The Search for Steven Thomas
He vanished on Marcy's summit six years ago, but his family and friends still hope to solve the mystery
by Ed Hale
Morning puddles in the Adirondak Loj parking lot hold night rain. The hikers’ building is closed for its month-long spring break. Under its eaves, though, a Pennsylvania group picks through packs, dressing for a rainy day. Clouds shroud the High Peaks, whose cold shoulders are shrugging off winter snow. It’s April 11,1981.
For Robert L. Thomas, Jr., that’s a grimly special date. From the same place five years earlier, his younger brother Steven, then 19 years old, set out for Mount Marcy—a hike from which he never returned.
But Bob has returned each year on this date to follow in his brother’s footsteps, tracing a cold trail warmed with stubborn devotion.
The older brother’s dark green 1974 Maverick splashes into the parking lot at 11:30 this wet morning. Sue Corrigan, a hardy 22-year-old who has shared the five years of searching, steps from the car. And William Gurley, a chum who still hunts for his friend, slides from the back seat. They stretch away the kinks of driving from the Thomas home at Kayuta Lake on the Remsen-Forestport town line in Oneida County.
As they organize their packs, Bob’s sister Marilyn arrives in her 1979 green Vega. She and her friend, Gilbert “Gib” Fulton, complete the party of five.
Despite the rain and the mission, the group is cheerful. Bob, for example, is heading into the High Peaks he has grown to love during five years of searching on unnumbered trips. He doesn’t pack grief into the wilderness. None of them does.
For Bob, the ritual of departure is a familiar one. He’s walked 2,500 miles on this search, by his own estimate. And he’s climbed to Marcy’s summit 600 times, dropping down each time along gorges and gulches, rivers and rills which could channel a lost hiker. “Sometimes I’d do it five or ten times a day,” he says, “just back and forth, back and forth, up the trail to the summit and down again.”
And he adds: “I was possessed. …You’ve got to understand, no longer are we normal human beings.”
His quest has led to frustration in the corridors of bureaucratic power in Albany. It has led to close questioning of Steven’s hiking companions, who chose not to join him when he left the old Hopkins lean-to, heading toward Marcy’s 5,344-foot summit on that windy, cold and clear afternoon at 3 o’clock in 1976. Bob has hunted the unknown through psychics. And he has discovered his brother’s ability to cope was low that day, according to a charting of Steven’s bio-rhythms which clock the body’s tempo.
Still, the unknown has kept its secrets.
“My total being was spent in finding what happened to my brother,” Bob says of the past. “I didn’t care about anything else.” He ignored his mason’s business, which had been gearing up for a $100,000 year that spring. “I just went out of business,” he says. But that early urgency has eased. “It’s just that we do it,” he says now, “for ourselves.”
On this fifth anniversary foray, the five searchers ready themselves for the mountains with winter gear, snowshoes and ropes. Bob and Sue have made each member bright gaiters—two-toned in yellow, red, black and green Cordura—to wear over the Sorel felt-lined boots and wool pants. As they leave the Loj parking lot, Bob signs the register.
Under destination, he writes with a stubby yellow pencil on a knotted string: “Steve Thomas search.”
The words, after five years, hint of the party’s dedication. And, perhaps, they’re an unconscious rebuke to the state, which searched only two weeks after Steven’s disappearance. Man, beast, and machine hunted intensively then for Steven in the state’s most treacherous terrain. Department of Environmental Conservation rangers and volunteers searched on foot. Specially-trained German shepherd dogs followed their educated noses. Three helicopters swept the Marcy area and beyond, looking for signs in the snow. DEC’s chopper flew five days, the State Police’s for three and the Air Force’s for two. The ‘copters dropped men to likely spots where they’d be fresh to fight through cripplebush, spruce and balsam. The searchers combed areas on Little Marcy, the Ausable Lakes, the stream valleys of Johns Brook, Feldspar and the Opalescent in softening snow which slowed their steps.
When the intensive effort ended April 21, 1976, after all hope of finding the lost youth alive had been abandoned, Bob said, “I won’t give up.”
He hasn’t. The six-footer started searching when he was 26 years old and he’s still doing it.
