Could communication have saved Alex Stevens?

Wallface Mountain is seen from the sky, with its landmark cliff and Scott Pond in the background at top. (Photo provided — Kevin MacKenzie)

People up here in the Adirondacks never got the chance to know Alex Stevens, and that’s part of the reason we are saddened by his recent death in the High Peaks Wilderness.

In a way, the way we feel about this 28-year-old from Hopewell, New Jersey, is similar to how we felt about Australian Army Capt. Paul McKay, who came to Saranac Lake without telling anyone and froze to death — intentionally, according to authorities — atop Scarface Mountain on New Year’s Eve as 2013 turned into 2014. McKay was an Afghanistan war veteran who experienced some terrible things and apparently suffered from post-traumatic stress. By the time he got here he was apparently suicidal, but we still believe that if he had really talked to someone in Saranac Lake, he would have found help, relief. There are veterans and veterans agencies here who serve soldiers like McKay. People here could have talked him out of it.

Likewise with Stevens — we are confident that if he had talked with just about anyone in Newcomb or whatever Adirondack town he stopped in before setting out, that person would have cautioned him about his plan for a three-day solo camping trip at Wallface, and urged him to bring more and better equipment. He would have gotten help if he had asked for it.

It wasn’t very long ago that if one wanted to come to the Adirondacks to hike or paddle in an Adirondack place one had never been, one had to either read about it in a guidebook — the like of which was hard to find far outside the Adirondack Blue Line — to go with someone who knew where they were going, or to come up here and ask people where to go.

Often, visitors used a combination — for instance, showing a local the guidebook entry and then asking their advice.

Guidebooks ensured a degree of cautionary context. The guidebooks, mostly published by the Adirondack Mountain Club, were written by serious experts who knew how to warn novices against doing anything too foolish. Sure, the would-be adventurer might skip or ignore the warnings, but at least they had been warned.

And the other two options ensured some level of human contact. Sure, the so-called “experienced” trip leader may not quite be so, and the same could go for the locals who pointed the eager visitor in this way or that. The “good old days” weren’t great, but at least they weren’t so lonely.

Now many novices do all their pre-trip research on their computers or phones, and never feel the need to speak to another living soul.

One of the greatest dangers, as we see it, is to assume that everything a hiker needs to know has been uploaded and is available somewhere online. Much valuable human knowledge remains offline, yet it’s widely available if you ask around.

Stevens was fascinated by Wallface, forest rangers say, and why not, to look at it from the safety of one’s home? Its namesake cliff is dramatic looking, the Adirondacks’ closest approximation to Yosemite’s Half Dome. It’s for old-school mountaineers who rely on the cliff’s natural features — “trad” climbers, to use the lingo — rather than sport climbers who use bolts drilled into the rock face. Reputation-wise, it comes across as the gnarly old man of the mountains.

That’s not wrong, but it also means it must be taken seriously. For one thing, Wallface is hard to get to, set deep in the heart of the High Peaks Wilderness. Also, as Alan Wechsler wrote in the Adirondack Almanack in 2010, “I don’t know about the northern approach, but the route from the south has to be one of the worst trails in the Adirondacks — a never-ending slog through mud pits until you get to the climbers’ herd path.” And that’s just to the base of the cliff. The terrain on the back sides of the mountain can be even rougher.

Wallface is surrounded by fields of talus, or scree — rock fragments that slide out from under one’s feet and make one slide, or sink down into. Some of this talus is atop caves one can get trapped in. It’s rugged, rugged terrain — hard on one’s body to move around on.

There was also the weather. While this week is sunny and warm, Labor Day weekend, when Stevens set out, included rain all day Sunday with temperatures in the 50s.

When Stevens was last seen near there that Saturday, Sept. 2, witnesses said he was wearing sandals, shorts and a T-shirt. Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw said he possessed no means of making a fire and had run out of food. His clothes got soaked, and he had no way to dry them.

He ended up living two weeks in the woods, starving and freezing, before he succumbed to pneumonia, according to Whitelaw’s best estimate and Dr. C. Francis Varga’s autopsy. It must have been excruciating, and lonely. Our hearts break for him.

There’s much that’s wonderful about the digital information that’s now available on the Adirondacks, but it has by now been proven that people’s reliance on unreliable and/or inadequate internet research — and, worse, social media — has led to a surge in under-prepared hikers in the Adirondacks, especially on the Labor Day and Columbus Day long weekends. Forest rangers last year averaged one search-and-rescue per day statewide, which takes them away from the important backcountry patrolling they used to conduct.

If they had been out on in the High Peaks patrol Labor Day weekend, there’s a chance one might have run into Alex Stevens and been able to help him out. Maybe he wouldn’t have taken their advice, but we can’t help but think that almost any local person would have loved to have the chance to help him avoid a fatal mistake.

As we’ve said before, the state needs to hire more rangers, but that’s not all. It also needs to do much better at putting out public safety information instead of just tourist promos. Visiting hikers should be urged to prepare properly, question their internet-based assumptions and ask local people before they take on risky adventures. People here want to help.


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