N.J. hiker found in N.H. mountains had gone to celebrate health news

New Hampshire authorities said Friday that they were working to retrieve the body of Gregory Auriemma, chair of the Ocean County chapter of the Sierra Club, from a rugged, remote area of the White Mountains.

A friend of Auriemma’s disclosed that the avid hiker, 63, had been dealing with a cancer diagnosis, and set out on a trip in June into the wilderness to celebrate after getting some good news about his illness.

Auriemma’s body was found Thursday in woods off a trail in the White Mountains, according to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.

But it took authorities more than a week to find him.

Auriemma, a lawyer from Brick, began his trip in late June and stayed at a hostel in Conway, N.H.  He was last seen June 24 and had planned to return to New Jersey by July 5.  His goal was a 30-mile trek into the White Mountains.

He did not have a mobile phone, his brother, Kevin, told New Jersey 101.5 this week.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said Auriemma told him of his plans and that he took a bus to New Hampshire instead of driving his green Mazda RX-7. The two have been friends for more than 15 years, said Tittel, who added that he didn’t think it was unusual for Auriemma to have taken the bus.

Auriemma had been diagnosed with cancer two years ago, according to Tittel, and was given three years to live.  But he  recently received “a better bill of health.”

Tittel said he grew deeply worried when Auriemma had not returned in time for the Ocean County Sierra Club’s annual picnic on July 5.  Auriemma was reported missing soon after.

“If he wasn’t back for that, I knew something serious had happened,” Tittel said.

Tittel said Auriemma had a longtime partner, Joyce Isaza, also an officer of the Ocean County Sierra Club chapter.  Isaza could not be reached for comment. Auriemma also had two brothers.

Authorities started their search for Auriemma by tracking his known locations and those they later discovered.

They began in North Conway, a village of about 2,300, bordered to the west and north by the White Mountains. Maine is just to its east. The village is a four-season tourism area and typical starting point for hikers.

A large-scale search operation began to unfold. Eventually, fish and game officers, local search and rescue crews, K-9 units, state police, and state and forest service rangers were brought in. The New Hampshire National Guard flew over the rugged terrain in a BlackHawk helicopter.

After North Conway, authorities tracked Auriemma to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mizpah Spring Hut at Bean’s Grant, putting him there around June 28.  The hut is an off-the-grid location between two 4,000-foot peaks in the Presidential Range.

Searchers found that Auriemma may have been at a campsite at Dry River Trail in Cutt’s Grant.  The nearly 10-mile trail runs through wilderness with difficult stream crossings and ends at an elevation of 5,012 feet at Lakes of the Clouds Hut.

Severe thunderstorms struck the area the first week of July, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

On July 15, a search team confirmed that an abandoned campsite they found had been Auriemma’s.  With that discovery, the search was expanded.

Dry River presented a major problem because it is so remote. Searchers had to hike four hours just to get to the area.  A BlackHawk helicopter was called in.  Crews interviewed hikers.

But they could not find Auriemma, and they put out a public plea for help.

On Monday, authorities announced that their search would be scaled back if no more evidence of Auriemma could be found soon.

But on Thursday, Fish and Game Department officials announced they had found Auriemma’s body off Isolation Trail in the Dry River Wilderness near Crawford Notch, a 5,775-acre state park.

As of Friday afternoon, authorities had few details about what happened to Auriemma on his trek. They said they were waiting to confirm the identity of the body and also needed to notify family members.