PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. – An Eagle Scout whose mountain day hike went awry when unusually warm weather turned small streams into raging rivers, blocking his way, was found safe Tuesday after spending three nights alone in the woods.
Scott Mason, a 17-year-old from Halifax, Mass., was spotted by searchers Tuesday morning northwest of Mount Washington, the Northeast's highest mountain. He actually would have rescued himself within about 45 minutes by walking into plain view along a ridgeline, officials said.
Mason was reunited with his family at a command center about two hours later, hugging them and slapping his father on the back. He then was taken by ambulance to a hospital to have pain in one of his legs checked out, said Maj. Tim Acerno of New Hampshire's Fish and Game Department.
"He looked a lot older. He looked sad and older," said his mother, Jory, who was trembling with emotion.
Mason, who earned his Eagle Scout badge six months ago, headed up Mount Washington early Saturday and was planning to hike 17 miles in one day. He had climbed the mountain three or four times, so it wasn't unusual for him to set off by himself on such a challenging hike.
But warm weather — it hit a record 56 degrees at Washington's summit on Saturday — forced a change in his route. As he was coming down a trail, "there was a big raging river in his way," said Fred Wilkinson, one of the rescuers who found him.
Over the next days, high waters and rain gave him trouble, as it did the searchers moving through waist-deep, soft snow. "Each time he is trying to get back to a trail, he's coming back to a river," Acerno said.
The teen's father, Mike Mason, said believing that his son wouldn't panic helped him stay calm.
"I hung in there because I had a sense he would hunker down and he was gonna pass this test," Mason said. "This is his basketball, football, this is what he loves."
Tom Goldrick, Mason's scoutmaster in Halifax, felt if anyone could survive the elements at the 6,288-foot Mount Washington, notorious for its unpredictable and often treacherous weather, it would be Mason.
"He's the most experienced hiker in our scout troop. ... We all had a very positive outlook," Goldrick said.
Before leaving an Appalachian Mountain Club bunkhouse Saturday morning, Mason said he planned to climb Mount Washington, then take the Appalachian Trail north to the summits of Mounts Jefferson, Adams and Madison. He left the ridgeline around Mount Clay, descending into an area known as the Great Gulf Wilderness, where he was blocked by the river.
Searchers had been following intermittent boot tracks consistent with someone who was disoriented or lost, Acerno said. Searchers in six teams of four used ropes and temporary bridges as they approached the area from two directions, but had difficulty moving in the snow and water, Acerno said.
The unusually warm, humid weather since Saturday worked for and against Mason: Searchers weren't worried about hypothermia, but they said the melting snow had led to high rivers that would be difficult to cross.
Brian Clark, a meteorologist with the Mount Washington Observatory, said temperatures in the upper 20s are typical at this time of year. Saturday's high of 56 degrees was a record and temperatures on Sunday were in the upper 30s.
"Certainly if someone had to unexpectedly spend a few days up there it can't get much better than that," he said. "If we'd gotten normal weather for this time of year, it could've turned out differently."
Mason's mother said Scott is an experienced hiker, but not in extreme conditions, and probably did not have overnight gear.
Mason, a Boy Scout since age 11, has spent many weekends hiking in the White Mountains and had hiked by himself before, Goldrick said. He said Mason has the top leadership position in the troop and has taught hiking and camping skills.
Mike Mason said he is sure his son will hike again.
"Not alone. We'll let him join the AMC. He'll hike again," he said.