The Official Explanation

Authorities were initially at a loss to explain the deaths of so many seemingly healthy people, albeit in harsh weather conditions, and a deputy’s offhand remark that they had been killed by an “unidentified sinister force” did much to spread the story in paranormal circles. However, after autopsies and interviews, the Idaho State Police released their official explanation in late 1998 at a press conference.

According to the investigators, the trip had been delayed repeatedly from May 1997 by a variety of circumstances, causing Patricia Mercer to become frustrated. The further work she put in to get students excused from class and work for the trip led to a “sunk cost” feeling that led her to continue the hike even as conditions deteriorated. The group also initially planned to link up with another hiking group near the Trout River, one led by Patricia Mercer’s long-distance boyfriend that she had not seen in nearly a year. This, investigators believe, led her to not only continue the hike but to push her hikers harder than they were able to safely move.

Conditions had been worsening for some time, and it is believed that the final deaths took place in an unseasonably early snow flurry with below-freezing temperatures. The campsite remains suggest that it had only been partially erected when it was abandoned. Though each hiker had plentiful food, stomach content analysis indicated that they had eaten relatively little before death. Authorities believe that this was the result of Mercer keeping a stiff pace with her hikers despite the weather.

William Reznik was believed to have had a previously undiagnosed heart defect, variously called an arrhythmia or a murmur in the press, which likely led to his sudden death in the official report. Fatigued, stressed, and borderline malnourished after days of struggling in the elements, his heart simply gave out. This led the others to enter a “fugue state” of “mass hysteria,” the culmination of several days of stress and malnutrition, which led them to variously attack each other, self-mutilate, or freeze to death in a catatonic state.

As for the initial survival of Cassidy Daniels and Carrie Mercer, it is speculated that they were better-fed than the others, as Carrie was Patricia’s daughter and Cassidy was her close friend. But after escaping the scene with no food and no other supplies, authorities contend that Ms. Mercer succumbed to the elements some time later. They also blame this malnutrition and exposure for Ms. Daniels’ later death from multiple organ failure.

Criticisms of this theory abound. Patricia Mercer was known to be extremely understanding and supportive of her current and former students, far from the harsh taskmaster suggested in the official version of events. Multiple reports suggest that Mercer was actually harder in her own daughter than the others, and that Cassidy and Carrie were not particularly good friends. In fact, some accounts insist they were often seen to be rivals, with Cassidy taking on a “surrogate daughter” role that made Carrie intensely jealous.

Furthermore, the hike planned by Arthur O’Neill, Patricia Mercer’s boyfriend, had been canceled due to adverse weather the day before Mercer’s group set out. There are conflicting accounts as to weather a telephone message O’Neill left for Mercer was ever received, but those who knew her said she was fastidious in that respect.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly in the eyes of the skeptics, the weather did not turn until the hike was past its point of no return according to some available weather data. It may have been cool and foggy–the “greasy fog”mentioned by Daniels—but the weather may not have been dangerous until it was too late to turn back. The lack of good meteorological data and in-person observations on Sagebrush Mountain during the crucial period (the Trout River rafters were at a far lower altitude and shielded by trees) makes this a point of contention as well.

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