by John Leahy
The author and his mother, Katherine (Kay) Frey, are both Grafton residents and members of the Friends of Grafton Lakes State Park.
As all experienced outdoors enthusiasts are aware, the power of nature is always to be respected and a careless mistake can suddenly change a comfortable recreational activity into a desperate life and death struggle. My mother, aged 86, and I are lifetime hikers and campers in all seasons, yet we still managed to find ourselves in avoidable difficulty on our Columbus Day hike in the high peaks area of the Adirondack Mountains by not being as prepared for possible problems as we could have been.
At 12:30 pm on Monday October 12, we began our hike up Round Mountain (altitude 3,100 feet, vertical ascent 1,280 feet) near Keene Valley, giving us 6 hours for the 4.5 mile loop. It seemed like a fairly routine outing and the thought that we might not get back down to the car by sundown didn’t even enter our minds. After so many hikes under our belts we were pretty nonchalant. We were equipped with fleece jackets and gloves, sweat shirts, wool hats, wool socks, boots and an extra light sports training jacket that lives in my car and crumples up for easy storage. We had packed a lunch of sandwiches, apples, pumpkin bread and a quart of water. The temperature was almost 50 degrees under cloudy skies. My dim recollection of the forecast for the coming night was rain with possible snow. I didn’t really care since we would be driving home.
A primary outdoors concept is being prepared to cope with the conditions to be expected during the coming night, if for whatever reason one does not make it back to shelter by nightfall. In our case, we had not brought a watch (to help us gauge our progress and schedule our return trip), a flashlight, matches or a space blanket or other emergency shelter tarp. These are all lightweight items that do not take up much space in a day pack, and they are all permanent occupants in our camping gear. For our day hike, organized at the last minute, I was glad to have remembered to have brought my camera.
We made slow progress going up and reached summit after all other hikers had already gone through.
The exact time of reaching the top was unknown on account of forgetting the watch. I estimated that we still had plenty of time to get down the back side of the mountain to the car before dark. However, my mother’s legs started getting tired and rubbery on the way down and our progress slowed significantly. Although we both still considered this to be only an inconvenience, we began noting that the afternoon was quickly drawing near its end and made occasional jokes about stumbling our way out in the dark. However, before we even got down to the Old Dix trail that runs between Noonmark and Round Mountain, I was already holding her around the waist to support her weight as her legs wouldn’t bear weight any more. We finally made it to the trail intersection and had 1.7 miles to go back to the car. We didn’t have much daylight left. We staggered another half hour, and it was now definitely getting dark. The occasional joke about doing things the hard way were being replaced by unspoken anxiety about getting down the last stretch of trail and reaching the car.
After descending through a dark 50 yard slope under a dense tree canopy, we plopped down on a large rock in a small clearing by a stream. We held a quick conference and decided I should try to get down to the car to fetch a flashlight. In afterthought, the idea of my mother hobbling out a mile and a half in that condition, even with a flashlight, was completely absurd, but the reality that we were in serious trouble hadn’t penetrated into our consciousness yet. I left the food and my sweatshirt and the light jacket with her and just took my wool hat and fleece jacket as I took off, still expecting to get down to the car before dark or getting to the car anyway even in the dark. I was on a mission and would do whatever it took since I was leaving my mother alone on the mountain.
I hurried down the trail in the deepening gloom, and, as the overcast sky became completely dark, I kept going, feeling my way with my feet. The ground under the trail was packed harder than the surrounding ground and if I went off the trail I usually could feel the difference, especially when branches smacked me in the face. I kept trying to pick my way along out the trail with the thought that as long as I kept going downhill I was at least going in the right direction. I even thought I could follow a stream downhill and eventually end up near the road. I finally tumbled face-first into the blackness when I unknowingly stepped off a rock, and, as I picked myself up, I realized I simply could not get out tonight. I was going to have to bunker down and wait it out for morning. My mother would have to wait out the night alone in her own spot farther up the mountain.
The unimaginable had occurred. I could not see enough to be able to move from my dark prison space, and I had left my mother alone in a state of physical exhaustion and could do nothing now to help her. I was shocked to find myself trapped in such a vulnerable position, not being able to help either myself or my mother. I was frustrated at being so close to safety and assistance but not being able to move even a step closer through the black forest shadows. My heart was pumping from anxiety as I contemplated the real threat of hypothermia for both of us during the next eleven hours of darkness. I felt warm for the moment, but what was the weather forecast for the coming night, rain and snow? That would make body heat conservation more complicated. At first light, or maybe even when the moon came out, I could go for help. I peered through the darkness to identify any features in the clearing where I had come to a stop. I hoped that I was at least still on the trail.
I was wearing a cotton T-shirt, and it was soaked with sweat so I took it off and just wore the fleece jacket with the wool hat. I started feeling my way around the darkness for branches to break off trees to build a shelter. After over an hour of disorganized work, I sat on the log and tried to pull the branches over myself like a blanket. They all fell off to one side, and I sat there ineffectively holding two branches across my lap. I forced myself to make a more focused effort and planted a hemlock branch leaning against the log on one side and then leaned other branches against it to make an inverted “V” shaped shelter. After another two hours of searching for branches within reach and struggling to rip the green branches from their trunks, I pushed my way backwards into my little shelter. The cold was seeping in through my clothes. I realized I needed to keep moving all night to generate heat and avoid hypothermia and potential death. I started marching in place and told myself I would steel myself to do this all night long. I thought there was a realistic possibility that neither my mother nor I would be alive by morning. For me, it would be a race with time. Since I had no more food to eat, whatever calories my body had stored now would be my energy supply for the night. If daylight came before I burned up all my available calories of stored energy, I would be OK. If not, my core body temperature could diminish as hypothermia gradually shut down my mental and physiological functions. Nobody was likely to come along and give me help, even in the morning, since Columbus Day was over.
