Rangers carry out injured hikers in two overnight rescues in the Adirondacks

The first call for help came in around 2:45 p.m. on Saturday, March 2. A group of hikers was climbing up Saddleback Mountain in the Adirondack High Peaks when one of them fell, dislocating his shoulder and fracturing his leg.

“That part of the mountain is extremely steep, nearly vertical,” explained Audrey Emerson, a New York state forest ranger from St. Lawrence County. “Just huge broken boulders and a sloped rock face that was all covered with glare ice and snow.”

Saddleback Mountain is a 7-mile hike to the summit from Keene Valley. The first wave of rangers reached the group of hikers after dark, around 8:30 p.m. One of the rangers shared a video on Instagram, showing whipping winds and nearly whiteout conditions.

Emerson was part of the second wave of rangers to reach the group of hikers. By that time, she said the wind and snow had died down.

“These conditions could have been much worse. I was thinking, in the back of my head, ‘I’m thankful that it’s not below zero, I’m thankful that the wind is not whipping right now and it’s not snowing.’ I kept thinking about all the things that could have been 10 times worse,” said Emerson.

Rangers had to conduct a technical rope rescue to maneuver the injured hiker off the steep, icy slope. As they prepared for that rescue, a second call for help came in around 4:15 p.m. A hiker had fallen 30 feet while climbing Basin Mountain, a high peak just south of Saddleback.

Because the rescues were unfolding at the same time, there was an incident commander set up near the trailhead in Keene Valley.

“As resources and rangers arrived, (the incident commander) assigned rangers and resources to either one of those rescues,” explained David Nally, a New York state forest ranger from southern Hamilton County.

The Basin rescue was less technical, but Nally said it came with its own set of challenges. It’s been warmer at lower elevations this winter, complicating the carry-out and creating uncomfortable conditions for the rescue team.

“Sometimes a little bit of cold isn’t a bad thing because at least things are dry,” said Nally. “When it’s wet snow, everything is wet and everything stays wet.”

As the team of rangers on Saddleback worked their way down the mountain, Emerson said they, too, found wet, slushy snow and open water crossings.

“The trails are so narrow that when you’re sliding him, like we were, and you have people on either side braking and steering, if you step off the packed portion of the trail, you were sinking into waist-deep snow, post-holing because we didn’t have snowshoes on and that just drains your energy throughout the whole time,” explained Emerson.

This winter has been one of the warmest on record in the Adirondacks, which Nally said makes it more difficult for hikers to know what conditions they may encounter when in the mountains. “You literally have to be prepared for absolutely any weather condition at times like this.”

“If you’re in lower elevations you could have an afternoon right now that’s 50 to 60 degrees and sunny and it’s beautiful and you could almost hike in a t-shirt,” said Nally. “But come evening, you’re in single digits and freezing temperatures, so it’s a tough time to be out under these conditions.”

The conditions in the Adirondacks and the variable weather this winter also may lead people to misjudge how long a hike may take them, which Emerson said is where some hikers get into trouble.

“If you’re planning your hike based on the conditions at the bottom and you think, ‘Oh, well this is only going to take me a few hours,’ and then you get halfway up and you’re too committed and stubborn and you realize this snow is really going to slow me down, then your night might look a lot different than what you expected,” said Emerson.

It might also look a lot different for dozens of forest rangers. The two overnight rescues on Saturday required the assistance of more than 30 rangers and additional emergency responders. It was daylight by the time the rangers and injured hikers made it out of the woods on Sunday, March 3.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today