Hiker recounts horrific struggle for survival on icy N.H. ridge

Associated Press / September 15, 2008
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MERRIMACK, N.H. - Three months in the hospital gave James Osborne plenty of time to reflect on the mistakes that cost him a limb and a friend his life.

In February, Osborne, 37, and Lawrence "Fred" Frederickson kept hiking on Haystack Mountain even after the temperature dropped from the mid-20s to the low teens or single digits in about two minutes. They pressed on toward Mount Lincoln, then the wind changed and they got caught on an exposed ridge.

"It was like somebody flipped a switch, and a fan came on. The next thing you knew, we were standing in 70-miles-per-hour wind," Osborne recalled.

They didn't have the gear that could have saved Frederickson's life or spared Osborne from serious injury: no sleeping bags, no cellphones, no matches or materials to start a fire.

"We were so ill-prepared," Osborne said.

Frederickson, 55, of Sutton, died from exposure on the trail the next day as he and Osborne tried to hike back to safety after weathering the night in a narrow cave.

"If we had sleeping bags, we could have spent three days in there. We had enough munchie-type food, and we had enough water," Osborne said.

At daybreak, they dug themselves out of the cave. Frostbite began to appear on their faces. Time began to blur.

"All these surreal things started happening," Osborne said. "Fred's hands got so cold he lost movement. He had gloves on, and the wind would catch them and pull the gloves off."

Osborne took off his backpack to get out an extra pair of gloves for Frederickson and then couldn't put his backpack on again because his arms were too cold to move backward.

About halfway back to Little Haystack Mountain, Frederickson's eyes had closed from frostbite. They stumbled along, Osborne in the lead with Frederickson's hand on his shoulder. Then Frederickson fell behind.

"At one point, I looked back, and he was curled up in a fetal position on his right side. I walked back to him," Osborne said.

Osborne told him, "Fred, you got to get up. You got to get up."

"As I walked away, I had this conscious thought, 'I'm 36 years old, and this is how I die,' " Osborne said. "Strangely enough, I was at peace with myself."

In his mind, he expressed his regrets for the mistakes he made in life, and for the mistakes made on the hike.

Rescuers found Osborne unconscious and barely alive.

The wind died down, and a Blackhawk helicopter was summoned to take Osborne to Littleton Hospital.

From there, Osborne spent months at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Health South in Concord.

In July, he returned to his job as general manager of a bus service that runs from Nashua to Boston. He's getting around on his prosthetic right leg and surgically rebuilt left foot, and hopes within a few weeks to walk without a cane.

He said he looks forward to getting back to skiing and hiking.

"The first hike I want to do is go back to Haystack to memorialize Fred in some way," Osborne said.

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