At Marcy Dam, Bob signs the register—again noting his destination as “Steve Thomas search.” A colored snapshot and typed description of Steven is covered with plastic and fastened to the register-hut wall. Bob’s father, Robert Sr., secured it there with more than 70 staples.
“Lost on Mount Marcy, April 12, 1976,” it reads.
The notice stands as a warning to hikers who may underestimate the dangers of the High Peaks. The five members of Steven’s party, it says, were the last to see him at Lower Plateau lean-to (Hopkins), heading for Upper Plateau. Hopkins lean-to, of course, has been destroyed, along with such others as Plateau and Indian Falls, as part of the state wilderness policy erasing man’s mark above 3,500 feet. But the structures were intact when Steven vanished in 1976. And, the Thomas placard notes, the weather was ideal for walking—full moon, hard-packed snow, 10 degrees and windy with a clear sky.
“If you’re traveling through this area, especially off the trails,” the notice says, “be on special alert for any signs of my brother.” The color snapshot shows a youth with shoulder-length hair wearing a yellow slicker. And the words describe his clothing when last seen—blue bandana, yellow Bulkflex jacket, blue wool sweater, red-and-white checked shirt, white wool long underwear, blue jeans and Herman boots with Vibram soles.
The Thomas family has carefully reassembled the events leading to Steven’s disappearance. In fact, an old carton in the cellar of their Kay-uta Lake home holds the gleanings of their pursuit—news clippings, a sturdy hiking boot pulled from a logjam in Johns Brook, and other items. Bob Thomas and Sue Corrigan recently sat down to review the past five years—what they’ve found how they feel and why they continue to search.
Both remember the morning Steven left Kayuta Lake to begin the hike. It was a Sunday, dusted with April snow. Mother Mary Thomas had put too much baking soda in the pancakes. And she was worried over Steven’s camping with a group he didn’t know, except for Bruce Weaver, a friend of summers at the lake. Mrs. Thomas was concerned, too, over the snow—a bad combination, she thought, the snow and hiking companions her son didn’t know. “She was right,” Bob says now, whereas earlier he saw her concern as the familiar worry of a mother. Sue feels Mrs. Thomas had a premonition of the tragedy.
Mr. Thomas, a quality-control engineer for a Utica company, asked Steven if he had a compass with him. Yes, his son replied. But Bob has accounted for all the family compasses and now feels Steven’s answer was meant to pacify his father.
The younger brother had returned from an extended western trip only a month earlier. But, Bob remembers, he was secretive, hinting of future plans which he would not reveal. In the years since that Sunday, casual remarks have taken on meaning for the family. Perhaps, they have speculated, Steven had somehow returned to the West, to the Rogue River in Oregon or to California. “That’s still a possibility,” Bob says uncertainly. ”But as time goes on, things change. As far as I’m concerned, he’s still on the mountain.”
Yet the uncertainty of Steven’s lostness haunts the Thomases. In February, for example, Mr. Thomas checked a report that a young man Steven’s age from Utica with the same name had been wounded in a West Virginia shooting. The youth wasn’t Steven, but the incident raised the question of whether he may have known Steven and used his name.
When Steven left Kayuta Lake with Bruce Weaver and Kenneth Sherwood, the three drove to Lake Clear to meet the rest of their hiking group, Mark Seymour, Robert Bromley and James Thackaberry. “Right off the bat,” Bob infers from his talks, “Steve didn’t like these guys. He wouldn’t talk to ‘em. On top of it, he could antagonize you.” The result was that Steven and Bruce left Lake Clear for the Adirondak Loj, 37 miles away. They parked the car and hiked the 2.3 miles to Marcy Dam for the night. “So already something’s going on,” Bob conjectures, matching the situation against his brother’s antagonism.
Steven, with his long hair and yellow slicker, was easily noticed on the trail. And he carried his navy-blue North Face Ruthsac. His sister Marilyn carries it on the fifth anniversary search. As the party leaves the Marcy Dam register, Sue Corrigan heads for a lean-to 87 yards from the junction of the blue (to Indian Falls) and yellow (to Avalanche Lake) trails, 28 yards from the water behind the dam. “We always stop at the lean-to where Steve stayed,” Sue says.
