Hard-learned lessons


Desperate Steps Life, Death, and Choices Made in the Mountains of the Northeast By Peter W. Kick Appalachian Mountain Club, 2015 Softcover, 240 pages, $18.95
Life, Death, and
Choices Made
in the Mountains
of the Northeast
By Peter W. Kick
Appalachian Mountain
Club, 2015
Softcover, 240 pages,

Desperate Steps is a collection of twenty narratives of backcountry accidents and misadventures in the Northeast. The incidents are about evenly divided among Maine, New Hampshire, and the Adirondacks with one incident in Vermont and two in the Catskills. Most of the incidents occurred within the past fifteen years, but the book includes a 1963 incident on Mount Katahdin where both the initial victim and the intended rescuer perished.

Fifteen of the incidents involved at least one fatality, and in five of these incidents there were no survivors, leaving only informed speculation as to their decision-making and final moments. The author, Peter Kick, says the purpose of the book “is to help you enact a more measured, informed, and calculated transaction with the natural world by considering others’ experiences.” Seems that he could have just said “learn from others’ mistakes,” but Kick makes good on his promise to use these incidents to educate. At the end of each section (Unprepared, Know the Route, Taking Risks, and Unexpected), he includes Safety Notes, while the appendix includes additional information about being prepared in the backcountry.

In his narratives, Kick provides good background on both the areas where the incidents occurred and the individuals involved. He was also able to add considerably to our understanding of what happened because, as much as possible, he contacted the survivors or the families of those who perished.

Of the Adirondack and Catskill incidents, I am familiar with most, having written about them for the “Accident Report” in Adirondac, the Adirondack Mountain Club’s magazine. I can therefore say that Kick gets the story correct while digging much deeper to add many details not included in my more immediate reports. There are, however, a few annoying slip-ups in his reporting. In one, he says the ashes of the victim of the Angel Slide avalanche on Wright Peak were scattered at “Halls Falls” in Keene, where the victim liked to kayak. It should be “Hulls Falls.” In describing the flow of the Boquet River before it reaches Split Rock Falls, he has the river flowing under “County Route 73” when it is, in actuality, a state road. Neither error should cause readers to question the basic narrative.

Two of the Adirondack incidents in Desperate Steps also appeared in Peter Bronski’s At the Mercy of the Mountains (2006). I thought that the latter book offered a slightly better account of the incidents in which Carl Skalak activated his personal locator beacon (PLB) twice in one month. Bronski emphasized the faith that Skalak put in the fact that he had notified a ranger of his plans and therefore expected them to automatically come looking for him when he was overdue. Bronski also challenged Skalak’s statement that the snow was three to four feet deep when local areas reported only a foot. Nevertheless, both books agree that he relied too much on technology and that the state Department of Environmental Conservation was correct in charging him for false reporting of an incident. As for the death in the Wright Peak avalanche, the two books agree that it happened mainly because there had never before been a fatal avalanche in the Adirondacks. It was not something the skiers expected.

Four teenagers drowned at Split Rock Falls in 2003. Photo by Nancie Battaglia
Four teenagers drowned at Split Rock Falls in 2003.
Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Since Desperate Steps follows the earlier publication of Not Without Peril (the White Mountains) and At the Mercy of the Mountains (the Adirondacks), the author had to look a little deeper to find incidents that were both interesting and instructive. I would, however, question three of his choices for Adirondack incidents.

The account of the multiple drownings at Split Rock Falls just reinforces the danger of swimming to rescue a drowning individual. His narrative leaves out what rangers at the time reported as a significant quantity of beer having been consumed—which must surely have clouded the judgment of the three who jumped in after the first one disappeared under the water. Likewise, the drowning of a rafting customer on the Indian River when the guide was severely intoxicated probably doesn’t apply to many situations that readers are likely to find themselves in. Finally, Kick recounts the disappearance of young Douglas Legg at Camp Santanoni in 1971. Since the boy was never found, it just remains a mystery without a lesson.

As for Adirondack incidents Kick might have included, I would have first of all suggested the tale of a woman who planned to go only a short way up the Trap Dike on Mount Colden but decided to continue out onto the adjacent slides without an ice ax and then fell to her death. Second would be the incident of the two skiers who became disoriented on Marcy, spent two nights in snow caves near timberline, and descended to Panther Gorge for a third night out before being rescued at Upper Ausable Lake. There are several other cases in which individuals or groups mistakenly descended into Panther Gorge, and then there is the recent lengthy evacuation of a climber badly injured on the remote Nippletop slide.

It’s possible that Kick tried but could not find people willing to be interviewed in the above incidents. He notes in the introduction that some people refused to talk to him.

These quibbles aside, if you enjoyed reading the other collections of backcountry tragedies and misadventures or have just enjoyed reading my own reports in Adirondac, you will want to add this book to your reading list.

Besides writing the “Accident Report,” Tony Goodwin is the editor of Adirondack Trails: High Peaks Region, published by the Adirondack Mountain Club.