CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Without a cellphone, Nicholas Joy got off the Timberline chairlift with his father Sunday afternoon and skied to the top of the Binder trail, near the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain.
Within hours, he would be lost and hunkering down to survive two frigid nights in the wilderness.
With poor visibility in wind and snow, the 17-year-old skier from Medford, Mass., accidentally veered off the ski trail. In faded daylight, with no trails in sight, Joy knew what he had to do.
He created what game wardens would later call a “snow cave” near 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 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.
Joy rose from his shelter and searched around.
By Tuesday morning, tired and hungry, he ventured from his shelter 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.
That foray led him to his savior.
Joseph Paul, a fellow Massachusetts resident with a camp nearby, 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., he spotted Joy in the distance.
Paul gave him the snacks he had on his snowmobile: peanuts and crackers.
He alerted searchers and drove Joy four miles back to a waiting crowd at Route 27.
Looking pale but walking steadily, Joy was led from the snowmobile to an ambulance by wardens, rescuers and Carrabassett Valley Police Chief Mark Lopez. He was rehydrating with a bottle of water and appeared to be dazed.
“I’m OK, I’m just tired,” he said before getting into the ambulance.
Speeding to the scene in his sport utility vehicle, Joy’s father, Robert Joy, drove into a snowbank, got out and rushed into the ambulance to join his son. The boy’s mother joined the reunion soon afterward.
Joy was taken to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, where he was accompanied by his family and treated to a cheeseburger and french fries.
His family and rescuers said they were stunned by his survival, in harsh winter conditions that dampened hopes that he would be found as the search entered its third day.
GOOD ADVICE FROM DAD
Joy said he likes to watch survival shows on television, and that may be what led him to make the snow cave, said John Diller, general manager of Sugarloaf Mountain Resort.
Outside the hospital, Joy’s brother, Mike, credited Nicholas’ survival strategy to advice from his father: “If you ever get lost, just hunker down and let them find you.”
Mike said he feared the worst because it seemed unlikely that his brother, an experienced skier, would have gotten lost.
“He knows that the way was just to the right that he had to go, but he couldn’t find a trail,” he said.
He said his first contact with his brother after the rescue was a “very emotional,” silent hug.
Joy’s father, Robert, and mother, Donna, released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying they were relieved and happy that their son had “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 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 out of the hospital with a handful of family members, on her way to get the cheeseburger and fries her son had requested.
“He hasn’t eaten for two days, so how would you feel?” she said.
She said Nicholas was “doing really good” and had no frostbite or other injuries. She said her son would spend Tuesday night at the hospital.
She said the period when he was missing had taken an emotional toll on her. “It was very, very hard.”
LOST AND FOUND
Diller, Sugarloaf’s manager, said officials were still interviewing Joy on Tuesday and retracing his route to piece together what happened and where.
The Maine Warden Service said visibility on the mountain was poor when Joy got lost on Sunday at about 12:40 p.m.
Resort officials said he was last seen at the top of the Binder trail, near Sugarloaf’s 4,237-foot summit.
The teenager apparently built the snow shelter late Sunday, after realizing he couldn’t get back to the trail, said Lt. Kevin Adam of the Maine Warden Service.
Adam said Joy built a small snow cave for shelter, near the snowmobile trail where he was found. He drank water from snow and Carrabassett Stream while he was lost.
On Monday, searchers went near the area where Joy had his shelter, and Joy later told rescuers that he had heard snowmobile engines.
Diller said the search expanded Tuesday to include Navy SEALs, Marines, border patrol and mountain rescue service crews, totaling more than 80 searchers. At times, they worked in zero visibility, Adam said.
On Monday, Joy “made some directional sampling searches” from his shelter, looking for help, said 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 release from the warden service. “He followed the snowshoe tracks to Caribou Pond Road, where he was found by Joseph Paul.”
Paul, from Warwick, Mass., was cruising around on his snowmobile to help look for Joy when he came upon the boy at 9 a.m.
Paul was unavailable for comment after a brief interview shortly after he brought Joy to the rescuers.
His wife, Colleen Paul, said from their home Tuesday night that he is a captain in 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.
He called her Tuesday morning, after she heard on the radio that a skier was lost on Sugarloaf.
“I said, ‘You didn’t find that missing skier, did you?’
“He said, ‘Yes,’ and I asked if the boy was OK. He said (Joy) was relieved and he was hungry.”
The Pauls own a cabin in Salem, Maine, and Joseph Paul drove to Maine on Monday to go snowmobiling because business was slow at his one-man company and it’s the end of the snowmobiling season, said his wife.
‘IT’S ALMOST LIKE A MIRACLE’
Adam said searchers were concerned that Joy had hit a tree and was lying injured on the mountain. Wardens announced Monday that the search was at a critical stage because of the elements – temperatures had dipped into the 20s and fresh snow had wiped away any tracks left by Joy at the top of the mountain.
He said Joy demonstrated good survival techniques.
“Obviously, he made some errors getting off the trail, but he used his head and made some very good decisions,” Adam said.
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 minutes after Joy was found and cried with relief with the family. “It’s almost like a miracle,” he said.
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 Medford, where Joy is a high school senior, Superintendent Roy Belson said Tuesday that the school’s staff and students were relieved and happy.
“Let’s be glad that he was found – and he is OK as far as we know,” he said. “We appreciate all of the efforts of all the Maine people who searched for him.”
Belson said a schoolwide announcement was made after he learned the good news Tuesday morning.
The school has not discussed any type of welcoming celebration for Joy when he returns to school, but Belson said he is sure the students and staff want to spend 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 survived, but it’s important that they not “create a situation that is more stressful than it needs to be,” Belson said.