The five searchers shed their packs, and Bob brews tea on his MSR stove. “The last tea my brother had,” he says, “was this Darjeeling.” And later, putting the anniversary into sharp focus, Bob adds: “Steve was here just five years ago today.”
The respite, however, was not sorrowful or grief-laden. The talk was commonplace and happy—of licorice tea and weather and of the journey ahead, hiker talk among people glad to be together.
On April 11, 1976, a Sunday night, Steven and Bruce had slept there just 28 yards from the water and 87 yards from the trail they would follow the next day to meet the others in their group at Indian Falls. Steven awoke at 6 a.m. on Monday, but Bruce slept until 8. Finally, though, they started up the blue trail for Indian Falls where Robert Bromley, Ken, Mark and Jim would join them. Steven was quiet. On the hike from Indian Falls to Lower Plateau, Mark heard him talk only once, when they tried to identify an animal, apparently a pine marten.
As the others made camp, Steven lit his Svea stove to make Darjeeling tea. He hung his Ruthsac in the back right corner of the lean-to. The other young men kept moving to stay warm.
“You want to go for a walk?” Steven asked Bruce.
And Bob, reconstructing the events, says: “Steve didn’t say he was going to the summit or anything as far as I know. Bruce didn’t want to go… and the last anybody ever saw of Steve was then and there.”
His brother left camp alone, walking toward Upper Plateau. He wore his yellow slicker over a down jacket and jeans, without pack or snowshoes or compass or map. He carried a knife. “He had all the gear in the lean-to,” Bob says, “but he didn’t use it.” It was about 3:30 p.m.
Darkness crowded out the mountain light at 7 p.m.
“About 10 o’clock,” Bob continues, “Bruce said, ‘Steve’s not back yet—we’d better do something.’” So Bruce and Robert Bromley began a search. Although the moon was bright, they carried flashlights. The wind gusted to 55 miles an hour, whipping the 10-degree temperature to a wind-chill of minus 40, a dangerous condition which can freeze exposed flesh.
The two searchers didn’t reach Marcy’s summit. The wind drove sharp ice crystals into their faces, forcing them back. They shouted, but the wind swept away their voices—like yelling into a pillow, they said later. Robert and Bruce returned to the lean-to to await daybreak.
While the pair searched the mountain, Bob Thomas sat on his back porch at Kayuta Lake. The wind there was blowing ice against the shoreline and the full moon was rising. “I remember everything about that night,” Bob says. “That’s when Steve was having trouble.” Bob was uneasy then, he remembers, but he wouldn’t know of his brother’s trouble for two more days.
At Tuesday’s daybreak on the mountain, Steven’s companions formed two groups to look for him. Bruce and Ken followed the red trail to Bushnell Falls, looping back to the lean-to along the yellow trail. The others climbed to the top of Marcy, circling as they searched. Neither group found any trace of the lost hiker. Bruce and Ken were exhausted, so they rested at the lean-to while the others hiked out to the Adirondak Loj, where they notified State Police of Steven’s disappearance.
On Wednesday, a state helicopter made an air search of the Marcy area, twice circling the area between the Ausable Lakes and Mount Golden. “There was no track,” a ranger said afterward, “no sign of him.”
Aside from Bob’s uneasiness that night on the back porch, the family had no hint of Steven’s predicament until Wednesday evening. Bob, his father, his sister and Sue were painting the ceiling of the Thomas home when the telephone rang. Mr. Thomas answered it. Steven was lost.
“I didn’t believe it,” Bob recalls. “I thought it was a prank.”
They quickly packed their gear and left for Lake Placid to join the search. They drove in Steven’s car, a rusting 1965 Ford Falcon garishly painted in pink and red. After a restless sleep in a Lake Placid motel, the family was on hand at the airport on Thursday. Bob’s irritation increased when the search craft didn’t take off until 10 a.m.
His annoyance had begun with the late notification of his brother’s disappearance. “I was mad about that,” he says. “They took so long to contact us—up all day Wednesday in the helicopter and we didn’t hear about it until night.” When the intensive search ended, the Thomas family continued to press state and federal officials for more organized efforts. And they got four helicopters, which extended the search area, although unsuccessfully.
