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February 2017

Lost on Marcy

A sister finally finds peace

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Photograph by Carl Heilman II

Forty-three years ago Buddy Atkinson, a 20-year-old from western Massachusetts, called home to say he’d arrived safely in the Adirondacks. He parked his dad’s aging Lincoln Continental at the Adirondak Loj, signed the Van Hoevenberg trailhead register, and then he was gone.

It’s a 7.5-mile trek to Marcy’s 5,343-foot summit. In summer the mountain is congested with hikers; in winter it’s still a bucket-list destination, but crowds thin as the peak turns white. That’s when frigid blasts of wind disorient even the most experienced mountaineer. Snow dumps and drifts in epic piles, swallowing trail markers and covering snowshoe tracks. And almost every year, rangers bring hypothermic hikers down the mountain.

Last November three men were unprepared for the temperatures that froze their clothing and gear; they called 911 and were rescued about four hours later. Last February a woman, separated from her hiking group, sent a distress signal from her personal locator beacon just after noon; she was rescued before dinnertime. Two years ago a woman called 911 when she and her two young boys got lost in a whiteout; they were rescued the following day. In 2012, after a snowstorm split a man from his hiking party, he dug a snow shelter and dialed 911; his rescuers reached him the next morning.

Buddy Atkinson, lost in an era before cell phones and other technology, wasn’t so lucky. His remains were discovered just above Panther Gorge three and a half years after he vanished.

People climb Marcy, the loftiest peak in New York State, for the challenge, the bragging rights and the views. For Atkinson, Marcy was a place of serenity and escape.

His sister, Pat Atkinson-Sirois, says that when her brother set off all those years ago, he was mourning the recent loss of his mother, working an unsatisfying job in his hometown and dreaming of attending college out West. She says, “If I have to take some solace in this whole thing, it’s that he lost his life in a place he absolutely loved.”

Buddy and Pat in 1969

Buddy and Pat in 1969

Pat was an 18-year-old college freshman when her brother disappeared. On school breaks she’d join her dad to scour the mountain and its surroundings, searching for Buddy.

Today, Pat is 62, living near Chico-pee, where she and Buddy grew up. “I’m still working through it,” she says. “After Buddy was found, I just couldn’t bring myself to go back [to the Adirondacks] … or I just tucked it away and thought, Someday.”

Last August, four decades after the search for Buddy ended, Pat returned. She brought a stone from a local quarry on which she’d engraved her brother’s name. En route to Marcy Dam, she and her husband, Al, hid the memorial near the trailhead where Buddy had last signed in, “as a way to honor him, as a reminder that he died there.”

After their hike, they parked their car along Adirondack Loj Road’s shoulder so Pat could “see that vista one more time”—Mount Marcy’s ancient dome crowning the High Peaks, pushing into the clouds.

“We just sat there the longest time,” she says. “It was breathtaking, so beautifully peaceful. At the same time, I thought of Buddy being all by himself up there, how he must have felt so alone. I felt such deep sadness.”

And then a hawk circled up, against the late-summer sky and a landscape that had brought Pat and her family so much pain. “It was as though my brother were saying, ‘I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK … my soul is still here.’ I thought, I’ll take that as a sign—I’ll go with it.”

Buddy’s “is a tough story to tell,” says Pat. But “if all it does is have somebody remember my brother, that’s what I want.”

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