December 17, 2012

Grueling rescue saves Adirondack hiker


---- — KEENE — Rescue teams wrapped up a harrowing 28-hour rescue in the High Peaks Sunday evening, carrying an injured hiker miles through snow and bitter cold.

The ordeal began 4 p.m. Saturday when a member of a four-person hiking group fell 150 to 200 feet down a slide on Nippletop Mountain. Members of his group tried to call for help, but with limited cell-phone service, they were unable to reach emergency workers. The group split up, one climbing down to the 41-year-old male from Syracuse, and the other two heading down the mountain to call for help. 

Department of Environmental Conservation dispatch received the first rescue call at about 8 p.m. Saturday. Forest Ranger Lt. Julie Harjung responded with a team of six forest rangers and Gary Nye of Backcountry Rescue. Nye is also a physician’s assistant from Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake.

According to Harjung, the incident commander for the rescue operation, the injured hiker sustained significant trauma from a major fall and was “very, very lucky” he was not alone and that a member of his party was able to begin life-saving measures before rescue teams arrived.

Rescuers reached the hiker on a remote slide at about 3:40 a.m. Sunday, but found the terrain and icy conditions required technical rope skills. Nye, who stayed with the hiker through most of Sunday, was able to stabilize him and also prevent hypothermia through the night, when temperatures fell to about 9 degrees. Throughout the whole ordeal, the injured hiker was conscious and awake, Harjung said.

“This was probably one of the most grueling rescues we’ve undertaken,” said Harjung, a 16-year veteran of the DEC. “This was a phenomenal team effort — everyone deserves a round of applause for helping bring this person in alive.”

The combination of cold, snowy weather, difficult terrain in a remote location, having to carry in equipment more than 3.5 miles and having to bushwhack through thick undergrowth made the rescue long and difficult, Harjung said. Under better conditions, helicopters are used for rescues in remote locations such as this one, he said. State Police attempted to respond with a helicopter Sunday morning, but because of low cloud cover and poor weather conditions, that attempt was aborted.

“This was a very equipment-intense rescue,” Harjung said. “All the equipment had to be carried in over rugged terrain in slippery, snowy conditions.”

Local residents and volunteer ice climbers Don Mellor and Colin Lohr, who are trained in rope rescues, responded to help the forest rangers. Using high-angle rope rescue techniques, rescuers lowered the hiker to the bottom of the slide, but then still had to carry him the 3.5 miles to the roadway. The Adirondack Mountain Reserve-Ausable Club, a rustic resort in St. Huberts, allowed rescue teams easier access to the trail head via their property, which cut off several miles on the rescue, according to Harjung. Rescuers were also allowed to use the Club’s facilities to base rescue operations.

At about 8 p.m. Sunday, the hiker was being transported by Keene Valley Rescue to Elizabethtown Community Hospital for evaluation. His name was not available Sunday evening because his family had not been reached, officials said.

At one point, about 21 forest rangers, an Environmental Conservation officer, six members of the Keene Valley Fire Department and four members of Search and Rescue of the Northern Adirondacks assisted in the rescue efforts.