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WHITEOUT

Lost hikers found healthy after overnight search that included 14 rangers

February 15, 2015
By SHAUN KITTLE - Outdoors Writer (skittle@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

The rescue of two individuals from Kirkland, Quebec, who got lost after summitting Mount Marcy in January, ignited a flurry of public comments regarding the hikers' assumed unpreparedness.

The News spoke to one of the hikers, Miguel Martin, and local state Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger Chris Kostoss, who helped with the rescue, to find out what happened.

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Article Photos

Whiteout conditions prevail Jan. 19 on the summit of Mount Marcy, resulting in two hikers, Miguel Martin and Marie-Pier Leduc of Kirkland, Quebec, getting lost. Martin took this photo not far from the top of the mountain.
(Photo — Miguel Martin)

Blinded by the white

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Martin and friend Marie-Pier Leduc were feeling confident on Jan. 19 as they left for their first-ever ascent of the 5,344-foot Mount Marcy, New York's highest peak. They had successfully climbed several smaller Adirondack mountains and had summitted Algonquin, which is only 200 feet shorter than Marcy, a few days prior.

"We have done quite a lot of winter hiking," Martin told the News by email. "We have a passion for the mountains and we often go on hikes."

Martin speaks English but preferred to do the interview by email so he could be more clear.

He said they were at the trailhead right after sunrise, and the day started out sunny, which the weather forecast predicted would hold.

As they climbed, the skies turned grey. By the time the hikers reached timberline, whiteout conditions prevailed. Martin said they had experienced similar weather on Algonquin, but this was more intense and it made him uncomfortable. He quickly snapped a couple of photos on the summit, and the pair began to descend.

"We couldn't see something held right before our eyes so we lost sight of the trail," Martin said. "We had taken note that we needed to follow the cairns, so when we saw one, we went in its direction and followed the path of rocks."

Martin and Leduc searched for another cairn, but none appeared out of the horizontal streaks of snow blowing around them. Martin found what he thought was a path, and they took it.

"When we were lost on the summit, we got to a point where we could no longer progress due to lack of grips or points of anchor, and we were forced to take some sort of natural slide," Martin said. "It took us down for many meters right into deep snow and heavy vegetation. I am pretty sure that is when we realized we were lost."

The hikers were still somewhere on the side of the mountain when the sun began to sink below the horizon.

Martin said continuing through the thick vegetation in the dark didn't seem like a viable option. Instead, they found a spot where the snow wasn't as deep, dug a hole and used pine branches to create a barrier to block the wind. Then they started a fire using a fire-starting kit, sat on emergency blankets to keep warm and began a sleepless night of maintaining the fire.

"The fire saved our lives," Martin said. "We were very cold and we knew that making it last all night was our only chance of keeping warm, so we didn't sleep at all and just kept getting up to get more wood."

The next morning, the lost hikers found a trail and began following it down. They had no idea which side of the mountain they were on.

"I do believe we would have made it down and would have found a way back to our car," Martin said. "We were relieved we had found a way out. We didn't have any major injuries and we were not as cold since we had been walking for hours. We were in good health, just very exhausted. It was hard walking in the deep snow, so we were very happy when the ranger found us."

Forest rangers escorted the hikers to the Elk Lake trailhead, where they were reunited with family members at 2 p.m.

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Boots on the ground

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It was around 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 20 when state police advised the DEC's central dispatcher that two hikers had set off for the summit of Mount Marcy and hadn't returned.

Fourteen forest rangers responded, but none knew where the hikers were, so teams were dispatched from several trailheads including the Adirondak Loj in Lake Placid, Elk Lake in Newcomb, and the Garden parking area and the Ausable Club in Keene Valley.

Martin signed in at the Adirondack Loj trailhead, so the forest rangers who started there, Scott Van Laer and Rob Praczkajlo, were following in the hikers' bootsteps as they ascended Marcy via the Van Hoevenburg trail. At 7.4 miles, it's the shortest route to the top.

The rangers reached the summit at 8:25 a.m. and followed the hikers' tracks down the other side of the mountain, straight toward the remote Panther Gorge. Martin and Leduc never found the trail that leads into the gorge. Instead, they bushwhacked through deep snow and miraculously avoided the steep crags that characterize the southern side of the mountain.

In Panther Gorge, Van Lear and Praczkajlo saw that the hikers appeared to have found the trail that leads more than 9 miles to the Elk Lake trailhead. They radioed in what they had discovered and retraced their steps - back up and over the mountain. That's where Kostoss came in.

"I was the forest ranger that was inserted with the helicopter, and then I met the people and walked out with them," Kostoss said. "They seemed OK. They were tired and wanting to get out of the woods, but other than that, they were in pretty good condition."

Martin and Leduc were without a map or GPS unit, and neither had microspikes, crampons or snowshoes, the latter of which is required in the Eastern High Peaks in the winter. Still, Kostoss warned that the incident could have happened to anyone.

"It's scary even for someone who is experienced and has all of the right stuff," Kostoss said in response to dozens of public comments, most of them online, which insisted the hikers were lost because they were ill-prepared. "Unfortunately, these people got all of the negative press of it, but it certainly could happen to anybody who is hiking in the wintertime."

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Assessing the incident

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Martin admitted that not having a map, compass, GPS device and snowshoes was a mistake, and he said the misadventure was a hard lesson he'll never forget. The oversights seemed to come from a false sense of security instilled by previous hikes.

"It wasn't our first time hiking in the Adirondacks, and we had successfully made it to the top of Algonquin and easily found our way back down, so we knew the trails were easy to follow," Martin wrote. "I guess we had to get lost once to understand that we can't always rely on the trails and signs to find our way. We had never gotten lost before on any of the mountains we hiked. We learned our lesson the hard way, and it's needless to say, we will always bring a GPS device, or map, with us in the future."

Kostoss, who has been a forest ranger for 16 years, agreed with Martin's assessment and said they were otherwise prepared for the hike. He added that the things they didn't bring wouldn't have necessarily kept them from getting lost and that rescues involving people getting disoriented and lost on summits during snowstorms are common in the High Peaks.

In hindsight, he said, Martin and Leduc should have retreated before reaching the summit.

"Unless you have goggles, you really can't see because the snow is coarse and it's getting in your eyes, so you get disoriented very quickly," Kostoss said. "All you can think to do is get out of the wind, so people just go downhill. It's 30 to 40 mile-an-hour wind of blowing snow and cold. It's not like you can follow the trail easily, either. The trail is kind of stone cairns at that point. If you lose sight of them or if you lose the beaten path from other people, you don't know where to go."

Hikers who begin descending the wrong way are often reluctant to head back up because of the difficult terrain created by the spruce and balsam thickets, called the krumholtz zone, which are prevalent below open summits in the region. Kostoss said it's one of the most difficult places to traverse because of treeholes, which are formed between trees of varying height and are typically hidden by snow. Treeholes can be as deep as the trees are tall, sometimes up to 10 feet.

To make matters worse, wind can quickly erase tracks, making it impossible for a lost hiker to retrace them back to the summit.

Snowshoes could have helped the hikers get through the krumholtz, and Kostoss acknowledged that they could have been ticketed for not having them, but he questioned the necessity of that.

"People were upset that they didn't get tickets," Kostoss said. "It wasn't my decision to make, but ultimately they decided that a ticket is a form of education, and Mother Nature gave them a really good education. Is a $100 fine going to really make a difference at this point? They learned their lesson."

 
 
 

 

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