‘Lost skiers rescued after four days’ (Lake Placid News, March 8, 1989)

Another bold-faced headline and a great story by Laura Rappaport in the Lake Placid News — a rescue and survival saga the New York State forest rangers termed “miraculous.”

Ralph Vecchio, 29 and Shawn Dougher, 25, of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, went cross-country skiing, abandoned the skis and climbed to the top of Mount Marcy … Here are excerpts from their incredible ordeal.

Found at Upper AuSable Lake

“They were found at a camp on Upper AuSable Lake about 4 p.m. Tuesday by a team of Forest Rangers searching from a helicopter. They had been missing since Saturday, when they had set off for a day trip up the state’s highest peak.

“Rangers spotted their tracks from above and followed them by air to the lake, where they saw a man waving a fluorescent orange piece of plastic, said Forest Ranger Bill Houck, who was in the chopper with Rangers Gary Hodgson and Doug Bissonette.

“‘One of them was in one of the buildings on the southeast shore of the AuSable; the more able one was out flagging,’ Houck said.

“They had broken into the camp only an hour before the helicopter arrived, having spent the previous three days and nights out in the cold.

“Rangers said they were in generally good condition and knew what they were doing but they were badly frostbitten. Ranger Houck added, ‘They were extremely lucky, given the weather we’ve had these past couple of days. … It’s miraculous.’

“Temperatures plummeted to the 20-below-zero range Monday night following a cold, soggy weekend of rain and freezing rain. And high winds sent the wind-chill factor even lower.

“‘The real thing was we got wet,’ Vecchio said today, explaining how their situation went from bad to worse. ‘That was what really baked us.’

“Normally optimistic in these situations, several rangers admitted they had thought the worst about Vecchio and Dougher.

“But Forest Ranger Hodgson, who spotted the tracks that led to the rescue, said a rescue mission should never let hope wane.

“‘Everybody is ready to give up on people too soon. The mental attitude is 90 percent of survival.'”

(Ranger Houck of Brant Lake later gave full credit for the rescue to Rangers Hodgson and Bissonette. Houck said, “Their years of experience helped them locate the tracks. Gary ferreted out that track business on the lowlands end of that lake. The skill that’s going on around here is Gary and Doug. They’ve been looking out of those helicopters so long, I’ll tell you, they’re the best resource we’ve got.”)

“Not ready to die yet”

“‘I wasn’t ready to die yet,’ Ralph Vecchio said from his hospital bed this morning as he recalled how he and his friend, Shawn Dougher, kept their wits about them during a four-day ordeal lost near Mount Marcy.

“The two were recuperating at Placid Memorial Hospital after being brought there by helicopter late Tuesday afternoon.

“‘I wanted to get off that mountain. It was just a dinky thing and I wasn’t going to let it beat me,’ Vecchio said.’ Just six weeks ago Vecchio had successfully climbed Algonquin Peak with his skiing partner.

“Vecchio and Dougher had made it to the top of the 5,322-foot Mount Marcy on Saturday but got lost when severe weather came in from the north, blocking all visibility, they said.

“Vecchio said the weather did not seem too threatening when they hit the trail Saturday morning. ‘There was a light mist … except at the top,’ he said, noting when they arrived at the summit, they were socked in by clouds and lost the tracks they had been following.

“‘I don’t know what happened. Somehow we got turned around,’ he said.

“‘We decided the first night that we weren’t going to yell at each other or argue. … I wasn’t ready to die yet, and neither was Shawn.’

“He said they ate all the food they had with them Saturday night except for half of a peanut and jelly sandwich — one sandwich, a large brownie and a few ounces of raisins. They polished off the last of the sandwich a day or two later, Vecchio said.

“When they eventually found the cabin where the rescuers found them they had been alone in the elements for three days. Inside the camp is where they found the piece of plastic they waved at the helicopter.

“To stay warm they hugged each other ‘like they were slow dancing,’ Vecchio said. For three nights they dug holes in the snow which they lined with spruce and balsam branches. They lay huddled together face to face each night, sleeping erratically the first two nights but soundly on Monday night. During the day they wandered a lot, trying to stay warm.

“Ranger Hodgson said, ‘The difference was the two of them together. Hey had no extra clothes, matches, map or compass. Each had a lighter, which failed them. But they were able to start a fire with $150 in tens and twenties about noon on Monday. It quickly went out.’

“Forest Ranger Fred LaRow credited their survival to the fact the men did not sit still, which is contrary to the general advice that lost people should sit tight waiting for a rescue.’

“‘In their particular situation that fact they kept on moving probably saved their lives,’ he said.”