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(HOST) Wilderness vacations can be as challenging as rewarding. But sometimes the vacationers don’t come back.

(LANGE) It’d be hard to imagine country more starkly beautiful than the Torngat Mountains in northern Labrador. Rising straight from the sea and carved into cirques and valleys by glaciers, they resemble the fjords of Norway. But the Norwegian fjords, thanks to the Gulf Stream, are warm and tree-softened. The Torngats, beside the iceberg-studded Labrador Current, are not.

The Torngats are almost utterly barren, their rocks unspeakably old. Only people drawn to wild, empty country, moonscapes, and steep, tempestuous rivers would travel there. The rewards are deeply spiritual, the risks severe.

In 2003 a young couple from Mississauga, Ontario, planned a trip to the Torngats. A photo of them showed pleasant-looking kids beside their car with a canoe on top. I remember thinking at the time, uh-oh. Only two?

All of us who go north have a favorite number for a party size. Mine is six; it’s the most economical, fits into one charter plane, and offers the best balance between speed of travel and strength of support. Two is a little thin.

Many of us also play a game called “What if…?” Almost no accidents are the result of only one factor, but of a string of them – equipment failure, fatigue, weather, unwise decisions. We try to imagine everything that can go wrong, and plan what to do in those events. It sounds like worry-warting, but it’s better than believing nothing can go wrong.

The young couple, Daniel Pauz and Susan Barnes, were pushing it in several ways. They were late in the season; the mountain they planned to climb, Mont D’Iberville, is the highest in eastern Canada, rubble-strewn, and exposed to high winds. Add their inexperience, and dire possibilities are already developing.

Dan and Sue called home just before they flew with their gear to the head of the Koroc River, which they planned to paddle west to Ungava Bay. They hiked to the mountain, and vanished. The Royal Canadian Mounties started looking. They found the canoe, the couple’s camp, and their gear, including their satellite phone. Then the fall blizzards began.

The next spring some of the couple’s friends traveled north to trace their probable route. On August 7, they found the couple’s bodies. It appeared Dan had been injured on the descent and, Sue, unable to continue down that side of the mountain without him, had gone for help back up over the summit. Both she and Dan appeared to have died of exposure.

I’m haunted by the regrets they must have felt at leaving their phone behind, their failure to turn back, their knowledge no one would miss them for two weeks; as their lives ended so abruptly by the impassive, brutal Torngat weather. Their last words to the world were a note they left at the summit: August 11, 2003 — Daniel Pauz and Susan Barnes, in a wicked snowstorm…

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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