At the Mercy of the Mountains

Lyons Press, 2008 Softcover, 321 pages, $17.95
Lyons Press, 2008
Softcover, 321 pages, $17.95

As the author of the “Accident Reports” column in Adirondac, I am always amazed at the number of individuals who say that’s the first thing they read in the magazine. And so Peter Bronski’s book At the Mercy of the Mountains should have an immediate audience eager to learn about the tragedies, unsolved mysteries and tales of epic survival in the Adirondacks.

Bronski hopes that readers will gain a better appreciation of the dangers faced in the wilds. If so, that could reduce the number of additional chapters in any sequel.

The book begins with a long introduction about Adirondack terrain, history and the evolution of hiking and climbing. While providing useful background for those unfamiliar with the Adirondacks, this is familiar ground for many readers, who probably will want to go straight to the accounts of misadventure.

The 20 chapters begin with a biography of the 19th-century guide John Cheney, who during his long career survived many close calls in the wild. Several times he had to rescue himself, even though badly injured, from locations deep in woods that didn’t require a vote by the Adirondack Park Agency to qualify as true wilderness.

In sharp contrast, the last chapter describes the misadventures of Carl Skalak, an Ohio man who was rescued twice within three weeks, at the same exact spot in the western Adirondacks, after activating his personal locater beacon in the fall of 2003. Both times, an Army helicopter flew him out of the wilderness. Skalak was later charged with falsely reporting an incident. This March, the prosecutor agreed to drop the charges if Skalak donates $500 to two charities.

The High Peaks in winter are a land of beauty and danger.
The High Peaks in winter are a land of beauty and danger.

In between these two chapters, Bronski describes two avalanches, two disappearances, two solo fatalities, two cases of survival after plane crashes, and a host of incidents in which people survived epic ordeals in extreme weather.

The book is not comprehensive. The disappearance of 8- year-old Douglas Legg from Camp Santanoni in 1971 receives only a passing mention, even though this tragedy impelled the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and its Forest Rangers to assume responsibility for backcountry searches and rescues. Two deaths from hypothermia on Thanksgiving weekends, in 1956 and 1974, get no mention at all. In the latter case, a backpacker fell in a brook. His partner left him beside the trail and went for help, but help arrived too late. It was a classic hypothermia death in that the pair had sleeping bags, a stove and food in their packs and could have made camp. The victim died with his pack still on his back and containing all that he would have needed to survive.

Also omitted are the four-day ordeals on Mount Marcy of Robert Thomas in 1987 and Shawn Dougher and Ralph Vecchio in 1989. In the latter incident, Dougher, 25, and Vecchio, 29, set out on a Saturday in March to ski Marcy. They left their skis at timberline and hiked to the summit but became disoriented in the fog. They ended up spending two nights in makeshift shelters near timberline, burning up $150 worth of $10 and $20 bills in an attempt to get a fire going. On Monday, it finally cleared and they hiked to the summit, expecting a rescue. When no rescuers arrived, they descended to the Panther Gorge lean-to. That night, the temperature plummeted to below zero. On Tuesday, they headed down the trail and were rescued at the Upper Ausable Lake. Both suffered significant frostbite.

Bronski’s book would have been improved with the inclusion of these incidents rather than padding out the narrative of the 1934 American Airlines plane crash with a history of the development of commercial aviation. Likewise, it was unnecessary to include, in a story about a winter death on the Colden Trap Dike, a history of successful ascents. The chapter about a lightning strike on Algonquin Peak, from which everyone walked away, contains more about a similar incident in Vermont than the one in the Adirondacks.

Nonetheless, most of the stories in At the Mercy of the Mountains make compelling reading for anyone who has ventured into the Adirondack backcountry. Some of the more notable incidents include:

  • The dramatic 1925 rescue by canoe of ice fishermen stranded on a shrinking ice floe in windy Lake Champlain.
  • The three Boy Scouts who in 1933 tried to climb Wallface but spent the night about two-thirds of the way up, waiting for what turned out to be a primitive but ultimately successful rescue.
  • The crash of an early commercial flight from Syracuse to Albany on a small peak in the southern Adirondacks on the night of Dec. 29, 1934. The four on board spent three nights in below-zero temperatures before they were evacuated.
  • The ill-fated quest of Pat Griffin and another hiker to climb all 46 High Peaks in five days in 1972—despite an epic rainstorm that lasted for days. After his partner hurt his leg and bailed out, Griffin continued on his own. His body was found on the summit of Mount Marcy. Bronksi does a good job describing the events leading up to his death.

Bronski’s retelling of the stories of Steven Thomas, who disappeared on Marcy in April 1976, and Thomas Carleton, who also disappeared in the High Peaks Wilderness, in October 1993, add little to what is already known, but obviously it’s easier to fill in the details when there are survivors with a tale to tell. With David Boomhower, who died after becoming lost on the Northville-Placid Trail in 1990, it’s different—not only because his body was found, but also because his diary provides an agonizing glimpse of what he went through as he sat there for a month or more. He starved to death just a few miles from civilization.

Arthur Birchmeyer, a 58-year-old hunter, did not keep a diary but he did leave behind a GPS unit that enabled rangers to trace his exact movements in the Moose River Plains before he perished in a surprise November snowstorm.

Being familiar with many of these incidents, I can attest that Bronski gets the basic narrative correct, but there are some annoying errors that could make one wonder whether there are other mistakes. In the 1938 account of a woman trapped on the cliffs above Chapel Pond, for instance, the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society becomes the “Appalachian” Trail Improvement Society. The road at the base (today’s Route 73) is called the “Montreal- New York Highway” (in actuality Route 9 had that designation) and the road is described as “little more than a rough dirt track” even though by 1938 it had been widened and paved. Bronski misses the date of Douglas Legg’s disappearance by 10 years.

Errors and all, his book provides interesting reading and plenty of moments that get the reader to wondering: “Now what would I have done in that situation?”