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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cold night on Marcy: a survivor’s tale

 

Jane and Steve Mastaitis at Adirondack Medical Center. Photo by Phil Brown.

Jane and Steve Mastaitis at Adirondack Medical Center. Photo by Phil Brown.

He had a watch but was afraid to look at it. Instead he tried to gauge time by the slow movement of the stars across the sky. Alas, he forgot that he set his watch alarm for 4 a.m.

“When it went off, I was disappointed,” he said. “I knew I had to wait some more.”

By then, Steve Mastaitis had been curled up inside a snow hole near the summit of Mount Marcy for more than nine hours, shivering uncontrollably, suffering from frostbite, fearing the worst. The temperature fell to near zero during the night, with a wind-chill factor of twenty below.

“I knew there were people out looking for me. I just didn’t think they’d ever find me in time,” Mastaitis, a 58-year-old lawyer from Saratoga Springs, said in an interview at Adirondack Medical Center on Tuesday.

Hard to believe that a day hike in relatively mild conditions could turn into the night from hell.

Mastaitis had climbed fifteen High Peaks, but until Monday, he had never attempted Marcy, the state’s highest mountain. He did the trip at the urging of two of his sons, Evan, 30, and Benjamin, 34. Joining them was Ben’s friend, Matt. The four left Adirondak Loj at 7:30 a.m. and reached Marcy’s summit cone about five hours later.

When they emerged above tree line, they were exposed to fierce winds. When Matt stopped to put on his snowshoes, Steve waited for him while his two sons continued upward. Steve and Matt soon resumed their ascent and met Ben and Evan as those two were coming down.

Because of the wind, Steve and Matt did not linger at the summit. After snapping a few photos, they started down. At some point, Matt stopped for some reason, and Steve continued hiking. He could see his sons two hundred or three hundred yards below.

“All of a sudden I was looking at the trail and there was no trail,” he said. “It was all snow.”

Steve veered to the right into an open gully, thinking it would lead to the trail. He fell into a spruce trap and sunk up to his chest in snow. As he struggled to free himself, one of his snowshoes and one of his boots came off. After fifteen minutes, he extricated himself and put his boot and snowshoe back on.

Afraid of falling into another spruce trap, he started sliding down the gully on his butt. Instead of taking him to the trail, though, it led him to the edge of Panther Gorge, a wild and rugged canyon between Marcy and Mount Haystack.

“Luckily, I stopped myself just before I would have gone over the edge,” he said.

Steve knew he was in trouble. He tried calling 911 and his sons, but he couldn’t get a signal on his cell phone. He then tried his wife, Jane, who was at work in her job as chief financial officer for Saratoga Bridges. She picked up.

“How did he get through to me? That’s the miracle,” Jane said on Tuesday.

Steve told his wife to call 911 and send help. He said this might be his last call, because he didn’t know how long the batteries in his phone would last. Minutes later, she texted Steve and, at the urging of authorities, asked him to call 911 again so they could determine his GPS coordinates. On his second try, Steve got through to 911.

It was not quite 2 p.m. when Steve made that last call. He had reason to hope he would be found that night. Because of the wind, however, forest rangers could not land a helicopter on Marcy. Instead they landed at Lake Colden and hiked up the mountain. They searched until midnight without success, eventually retreating in the face of the severe weather. They evidently came within a hundred yards of Steve’s snow hole, but because of the wind, their shouts went unheard.

Steve had started digging the shelter about 5 p.m. He punched through a layer of crust and scooped out the underlying snow with his hands, creating a hole three or four feet deep in the gully’s slope. He tried to start a fire with pieces of bark and dead branches, but he gave up after the wind kept blowing out his matches.

He entered the hole for the night about 6:30 p.m. Scrunched up in his frigid prison, he had a view of the clear sky. The stars moved imperceptibly. He thought about his family, thought about death, and tried like hell not to fall asleep. “I was afraid if I went to sleep I wouldn’t wake up,” he said.

Despite his best efforts, he occasionally nodded off, only to wake with a start, yelling for help. No one answered.

Throughout the night he flexed his fingers, kicked his feet, and thrashed his body to keep the blood flowing. Eventually, he had to pry his fingers open to keep the joints from freezing. At some point he lost all feeling in his feet.

When dawn finally came, he realized that one of his boots had come off during the night. It was still tied. Since he couldn’t unlace the boot with his frozen fingers, he used a broken ski pole as a shoehorn to wedge his foot inside. He managed to get his snowshoes on, too. He clambered out of the snow hole and started trudging away from the gorge, sometimes crawling.

