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PEOPLE AT WORK: Konowitz sheds light on backcountry rescue volunteers

December 1, 2016
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

KEENE - During frigid, icy winters here in the Adirondacks, rescue phone calls from deep within the wilderness occur on a weekly basis.

The people in peril at the other end of the line run the spectrum from novice hikers ill-prepared to traverse dark and icy switchbacks to seasoned backcountry veterans who were a bit too adventurous.

For 90 percent of these phone calls, the state Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers respond, rescue and recover day or night in any weather condition. But there are 10 percent of incidents in the backcountry where forest rangers also call on dozens of local volunteers from the Olympic Region to work as rescuers to help with certain incidents.

Article Photos

Ron Konowitz
(News photo — Antonio Olivero)

One of those men is Ron Konowitz, 62, a retired Keene Central School teacher and avid backcountry skier who volunteers with the Keene Valley Fire Department's backcountry rescue team. Konowitz also has experience with a Keene-based technical rock climbing rescue team, one organized by DEC Forest Ranger Robbi Mecus, that provides technical rock climbing expertise to assist with DEC rescues.

Konowitz doesn't mince words when he describes his admiration for the forest rangers, calling them "the best-trained rescuers in the country." But here in the Adirondacks, the relationship between backcountry volunteers and the DEC's forest rangers is critical to the success of rescue efforts, especially in the winter.

"Every single rescue situation is slightly different," Konowitz said. "Not all are exactly the same."

Some of the High Peaks region's most accomplished climbers and backcountry skiers - including veteran climbers such as Don Mellor, Royce Van Evra of High Peaks Cyclery and Dustin Ulrich of The Mountaineer - comprise this group of volunteer rescuers. Seasoned backcountry skiers like Konowitz are members of the group as well. And the rescuers chosen for each incident bring with them their own specific skill sets and knowledge of the unforgiving Adirondack terrain.

"From a technical aspect, we know what each person can or can't do," Konowitz said. "We are all just one person, a small part of this big picture."

Like other volunteer firemen, each day Konowitz is clued into backcountry emergencies via a communication device of yesteryear: his pager. Whether it's the middle of the day or just past midnight, he reports to the fire department or rescue scene from his self-built Alstead Hill Lane home at the foot of the Sentinel Range.

If it's a rescue that won't require a multiple-mile trek into the wilderness, such as two recent fatalities at Roaring Brook Falls, Konowitz will immediately rush out of the house to either the station or the nearest entry point to the rescue location. If it is going to be a much longer hike, say to the vicinity of the summits of Gothics or Dix mountains, two common locations for rescues, he will eat a couple of bowls Raisin Bran cereal, swig several bottles of water and head out.

In the case when he'll need a large meal at the end of a long day to fuel him for an overnight rescue, Konowitz might call ahead to the AuSable Inn to make him a cheeseburger or pasta dish to grab on the way to the fire hall.

Once there, much of the department's rescue gear "lives" in their truck: ropes, litters, medical packs, crampons, microspikes, headlamps, life vests and helmets.

When at the scene of a rescue, volunteers like Konowitz speak to the incident commander who is in charge, almost always a DEC forest ranger.

For years, Konowitz was the department's Backcountry Wilderness Response Team Coordinator, a position created in 1996. For 26 years he was tasked with keeping track of all of the department's rescue equipment and organizing the training of new volunteers.

The main lesson he's learned in his years volunteering is that no matter how experienced, anyone can put themselves in a bad enough position to need to call for help. And terrible accidents can happen anywhere.

"Some of the biggest rescues I've ever been to were on a Tuesday on a mountain where nothing's ever happened before," Konowitz said.

While other volunteers like the seasoned area rock climbing guides bring technical knowledge and expertise of climbing routes to rescues, Konowitz brings some of the best knowledge about alternate routes up and down commonly hiked mountains. He is the only person ever to ski all 46 Adirondack High Peaks. The years of trial and error it took Konowitz to accomplish that combined with his endless time hiking and skiing in the backcountry have provided him with some of the best all-around knowledge of popular mountains of anyone.

"When we'd do searches, we'd go to a lot of places you wouldn't typically go," Konowitz said. "You're checking drainages, most people will filter down through that, and skiing a lot of stream beds, some slides - the naturally open areas. We'd figure out how to get from the top of a mountain to a slide and how to get out when you get down there, and it's mostly in stream beds."

That knowledge and his ability to ski in the backcountry is useful in situations where climbers of hikers have injured themselves off of or near official state trails. Konowitz utilizes that skillset when answering to Keene Valley Fire Chief Rusty Hall and Assistant Chief Ronny Hall, one of several technicians who is able to administer the department's Advanced Life Support bag in the backcountry.

Proper communication is crucial while out on a rescue, as obtaining accurate information from fellow hikers and climbers through on-site interviews could mean the difference between getting to someone in time or getting there too late. And at the juncture when rescues do turn into recoveries of the deceased, volunteers like Konowitz sometimes have to communicate with loved ones and friends of the victim in a counselor-like manner.

"At that point, the mission changes a little bit," he said.

Konowitz was rescued once by forest rangers and volunteers. He was involved in one of the worst mountaineering accident in the history of the Adirondacks, the February 2000 avalanche on newly formed slides on Wright Peak that claimed one life. It was a difficult experience for Konowitz, as after years working as a volunteer rescuer he was rescued by friends he had worked alongside for many years.

"Typically when you rescue people it's not people you know," he said. "They are typically from out of the area.

"You have to be able to have a clear decision making process, and because I had been in the avalanche, I was not in any position to make decisions."

These days, Konowitz often is the oldest responder to rescues. And after he began teaching fifth grade at Keene Central School nearly 40 years ago, many of his fellow volunteers now are his former students.

One of them is 25-year-old Patrick Odell, who recently succeeded Konowitz as the fire department's Wilderness Response Team Coordinator. Odell is one of hundreds of students Konowitz taught about the wonders of the Adirondack wilderness, and for several decades a trademark of his classes was the novel Adirondack Mountain Mystery. It's a fictional story set in 1967 that features locations in the Adirondack wilderness.

While reading the book, Konowitz's classes would take field trips to read a chapter at Giant's Washbowl, The Crows or on top of Hurricane Mountain.

Many years later, Konowitz is proud to see many of those same faces he read to volunteering alongside him at some of those same locations.

"The younger people we have are really, really good," Konowitz said. "In fact, I can remember the first time Pat ever rock climbed - I have a picture of him climbing (King) Philips Spring. He's great, he has kind of taken over, but I still respond to rescues and searches when I can."



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