CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Without a cellphone or a helmet, Nicholas Joy got off the Timberline chairlift with his father at the Sugarloaf ski area Sunday afternoon and skied to the top of Binder trail at the mountain summit.
Within hours, he would be lost and hunkering down to survive two frigid winter nights on the mountain.
As visibility clouded amid wind and snow, the 17-year-old skier from Massachusetts accidentally veered off the trail. With daylight faded and no trails in sight, Joy knew what he had to do.
It’s not clear whether it was his father’s advice about getting lost, or inspiration from watching “Survivor” and other survival-type shows, or both, but Joy decided to make a shelter. He created what game wardens would later call a “snow cave” near the Carrabassett Stream, where he would drink fresh water.
He slept a lot as he huddled in his shelter of branches and ice, but he also listened. That alertness paid off Monday, as a growing army of game wardens, police and other rescuers scoured the mountain, and the sounds of snowmobile engines echoed through the forest. He rose from his cave and searched around.
By Tuesday morning, tired and hungry, Joy ventured from his cave again and hunted for signs of the snowmobiles he had heard. He came upon snowshoe tracks and followed them for more than a mile to Caribou Pond Road.
The foray led him to his savior, Joseph Paul, a fellow Massachusetts resident with a camp nearby who had decided to hop on his snowmobile and scout the area for the missing teenager he’d heard about from news reports. At 9 a.m., Paul spotted Joy in the distance.
Joy, relieved and exhausted, was hungry. Paul gave him the snacks he had on his snowmobile: peanuts and crackers.
Paul alerted searchers and drove Joy four miles back to a waiting crowd at the intersection of the trail and U.S. Route 27.
Looking pale but walking steadily, Joy was led from the snowmobile by a crowd of wardens, rescuers and Carrabassett Valley Police Chief Mark Lopez to an ambulance before being taken to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington. Joy was rehydrating with a bottle of water and appeared to be in a daze.
“I’m OK, I’m just tired,” Joy said, before entering the ambulance.
Speeding to the scene in his sport-utility vehicle, Joy’s father, Bob Joy, drove the SUV into a snowbank, got out and rushed inside the ambulance to join his son. The boy’s mother joined the reunion soon after. He went to the hospital, where he was accompanied by family and treated to a cheeseburger and french fries.
Survival shows and Dad
The compelling narrative emerged in pieces Tuesday, as family and rescuers said they were stunned by Joy’s miraculous survival after the unsafe wintry conditions dampened hopes that the skier would be found as the search entered its third day.
Nicholas Joy, of Medford, Mass., said he likes to watch survival shows on television and that may be how he learned to make the snow cave, said Sugarloaf General Manager John Diller. Joy apparently was a fan of the popular television series “Survivor,” which may have helped him to be resourceful enough to build a snow cave and stay hydrated, according to Roy E. Belson, superintendent of Medford, Mass., Public Schools, where Nicholas is a high school senior.
Joy’s brother, Mike, said outside the hospital Tuesday that his brother sometimes watches Discovery channel programming though he’s “more of an ESPN guy.” He credited Nicholas’ survival strategies to advice from his father, Robert.
“I think it was more that his father told him, ‘If you ever get lost, just hunker down and let them find you,'” Mike said.
Mike said that when Nicholas was missing he feared the worst because it seemed unlikely to him that his brother would have gotten lost. Searchers also feared the teenager was lying injured or had died in the elements.
“He’s been skiing his whole life, so I couldn’t imagine that this was what was happening, that he was just lost and couldn’t get back to us,” he said. “He’s a smart kid. He knows that the way was just to the right that he had to go, but he couldn’t find a trail, so he didn’t want to just walk into the woods.”
Nicholas’ father, Robert, and mother, Donna, released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying they were relieved and happy their son “made it through this difficult ordeal.”
“We want to thank everyone for their hopes and prayers and especially members of the rescue” team that included eight different agencies, the statement said. “Nicholas is doing well and his family would like the public to respect our privacy during this time of healing.”
Shortly before 3 p.m., Donna Joy walked with a handful of family members out of the Farmington hospital, on her way to get the cheeseburger and fries that her son had requested. “He hasn’t eaten for two days, so how would you feel?” she said.
Donna Joy said Nicholas was “doing really good” and had suffered no frostbite or other injuries. She said her son would spend the night at the hospital. Mike said he planned to go back to Medford on Tuesday but that some family members planned to stay the night.
Mike said his first contact with his brother was a “very emotional,” silent hug.
“I didn’t say anything,” he said. “I just hugged him.” Then, “I said ‘I love you, Mike, and I’m glad you’re back,'” he said, adding that his brother looked good “because he slept a lot, apparently.”
Donna Joy described the first conversation she had with him after the ordeal.
“He said, ‘I’m so glad to see you,’ and I said the same. I said, ‘I’m so glad to see you, too,'” she said. She said that the period when he was missing had taken an emotional toll on her. “It was very, very hard,” she said.
Lost and found
Diller, the Sugarloaf manager, said officials were still interviewing Joy on Tuesday and retracing his steps to piece together what happened and where.
The warden service said visibility on the mountain was poor on Sunday when Joy got lost. He was last seen by his father on the Timberline chairlift about 12:40 p.m., when he skied out of bounds off the Sugarloaf Mountain trail system network.
