: At some point, I said, well if this is where it's supposed to end, then alright. My father died at 59, and if I got myself into this, it's supposed to be it. But if there's something for me to do, then let me come through. And that point it was as if some powerful but unseen force that was benevolent passed between the mountain and the moon and at that point I relaxed. And the next thing I knew, it was morning and I had slept for about six or seven hours. And I got up and headed up over the hill for the road that I knew was there, and there was just more wilderness. That was a daunting moment.

CURWOOD: By now the media had gotten wind of the missing anchorman.

WBUR ANNOUNCER: The search for Ted O'Brien, the WBUR news anchor missing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire resumes this hour...

REPORTER: They found no sign whatsoever of Ted last night. The dogs were out and they came up with absolutely nothing.

CURWOOD: The state dispatched search parties led by Lieutenant Rick Estes. He's a 29-year veteran of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Ted O'Brien may be famous, but for Lt. Estes it was just another a fairly routine case, brought on by the all-too-frequent failure to prepare.

ESTES: You have to have the things that if it should go bad, that you can make a stand. Okay? You have to have matches, compass, map. Plan on if you've got to be out overnight. Do the "what if?": If I get up there and I twist an ankle, what's going to survive me? Do I need a tent? Do I need a signaling devise ? I suppose some folks may think that's a little pessimistic. Believe me, if you got out there and you needed those things, you wouldn't determine them to be pessimistic at that point.

CURWOOD: So what did Ted do right?

ESTES: I think he kept his head, certainly. At no time were we ever told anything but that he'll keep moving, because he'll put his chin out and just keep going. That's a good thing. If somebody just flat gives up, then they're probably going to die.

CURWOOD: Ted kept moving for another whole day hearing aircraft searching overhead, but when night came he found himself alone, making camp.

TED O'BRIEN: And in the morning; it was the morning of the third day. As soon as it was light, I was up. It was a different level of movement. I was convinced that I had to get out today, and that the only way I was going to do it was by going, going, going.

CURWOOD: What did you say to yourself? What did you even sing to yourself, perhaps?

TED O'BRIEN: Coming down the wash, it was "Hey, Jude." Hey Jude, don't be a fool. Take a sad song and make it better. Remember to let her under your skin, and you begin to make it better. And somehow that was right for sliding over the rocks.


TED O'BRIEN: Because there were boulders and rocks and wet places, and it was hey, Jude, don't be a fool. Take a sad song, and I was moving, man. I was moving. After two hours, three hours, I don't know how long, I looked up and saw a blaze.

CURWOOD: What color?

TED O'BRIEN: Yellow. A blaze on the tree. And I didn't believe it. And I looked across, and there was another tree with a yellow blaze, and that's when I knew I had found the trail.

CURWOOD: How did you feel at this point?

TED O'BRIEN: I think I was stunned. There's a feeling of exultation, that I had made it. It's hard to describe, but it's like a high.


CURWOOD: As he walked out, he ran into a search team. Susan O'Brien was waiting back at the head of the trail. How soon are you going to let Ted go hiking again?

SUSAN O'BRIEN: (laughs) Well, Ted has to do what he's gonna do. I think that if he does go again, he's got all kinds of compasses and trail mixes, but I can't say, "You can't do this again."


CURWOOD: So Ted, what did you bring with you on this trip?

TED O'BRIEN: (laughs) Ok, well, here's the White Mountain Guide Book, put out by the Appalachian Mountain Club. I got this walking stick with a compass on the top, and in here we have a Power Bar, flashlight, extra compass, knife, and storm proof matches. This is a tarp if you have to make shift tent. Remember, this is not for an overnight hike, but this is for a day hike, in which you might be caught out overnight.

ESTES: Certainly in my talks with him since that he has a renewed idea of what it is to be in the wilderness.

CURWOOD: Lt. Rick Estes.

ESTES: Unfortunately, when you get together with Mother Nature, she has no compunction about it; she has no conscience about it. And if you mess up, you suffer the consequences.

TED O'BRIEN: You have a cold compress for that; you have an Ace bandage to help, and some tape to hold it tight.

CURWOOD: And that's it?

TED O'BRIEN: That's it.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking all this time with us today.

TED O'BRIEN: Steve, it was my pleasure.

CURWOOD: Ted O'Brien is news anchor for WBUR Boston.

TED O'BRIEN: Happy trails.

CURWOOD: Let's go.




Tips for Hiking Safely in New Hampshire
Appalachian Mountain Club New Hampshire Chapter
White Mountain Explorer's Kit from the Appalachian Mountain Club">


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