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Heroic effort saved climber’s life

Backcountry rescue on Nippletop Mountain took more than 24 hours

December 22, 2012
MIKE LYNCH, Outdoors Writer , Lake Placid News

The night of Saturday, Dec. 15, Dave Guilfoyle had one focus.

"My concern was that Calum was going to die," Guilfoyle said. "I was concerned with keeping him alive and keeping him warm. That's what I had been thinking about most."

Earlier that day, Guilfoyle had been part of a four-person group that attempted to climb an icy slide on the remote 4,610-foot Nippletop Mountain, located southeast of Lower AuSable Lake in the Dix Mountain Wilderness. During the trip, one of the climbers, 41-year-old Syracuse resident Calum Stewart, took a fall that sent him tumbling down the mountain.

Article Photos

Forest rangers Scott Van Laer (front), Kevin Burns (right) and carry injured climber Calum out of the woods Sunday.

Photos courtesy of DEC

One of his climbing partners, Jim Wallace, said the fall came shortly after Stewart had asked to be attached to an anchored rope. Prior to that, the members had been relying on just their crampons and ice axes, handling it with relative ease on what Wallace said had been an "extraordinary day."

Wallace said the plan from the start had been for the four climbers to work together. Wallace and Chris Lang were the two most experienced climbers in the group. Wallace said he had climbed and hiked in the Adirondacks hundreds of times and done trips to places such as Washington's Mount Rainier, while Lang has had similar experiences and has climbed North America's tallest peak, Mount McKinley, in Alaska. Guilfoyle also had lots of hiking and some ice climbing experience, while Stewart was more experienced as a hiker and learning how to ice climb.

If any of the men needed a hand, they were to tell the others. So when Stewart requested that he needed a rope, Wallace went right to work to set one up.

"(He) was calm," Wallace said. "There was no indication he was going to fall."

But as Wallace was setting up an ice anchor to secure a rope, Stewart unexpectedly lost his footing. Stewart fell uncontrollably for 30 seconds and landed a few hundred feet down the mountain, Wallace said.

"It's like someone threw him off the mountain," Wallace said. "We were just devastated. We couldn't do anything but watch. It was the saddest, just a sick feeling.

Immediately after the accident, Wallace said he thought Stewart was dead. Then he heard a noise and saw some motion.

"He was moaning; I could see an arm moving," Wallace said. "We knew it was very bad. It was a miracle that he was even going to be alive."

The group knew that their one chance for saving Stewart was to have emergency personnel perform a backcountry rescue. The trio decided that Wallace and Lang would climb to the top of the mountain and use Wallace's cell phone to call for help. While they went for help, Guilfoyle would make his way down to Stewart and care for him.

Wallace said he had called his wife from Nippletop's peak in the past, but this time he didn't get a signal. When the phone failed, the men hiked 7.5 miles to their car in a parking lot close to the trailhead on the AuSable Club's property in St. Huberts. The pair then drove to Keene Valley, where they called 911 at about 8 p.m. The call was transferred to the state Department of Environmental Conservation's dispatch center in Ray Brook. Soon after, Wallace and Lang met up with Forest Ranger Rob Praczkajlo at the Noonmark Diner in Keene Valley.

The group then drove to the trailhead and began discussing a plan to rescue Stewart. Because the first few miles of the trail are actually a dirt road on the AuSable Club property, the DEC contacted the club and arranged to use one of their buildings as a command post for the rescue.

Staying awake

While Wallace and Lang were going for help and later working with rescuers on a plan, Guilfoyle was hard at work trying to keep Stewart alive.

One of Guilfoyle's chief tasks was to keep Stewart warm on this frigid night when temperatures had dipped into the single digits.

One of the first things Guilfoyle did when he found Stewart was to cover him in spare clothes, trying to prevent him from getting hypothermia and frostbite. He put Wallace's warm down jacket over Stewart's upper body. Guilfoyle also stripped off all of the clothes on his upper body except for a shirt and his down jacket. He gave those to his injured friend. Guilfoyle also cut branches from a nearby evergreen tree and placed them over and under Wallace.

Throughout the night, Guilfoyle engaged Stewart in conversation to keep him awake. The man had serious injuries. Stewart, who had been wearing a helmet, had fractured his skull, broken a rib and was badly bruised.

"He would start off being very alert and then he would come and go," Guilfoyle said. "He was probably talking to me more from a dream than he was from where he was. He would then be right back into talking about the situation."

Despite the injuries, Stewart had an inner drive that made him believe he could get out of the woods. Part of that was driven by his personality and part of it was a result of the head injury. At this point, Stewart could sit up but not stand up, let alone walk.

"There was a tenacity that he wanted to get off the mountain," Guilfoyle said. "I explained to him that it's going to be very difficult for us to get out, the two of us."

In the meantime, Guilfoyle didn't know if rescuers were coming because he had no way to contact anyone. So Guilfoyle just focused on the little things, like talking to Stewart, and hoped that help would arrive soon.