The Endless Night Stretches On
A series of morbid thoughts coursed through my brain – my mother slowly succumbing to hypothermia by herself, my little girls not having a father, all my unfinished projects that would be abandoned as they were. I realized that thinking in this way was not going to help me. The only way I could help myself was by remaining rational and focused on what I needed to do. I hoped my mother would be doing the same thing. To distract myself from unproductive thoughts and panic, I began counting seconds. I would count the seconds of one minute and start immediately with the next minute. I calculated and recalculated the amount of elapsed time since I had left my mother and the amount of time probably remaining until daylight could enable me to go for help.
When I began marching in place, I estimated that I had probably about 8 hours of marching to go until dawn. I would walk all night. I told myself I could do it. Sometimes I jogged in place if the cold was penetrating. The air temperature that night never got below the mid-30s and with a tent and a sleeping bag it would have been a comfortable routine night of camping. Even a sweater under my jacket would probably have been enough to pass the night safely. I draped my wet T-shirt over my wool hat to protect the back of my neck from the cold. Covering my exposed neck but not touching it, the wet cotton shirt provided some insulation and served a valuable function. My morale was high as I felt confident in getting through the night. Then it began to drizzle and my jacket shoulders were getting damp. My morale sagged. I raised some branches as an umbrella over my head and held them there for the rest of the night. I realized I hadn’t bothered to grab my gloves from my bag that I had left with my mother. I was losing heat through my hands.
I counted the seconds and marched in place. Suddenly to my joy and relief I realized that it seemed brighter and I could see the pale ground around me. The night appeared to have passed much more quickly than I had expected. My spirits soared with confidence. I was going to win and survive! While I waited for the visibility to improve enough to start walking, I contemplated how my anxiety had made the time pass so quickly. I noted with puzzlement that the brightness of the sky hadn’t changed behind the dark contours of the tree tops. After half an hour I realized that the rain had changed to snow and the ground was now white. The white ground had fooled me. I now thought I wasn’t going to make it to morning and neither would my mother. Dawn was still far off. I considered sleeping while I marched in place, but every time I tried I ended up forcing myself back awake. The endless night stretched on.
Finally the dim light slowly brightened and I could see that I was actually still on the trail. One good sign at least! I
decided there was no point in going back uphill to my mother now as I thought she would probably need hypothermia treatment if she was still alive. As soon as it was bright enough to see the way, I made my way down the snow covered trail. It still took me an hour to get out. I never would have made it out the night before, I finally realized. I got to my car about 7 am and found the Ausable Club Security Chief Bill O’Connor, who called the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Rangers.
Rangers To The Rescue
By 7:45 a ranger arrived and prepared to go up the mountain to find my mother. He expressly declared that I was to wait below. It was time for the professionals to take over. He departed first and a full search party of rangers and a Keene Valley Fire Department EMT were mobilized and followed him up the mountain. I waited anxiously below for news. At 9 am the first ranger, Charles Platt, found my mother apparently in good condition, up and moving around her little clearing. He helped her into a sleeping bag and gave her warm liquids. The rest of the search party gradually arrived on the scene and they put my mother in a four-man stretcher and took turns carrying her down the slippery, snow covered trail.
I didn’t hear any news until after 11. My relief was beyond measure, and the physical and mental composure that I had forced upon myself during the long night now collapsed completely. I saw the rangers shortly after they had put my mother safely into a waiting ambulance that whisked her off to the Elizabethtown Community Hospital for observation for hypothermia. Ranger Charles Platt told me she had not even been shivering when he found her. “She’s tough,” he said.
I found her at the hospital in good spirits, bundled up like a cocoon. We compared stories of our nights. She told me that she had figured out pretty quick that nothing would happen before morning and had used my spare jacket as a tent shroud with her head tucked down between her knees. The rock I had left her on in the dark had actually been surrounded by water from the stream and her feet were in water all night, a testament to the value of wool socks. My bag had also been set down in water so my sweatshirt was totally soaked and worthless for heat conservation. She had not slept but had moved her body as much as she could all night to keep warm. The dampness was working through her jacket by morning, but she had passed the night in fair comfort. She also had thought at times that it was possible that neither of us would survive, and her first question to the ranger was whether I had gotten out all right. The ranger told her I had.
This Is What We Do
After several hours of observation, my mother was released from the hospital and we returned to our routine lives again. When I asked one of the rangers if there was something we could do to show our gratitude, he said modestly, “No, this is our job. This is what we do.”
NYS DEC Region 5 Forest Rangers Charles Platt, Kevin Burns, Mark Chambers, Lt. Brian Dubay, James Giglinto and Julie Harjung made up the search and rescue party along with Keene Valley Fire Department EMT Bruce Barry. The following NYS DEC Region 5 Emergency Dispatchers Ann MacBride and Dave McCasland relayed communications related to the rescue effort. All DEC and Keene Valley Fire Department personnel involved acted with the greatest degree of professionalism and proficiency.