Still refusing to give up hope, the Thomases continued their own endeavor, randomly at first and then more systematically. With Sue, sister Marilyn and William Gurley, Bob found the camping gear of a Chicopee, Mass., man missing for more than three years. Then, in July, Bob and Sue helped in the discovery of his remains. In September, Bob and a party of volunteers he’d organize look for his brother joined a search a 67-year-old hiker who eventually was found after six days with food. “That kind of thing,” Bobs then, “had priority over my brother. In a way, the older brother was coming to terms with the possibility of Steven’s death in the High Peaks.
Fall, though, held the threat of snow, which would cover any sign his brother. So Bob wanted one more organized search with air support. And the state agreed. Weather, however, grounded the helicopters for two successive weekends. The effort was called off, ending official help
Bob is still reminded of that aborted search. Red, blue, and orange flagging still flutter on the grids in Panther Gorge. “You know how guys can endure,” Bob says. “I thought Steve hurt himself way the hell out there and he’s just waiting…I could feel what he’s going through, just waiting for somebody to come.”
In the early search, Bob had a argued and fought. He now knows he got some rangers mad. “I alienated them the first day,” he says, referring to his pleas for more intensive ground searches to a tired group which had just returned from the mountains. I got in a jam like that just because I didn’t understand. I was shooting my mouth off that all they wanted they wanted to do was fly.” He respects the rangers but still holds a bitterness toward some deskbound officials who call off searches.
As a journalist for The Watertown Daily Times and the weekly Lake Placid News, I’ve known the Thomases since the beginning of their quest. Their single-mindedness has caused tension, even anger, with some state search administrators and rangers. But I’ve thought that if I were lost in the mountains I’d like Bob Thomas on my track with his woods wisdom.
Bob wonders now what will become of the knowledge he has gained in five years of searching. “I really feel,” he says, “I could put what tools I have to really effective use.”
The search for his brother interrupted his life and turned his blue eyes toward the mountains. Although he’s returned to his mason’s business, he helps Sue develop mountaineering gear—searching, perhaps, for a challenge to test his skills.
And he continues the search for Steven.
“I’ll search as long as I’m capable,” he says, “just because doing that can help find the answer, one way or the other. I don’t know whether it’s finding Steve or finding the answer in my…” Bob hesitates. “Or maybe that is the answer,” he adds. “Each person going through what they got to go through.”
So Bob walks his own trail, searching for both his brother and himself. He even wonders what he’d do if he finds Steven. “I’d have to feel it out,” he says, “but I might not tell anybody.”
“We were thinking of making a marker up there anyway,” he says, “like a pile of rocks in the middle of Panther Gorge—just in memory.”
The Thomases want to affirm that their Steven’s life was worth noting—in their own way and without fanfare. They climb on the anniversary of his disappearance and on his Jan. 27 birthday as a tradition of his passing, not as a memorial. “We don’t sing happy birthday or blow out candles,” Bobi says.
Coincidence, too, has been a constant consternation for the Thomases. A cassette in the tape deck of Steven’s garish car, for example, was pushed in weeks after his disappearance. “It was a strange song,” Bob says. “It ends, ‘all you hear is the blowing…the lonely wind blowing.’ Weird. It really struck me.” He believes the song is entitled “Obscured by Clouds.”
The High Peaks were obscured by clouds as the fifth-anniversary searchers left Marcy Dam for Indian Falls. On their four-day trip, they climbed over Marcy’s summit four times. They searched Panther Gorge, where the snow was two feet deep. They climbed over Skylight to McDonnel Mountain, a half mile from Alien’s remote peak, in a 16-hour bushwhack. They found nothing.
“I really look,” Bob said after his return home. “And I really think. And I can’t come up with anything. And I don’t think anybody else can either.”
But they learn, perhaps, about themselves. Bob talks about the arduous bushwhack to McDonnel and their return in the dark to Lower Plateau. “It’s an interesting perspective to be out like that,” he said, “just wondering what somebody lost would be going through. You get apprehensive—even with the group we had… And you can really wonder what it would be like alone, what would be going through some kid’s mind.” You know Bob is thinking about his brother, testing himself, trying to live what a lost hiker might face in all conditions in all weather and on all terrain. He’s been doing it for five years. “We’re just finishing what we started,” Bob says, “finishing what needs to be finished.”