Have a look at them: Joshua Berg, 17, from New City, New York, the group’s elected leader and most experienced outdoorsman. Noah Allaire, 16, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, a lifeguard and gifted student who skipped two grades in school and will be starting college in the fall. Sam Gottsegen, 17—“Gottsy” to the group—from Denver, avid snowboarder, affable and laid-back. Sam Melman, 17, a volunteer in a New York hospital’s intensive care unit. Victor Martin, 18, a muscular basketball player from a tough part of Richmond, California. Shane Garlock, 16, from Pittsford, New York, photographer and cross-country runner. And Sam Boas, 16, from Westport, Connecticut, ardent cook and certified emergency medical responder.
They are students of the prestigious National Outdoor Leadership School on a month-long course during summer vacation from high school. It’s 7:30 in the evening on July 23, 2011, and they’ve spent the past 24 days backpacking through the rugged western Talkeetna Mountains with three instructors, learning leadership and outdoor skills, including first aid. They’re now about 40 miles northeast of the nearest town, Talkeetna, separated from any sign of human habitation by miles of rough, trackless country. This is the last leg of the trip, when the students are cut loose to find their own way to a train track 24 miles away, where they will rendezvous with their instructors in three days. Until then, they have no way of communicating with their instructors or with the outside world. They are truly alone. Earlier today, just before the boys set out, one of the instructors looked at them and, grinning, left them with this advice: “Don’t die.”