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Rescued hikers back home after 2 nights on mountain

December 14, 2016
By CHRIS KNIGHT and JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Staff Writers ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Two hikers who went missing Sunday, Dec. 11 on Algonquin Peak were located and rescued Tuesday after spending two unplanned nights out in bitter cold weather.

Blake Alois, 20, and his girlfriend, Madison Popolizio, 19, both from Niskayuna, were found by state Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger Scott Van Laer and volunteer climber Don Mellor around 11 a.m. near Algonquin's 5,114-foot summit.

Alois and Popolizio were suffering from hypothermia but otherwise managed to survive their ordeal unscathed. Rangers warmed them and hoisted them from the mountainside by helicopter. They were brought to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake Tuesday afternoon and have since been discharged, according to hospital spokesman Matt Scollin.

Article Photos

Blake Alois, left, and Maddie Popolizio, both of Niskayuna, sent this picture to family members from their hike on Algonquin Peak around noon Sunday, Dec. 11. They were missing for nearly two days until rangers located them late Tuesday morning.
(Photo provided)

Popolizio released a statement through the hospital.

"I cannot even begin to articulate how unbelievably grateful I am to the rescue group who found us," she said, "and to the people who saved us, and to the people who never gave up looking for us and kept us in their prayers."


Sent photos to family

Blake Alois' mother Doris said his son and Popolizio, who've been together for more than a year-and-a-half, drove up from the Albany area early Sunday morning to hike Algonquin, the second highest peak in the Adirondacks.

Around noon, the pair sent family members photos and videos of their hike. Based on those images, they appeared to be in good condition and wearing winter clothing at the time, DEC spokesman David Winchell said in a statement. But that was the last anyone heard from them.

"Around 4:30 p.m., (Blake) still wasn't in cell range, and I was starting to get concerned," Doris Alois said. "I felt like he should be off the mountain at the time because they had gone really early. I called the rangers and they said it was still too early and they weren't going to do a search then."

"By 8 o'clock that night they did start a search. They went to go look at the trailhead login, and they never signed out and their car was still there."

After locating their car, rangers searched the trails to Algonquin Peak and Lake Colden. They were in the woods until 3:45 a.m. Monday.

After daybreak Monday, more than 20 rangers searched the trails and drainage systems in and around the mountain. Snow, clouds and high winds prevented the use of a helicopter and made for difficult search conditions, Winchell said.

The search continued Tuesday morning with two dozen forest rangers, members of the state police Special Operations Response Team and two state police helicopters

"Searchers face below freezing temperatures, wind chills below zero, and three feet or more of snow," Winchell said.

An incident command post was set up at the Adirondack Mountain Club's Adirondak Loj property where the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services assisted with communications.


Heard them yelling

Van Laer said he and Mellor heard the missing pair yelling as a helicopter carrying rescue crews and gear flew into the DEC Lake Colden outpost.

"They were really lucky," he said. "These people heard the helicopter, even though it wasn't near them, and yelled and we heard them. We were yelling, too, but we hadn't yelled in a minute. It was a stroke of good luck that the helicopter flew over, they yelled and we were right there."

Van Laer said they found Alois and Popolizio on the east, or the Lake Colden, side of Algonquin's summit in the "krummholz," the short, stunted vegetation just below the treeline.

"They were ecstatic," Van Laer said. "They were so happy. They were so vocal as we were getting to them, we were like, 'Wow, they're OK.' You could tell from their responsiveness that they hadn't crossed over that hypothermia threshold, relatively speaking."

"They were hypothermic, obviously," he added. "They were shaking. But that's kind of good, like they hadn't gone over the edge where the body wasn't trying to compensate."

Van Laer and Mellor gave the pair food and water. Popolizio seemed to be in worse shape so they wrapped her in a heat blanket and put her in a bivy sack rated for 20 below zero temperatures. Alois was given extra clothing that Van Laer and Mellor carried with them.

Due to the high winds and poor visibility, it was another two hours before the pair were hoisted off the mountain by helicopter and brought to the hospital. They arrived at 1:25 p.m.

Doris Alois said she got the news that her son and Popolizio had been found around 11:30 a.m. in a text message from her other son, who had traveled to Adirondack Loj with other family members, and then in phone calls from DEC dispatch and a forest ranger. She said she was relieved but still worried because, at that point, she didn't know much about what condition they were in.

What happened?

Van Laer said the pair told he and Mellor that they made it to Algonquin's summit on Sunday, waited a minute, then started heading back down.

"They apparently got into the soup right away," he said. "It seemed like they were due east (of the trail). It's like they didn't go north, the way the trail goes, like they lost it immediately or circled back."

How did they survive two nights of single digit temperatures?

"They were rough," Van Laer said. "They said at times they thought they weren't going to make it. I don't believe they made much of an effort to self-rescue. I think they got confused and stopped and waited."

Rangers said their cellphones went dead before they could call for help. Even if they were working, Van Laer said he didn't have any cell phone service where they found the couple.



In terms of winter gear, Alois and Popolizio both had microspikes and Aolis had snowshoes.

"He seemed like he was pretty well outfitted," Van Laer said. "She should have had better gear. If I saw her at the trailhead, I would have suggested they hike somewhere else."

"But they made it. They survived. Getting them before the third night, I think, was key."

Doris Alois said her son and Popolizio have hiked together in the Adirondacks often, including in the winter.

"They were experienced," she said. "They usually go together. He's never done Algonquin though. They weren't planning to spend the night out, but I know he's pretty well stocked with his winter gear and stuff like that. I don't know exactly what he brought with him, but he's pretty well stocked."


More help?

A family member of Popolizio created a social media post Monday night asking for volunteers to assist in the search effort. It quickly went viral, being shared almost 3,000 times, but DEC advised other people not to get involved because of the harsh winter conditions.

"We were able to quell that with the family and get the message out that this is for the professionals only," said DEC Forest Ranger Capt. John Streiff.

He said rangers were planning to bring in volunteer search and rescue organizations at some point, but they ultimately weren't needed.


Very happy

"The rangers and the state police and everyone involved, especially Blake and Maddie and their families, are very happy this ended the way it did," Streiff said.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, in a press release, commended the rangers, state police and Department of Homeland security personnel involved in the search and rescue effort. He also advised visitors to the High Peaks in winter to "safely prepare for the elements and exercise caution."

Dr. Matthew Morgan, director of the hospital's emergency department, called the rescue "an amazing display of teamwork between the New York State forest rangers, the State Police, and Adirondack Health's ED personnel."

"Continuity of care is extremely important in situations such as these, and the care these two received was as good as you could get anywhere," he said in a statement.



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