Resort officials said he was last seen at the top of Binder trail, which is next to the Timberline trail, at the summit.
It appears the teenager built the snow shelter late Sunday after he realized he could not get back to the trail, according to Lt. Kevin Adam of the Maine Warden Service.
Adam said Joy built a small snow cave for shelter, which was near the snowmobile trail where he was found. According to Paul, Joy drank water from snow and the Carrabassett Stream while he was lost.
Searchers on Monday went near the Carrabassett Stream area where Joy had built his shelter, and Joy later told rescuers that he had heard snowmobile engines.
Diller said the search expanded Tuesday to include U.S. Navy SEALs, Marines, border patrol and other mountain rescue service crews, adding up to more than 80 searchers. There were times when the searchers were working in zero visibility, Adam said.
On Monday, Joy “made some directional sampling searches” — short searches to and from his ice cave — searching for help, according to the warden service.
“On Tuesday, Joy walked in the direction of the snowmobile noise he heard the previous day. While walking, he found snowshoe tracks left by searchers,” according to a warden service release. “He followed the snowshoe tracks to Caribou Pond Road, where he was found by Joseph Paul.”
Paul, a snowmobiler from Warwick, Mass., was not part of the search party but had heard about the search through media reports. Paul was cruising around on his snowmobile to help look for Joy when he came upon the teen on the trail at 9 a.m.
Paul was unavailable for further comment Tuesday following a brief interview shortly after he brought Joy to rescuers. But his wife, Colleen Paul, said from their Warwick, Mass., home Tuesday night that he is a fire captain at the Warwick Fire Department and owns a home improvement business.
She said her husband, who is 44, has been involved in search and rescue missions in Massachusetts, helping to locate people lost in the woods.
He called her Tuesday morning, after she had heard on the radio that a skier was lost on Sugarloaf.
“I said, ‘You didn’t find that missing skier, did you?'” she recalled. “He said, ‘Yes,’ and I asked if the boy was OK. He said (Nicholas Joy) was relieved and he was hungry. My husband had some snacks on his snowmobile and he gave him what he had.”
The Pauls own a cabin in Salem, Maine, and Joseph Paul drove to Maine on Monday to go snowmobiling, as business was slow at his one-man company and it’s the end of the snowmobiling season, according to his wife.
She said he was born in Massachusetts but has lived most of his life in Maine, in the area of Sweden, Fryeburg and Bridgton, and that his mother lives in Oxford.
She added she is proud of her husband, whose nature is to help others.
“If you need help, he’s there to help you out,” she said. “He’s just a wonderful guy — he really is. He’s wonderful, he’s helpful, he’s honest. I love him very much.”
The couple have a 13-year-old son, she said.
‘It’s almost like a miracle’
Adam said searchers were concerned Joy had hit a tree and was lying injured somewhere on the mountain, along with other worst-case scenarios. Wardens announced Monday that the search was at a critical stage due to the elements — temperatures dipped into the 20s and fresh snow had wiped away any trace left by Joy at the top of the mountain.
He said Joy demonstrated good survival techniques, judging from what they so far knew about what Nicholas did while he was lost.
“Obviously he made some errors getting off the trail, but he used his head and made some very good decisions,” Adam said.
Adam said staying with the snow cave was the right thing to do and if they were able to fly overhead they would have been able to find him in the shelter. Wardens said they couldn’t fly an aircraft because of poor visibility.
Searchers were jubilant when Joy was found — many shook their heads in relief and smiled.
Diller said at a press conference Tuesday that he arrived at the trail entrance minutes after Joy was found and said he cried with relief with the family.
“It’s almost like a miracle,” he said.
In the family’s joint statement, Joy’s parents thanked Sugarloaf staff and ski patrol, Maine Warden Service, Carrabassett Valley Academy community, U.S. Border Patrol, Carrabassett Valley police and fire departments, Maine Forest Service and the Maine Association of Search and Rescue volunteers.
Adam said it was not the most expensive search game wardens have conducted, but the total cost will likely be about $10,000. He said the cost will not be passed on to the family, because Joy was not blatantly negligent in his actions.
Belson, the superintendent of Medford Public Schools, said Tuesday that staff and students were relieved and happy that Joy was found.
“Thank God it happened,” Belson said. “Let’s be glad that he was found — and he is OK as far as we know. We appreciate all of the efforts of all the Maine people who searched for him.”
Belson said he learned the good news Tuesday morning from a school administrator. A schoolwide announcement was made to let staff and students know Joy was found and was alive, according to Belson.
Belson said Joy’s disappearance on Sugarloaf also prompted discussions about safety, and about the need to focus first on Joy’s well-being, as well as those affected emotionally by his disappearance.
“I think it just demonstrates that schools have to be concerned with students as people first and as learners second, and we put the two together,” Belson said. “Be careful out there, when you are up on a slope or in a car. Pay attention. These are places where you can get hurt.”
The school has not discussed having any type of welcoming celebration for Joy when he returns to school, but Belson said he is sure that students and staff will want to spend a little time with him and ensure that he is comfortable and knows people care about him.
Everyone will have questions about what happened and how Joy managed to survive, but it is important that they not “create a situation that is more stressful than it needs to be,” Belson said.
“One step at a time,” he said.