"I kind of just tried to focus on morning because I knew we wouldn't have to make a decision until morning," he said. "Trying to get off the mountain in the dark was just not plausible. ... I was also afraid that Calum would possibly stop breathing, that there would be something that would happen that kind of forced our hand so that we'd have to start downclimbing."

Lights in the distance

At roughly 2:30 a.m., after about 10 hours of caring for Stewart, Guilfoyle saw his first glimmer of hope. There were headlamps headed in his direction.

At first, Guilfoyle thought the headlights were his friends returning with warm clothes and sleeping bags, but it was actually a four-person rescue team led by Praczkajlo. He was with Forest Rangers David Russell and Bob Zurek and physicians assistant Gary Nye, a member of Adirondack Health's special Backcountry Rescue unit.

The men had been hiking in the dark since about 10:30 p.m. They parked their trucks at the end of the 4-mile AuSable Club road near Lower AuSable Lake. From there, they hiked another 3.5 miles to the slide.

While the first part of the hike through Elk Pass was relatively straightforward, the last mile was extremely difficult. The men had to bushwhack through a tight spruce forest. There was a slight herd path for part of the way, but it was narrow and difficult to follow in the dark.

Finally at about 3:30 a.m., the rescuers arrived and Nye went to work assessing Stewart's medical condition.

One of the first things they did was wrap Stewart in warm clothes, a sleeping bag and an emergency blanket. They also built a fire and prepared a landing area where they hoped Stewart could be lifted out by helicopter in the morning.

"Basically the night was just spent keeping the fire going and Calum was moaning and groaning - very, very upset all night," Praczkajlo said. "(The pain) actually got worse as his body core temperature came back up."

Getting out

There were two options for getting Stewart out of the woods. The first was to hoist him into a helicopter at first light. The other was to utilize manpower and haul him out by hand. The first option was eliminated at dawn because of snow squalls.

"Right at sunrise, there were these big icy snowflakes that were falling, so you know the clouds were really thick," Praczkajlo said. "There was no way there was going to be a helicopter."

After considering different exit routes, the rangers decided they would use climbing ropes to descend the slide, which they had avoided the night before by hiking through the woods. This meant they would have to descend five pitches of about 200 feet each.

Shortly after the decision was made to do a carry out, a second crew of forest rangers arrived with a litter that would be used to carry Stewart out. The second team consisted of Forest Rangers Kevin Burns, Jay Scott, Evan Donegan and Tom Gliddi. This group had left the trailhead at 4 a.m., bringing along carry out gear in case inclement weather prevented the use of a helicopter. Shortly after their arrival, Forest Ranger Scott Van Laer showed up with two volunteer climbers, Colin Loher and Don Mellor.

From about 9 a.m. to noon, the group made their way down the slide, carefully lowering the injured hiker in a secured "package."

Then came the tough part. From the bottom of the slide, the crew had to get though the thick spruce forest. Because the forest was so dense, the men had to blaze their own trail for about a mile. For the first part, the men used axes and handsaws. Halfway through the trip, another crew of rescuers arrived. This one had chainsaws that were used to clear a path for the final half-mile.

"There were boulders and holes and spruce and everything else in the way too," Lt. Forest Ranger Charlie Platt said. "We were lucky to do 20 feet at a time."

The footing was also slippery at times because of ice. There was only about 6 inches of fluffy snow on the ground.

Once they got through the bushwhack, the trail widened and things got a little bit easier. But by this time, most of the rangers were exhausted.

"Prior to this junction, every ranger that had been there had been up all night," Praczkajlo said. "It was all personnel that had been there from the beginning pretty much. So we were pretty smoked at that point."

A few of the forest rangers started talking about how tired they were. One mentioned how he had hiked all of Saturday for work, and another mentioned he had been skiing at Whiteface Mountain.

Stewart picked up on this conversation in his dazed state and called the forest rangers "a bunch of whiners" in his Scottish accent. Stewart is a native of Scotland.

"It was pretty funny," Praczkajlo said with a laugh.

Praczkajlo said Stewart was actually pretty upset most of the night, a result of his severe injures.

"He wanted us to let him walk; he wanted to get out," Praczkajlo said. "He nicknamed it 'The Machine,' this carry that we were doing."

Eventually at about 8 p.m., the crews got Stewart to Lake Road on AuSable Club property. From there, they drove him in a truck to a waiting ambulance, about 28 hours after his fall had taken place.

By the end of the effort, more than 30 people had helped in the rescue, including 15 forest rangers and one environmental conservation officer. Six teams of people had gone into the woods to help carry Stewart out. In addition to the DEC, volunteers from the Keene and Keene Valley fire departments and SARNAK participated.

Stewart arrived at Elizabethtown Community Hospital Sunday night and was transported to Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington, Vt. the next day, where he underwent surgery and is now recovering.

"He's got a fractured rib. He's got a whole slew of stuff," Wallace said Tuesday night. "He was as close as (one) can be without being dead basically, but today was a great recovery day. He was talking."

Wallace said that the climbers who went out on the slide that day and Stewart's family and friends were all extremely thankful for the incredible effort made to save his life.

"The rangers, the volunteers, those people, man, they are the greatest," Wallace said. "The effort was phenomenal."



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