Dramatic Rescues: A Hectic Season for Rangers
by Elizabeth Folwell
Every week Region 5 of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) posts a trail conditions report for the High Peaks and beyond. Members of the media also receive statistics on search-and-rescue missions. The February 29 press release from DEC’s David Winchell, based in Ray Brook, was sobering: from late December through the end of February there were 12 rescue incidents for hikers, skiers, snowshoers and a snowmobiler involving numerous forest rangers, conservation officers, state police and EMTs. Here is a summary:
December 27: Mount Marshall
A solitary 55-year-old hiker en route to Mount Colden via the Upper Works trail spent an unplanned night out. He typically used a personal locator device to let his wife know his whereabouts, but when he did not contact her she called the DEC central dispatch. A forest ranger found him the next morning in good health.
December 28: Hurricane Mountain
Thinking his two grown sons were possibly lost coming down from the 3,694-foot peak near Elizabethtown, a 54-year-old father went up the trail to find them. However, they had already descended and signed out at the register. A forest ranger was sent to search following a call from home; he located all three on the trail well after dark.
January 6: Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC)
Cross-country skiers aged 61 and 57 started out on the VIC trails but became lost and exhausted as the light failed. A forest ranger guided the couple to the highway and then took them back to their car.
January 14: Santanoni Preserve
A 58-year-old exhausted and injured female cross-country skier was found by a forest ranger while he was on routine patrol. He splinted her ankle and evacuated her by toboggan to the parking area, where she indicated she would seek additional help on her own.
January 21: Giant Mountain
A 58-year-old female hiker fell on the trail between Hopkins and Giant Mountains and injured her leg. Her hiking companions contacted Ray Brook dispatch by cell phone and two forest rangers responded. They helped her walk out and were off the trail about four hours after the call came in. She stated she would seek medical attention on her own.
January 21: Lower Wolfjaw Mountain
A 61-year-old snowshoer twisted his knee near the summit of this 4,175-foot peak. Members of the party of nine contacted DEC and tried to help him slide down, since he was unable to walk. Helicopter rescue was out due to potential bad weather; rescue by snowmobile was impossible because of little snow at the base. Seven forest rangers went up from the Garden trailhead with a sled and brought the injured man out in subzero temperatures after 11 p.m.
February 11: Perkins Clearing
A 32-year-old snowmobiler was traveling too fast for conditions when he hit a tree, and was ejected from his sled, causing leg lacerations and back injury. Two forest rangers, two conservation officers, Speculator rescue squad, Hamilton County sheriff, and New York State Police responded. The snowmobiler was placed on a backboard and transported by snowmobile six miles to a waiting ambulance. He was then taken to Nathan Littauer Hospital, in Gloversville, for medical treatment.
February 18: Blue Mountain
A 45-year-old man hiking with a group of Boy Scouts and a guide suffered cardiac arrest near the summit. CPR was administered for more than an hour to no avail. Forest rangers and members of the Indian Lake and Blue Mountain rescue squads responded, along with state police and the Hamilton County coroner.
February 21: Mount Marcy
After becoming separated from the rest of his hiking party a 58-year-old man spent a frigid night alone on the brink of Panther Gorge. His companions contacted an assistant ranger in the High Peaks and a ground search began in the afternoon. Darkness curtailed that effort; in the morning the man’s cell phone was able to supply map coordinates so a helicopter could be sent. He was found in good condition, airlifted to the hospital in Saranac Lake and admitted for observation.
February 25: Indian Pass
A 42-year-old solo hiker attempted to climb Algonquin Peak but became lost when high winds forced him off the trail. He bushwhacked downhill and spent a cold, wet night holed up in the snow. In the morning he continued until he found a trail marker and cell-phone service; he called 911 and was located using his phone coordinates. Three forest rangers set out from Adirondak Loj by snowmobile, but deep snow forced them to continue on skis. The hiker had lost some gear and clothing and appeared hypothermic and frostbitten. The rangers warmed and fed him and then helped him get to the snowmobile. When they reached road access he was taken by ambulance to Adirondack Medical Center in Lake Placid for treatment.
February 25: South Meadow Brook
A 62-year-old backcountry skier set out from the Garden trailhead, intending to reach the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic complex via Johns Brook, Klondike Notch and the Mr. Van trails. His wife knew his plans and reported him overdue to DEC dispatch. Staff from the ski center patrolled portions of the Mr. Van trail but did not locate him. Seven forest rangers began searching from the two ends of the skier’s planned route. A forest ranger on a snowmobile on South Meadow Road heard shouting and directed the lost man across the brook. The ranger took the skier to Adirondak Loj , where he was reunited with his family after many cold hours in the woods.
February 25: Tabletop Mountain
A 36-year-old man planned to snowshoe to the summit of Mount Marcy from the Garden trailhead and then continue on to Adirondak Loj. His girlfriend reported him overdue to DEC dispatch. Eleven forest rangers, including three who had participated in the previous two searches, responded and searched through the night. The man’s cell phone worked sporadically, and in the morning he was able to call and give his GPS coordinates. Forest rangers found him suffering from moderate hypothermia and possible frostbite. He was warmed, fed and escorted to an area on the mountain where a helicopter could hoist him up. He was taken to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake.
February 26: Cedar River
Hikers aged 64 and 62 became lost on the Cedar River loop trail near Indian Lake. Three forest rangers searched different sections of the trail and located the couple before dark. They were taken by snowmobile back to their car.
Luck—good and bad—is a common denominator in these accidents. A cell phone that works deep in the wilderness, miles from a tower, is a lucky rarity. One misstep on a summit can be chalked up to chance but in winter it can lead to a life-threatening situation. Elevation, weather and trail conditions are just a few key elements in safe winter recreation.
You can mitigate some risk factors if you:
- Inform someone at home where you are going and when you plan to return. Your contact should know the make and color of your car and which trailhead you intend to use. If you don’t check in with this person by a predetermined time he or she should call the DEC dispatch at (518) 891-1234.
- Never travel alone. Suggested minimum group size for winter backcountry tripping is four; if one person is injured one can stay with the victim and the others can seek help together.
- Sign trail registers and indicate the time you started and your route.
- Carry food; water; extra clothing; matches; flashlight; map, compass and GPS; space blanket; duct tape. A whistle will work long after your voice is hoarse from shouting. In several of the recent rescues cell phones have been critical in getting help, but they don’t work consistently throughout the Forest Preserve. Batteries for any device—GPS, flashlight, phone—should be fresh.
- Recognize the signs of hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia can cause the “umbles” as a person begins to mumble, fumble, stumble and grumble. Frostbite usually occurs on exposed skin like ears and noses as well as extremities.
- Honor your limits. Some avid outdoorspeople love the challenge of conquering a new summit or bushwhacking into terra incognito. Winter adds even more variables and can turn a simple day trip into a nightmare for family, friends, volunteers and forest rangers—plus the explorer at the heart of the search.
This weekend’s weather calls for temperatures above 60 in the valleys but expect seriously colder air as you gain altitude, as much as five degrees for every 1,000 feet elevation. Summits are still blanketed with ice and snow; winds can quickly turn a pleasant prospect into a dangerous place. Sure, the temptation is to start your mid-March outing in shorts, a T-shirt and a ball cap, but carry the full monty of cold-weather gear: winter is waiting just up the trail.