He estimates that it took him an hour to travel a few hundred yards. “As I got to a rock ledge, I heard voices and yelled for help,” he said.

They were forest rangers who had resumed the search earlier in the morning. It was 8:30 a.m. An hour later, Steve was lifted into a helicopter and whisked away to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. When he first arrived, his toes were purple and his fingers were ashen gray. His digits also were swollen. By Tuesday afternoon, some of the natural color had returned and the swelling had started to subside.

Jane had been waiting all night for a phone call. Upon hearing her husband had been found alive, she said, “I broke down, because I didn’t know what I was going to hear.”

Things might have turned out differently if Steve had not been wearing several layers of clothing: long underwear (tops and bottoms), knee-high socks, fleece pants, fleece sleeveless vest, windbreaker, shell jacket (with hood), mittens, two hats, and a face mask. On his feet he wore low-cut boots, which he now concedes wasn’t a good choice for winter.

He believes his training as a triathlon competitor (both he and his wife have done the Lake Placid Ironman) helped him get through the ordeal. “I’ve been through pain before,” he remarked. “It gives you a mental toughness.”

Yet he said the biggest credit goes to the forest rangers. He came to tears at the thought that they risked their lives searching for him in the night on Marcy’s summit. “I owe my life to them,” he said.

And what is the lesson from all this?

“If you’re with a group, stay with the group,” he said. “None of this would have happened if we stayed together. And just be prepared.”

 

 

Phil Brown

Contributor Phil Brown was editor of the Adirondack Explorer from 1999-2018. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important.

39 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    Good job, Phil, as always.

  2. Steve,

    Wow, you’re a lucky man!

    So glad to hear the good news for you and your family!!!

    Nice article and photo Phil!

    Best wishes,

    Darryl

  3. Of course, thanks to the forest rangers and all others who were involved in the rescue, who made it a happy ending!!!

  4. Mike says:

    Happy ending to a scary story. He did a good job surviving in a difficult situation.

    Having a hike leader and trail sweeper is important. Use your most experienced hikers for these two positions. If the trail sweep cannot see the leader, the group is too far apart. If you get into rough weather your group needs to stay close together. If someone gets cold and wants to move faster, have them move up, and return often to warm them up. Breaking this rule often leads to unhappy outcomes when someone in the group gets lost.

    I often use large flame lighter instead of other fire lighting tools. I actually carry two lighters, hand sanitizer, and dryer lint in a plastic case as my emergency fire kit. Magnesium sticks, matches, and other tools don’t work as well.

  5. beth says:

    what happened to the party? Did they not realize he was missing? Did they call for help? Glad to hear a happy ending! Some story!

  6. Phil Brown says:

    Beth, Steve said when Matt caught up to the other two, they realized something was wrong. I know they notified a ranger, but I don’t know what else they did.

  7. Another Steve says:

    I’m very glad this turned out ok for Steve and his family, but I hope he (and others)really learns a lesson from this. This guy was totally unprepared to be in the High Peaks in winter. He concedes that he didn’t have the proper footwear, but where were his map and compass, extra layers, bivy jacket, signal whistle, emergency food, etc? This is all basic stuff to carry on any winter trip. His utter lack of winter preparedness coupled with bad practices (group separation) put many others at risk. Rescues like this also come with a hefty bill that NY taxpayers will have to foot. I think NYS needs to start billing folks who need to be rescued due their own lack of competence and preparedness.

  8. Steve Hall says:

    Steve, I’m glad you’re okay, and have no doubt that your fitness helped pull you through. Sometimes the smallest wrong decision… I used to hike alone in the high peaks with my dog, and always in the back of that mixed experience of strenuous exercise, exhiliration and sense of accomplishment, was this little voice chiding me, “what if you break a leg”, etc. One gorgeous afternoon in July 2004, in my pre-GPS days, I realized I had overshot the trail from Rte 73 in the Dix Range Wilderness, and began bushwhacking up the col between Dix and Hough, with the idea of bagging Hough, East Dix and South Dix. I fell hopelessly behind schedule, and began foolishly rushing from Hough through the Dixes in the hopes of getting back to the car on Rte 73 before dark. Naturally, “the best laid plans”… so I was forced to spend the night under a glacial erratic just below South Dix, and had plenty of time to catalog my poor preparation: no head lamp, no gps, no matches, no sleeping bag, no food other than some fruit, trail mix and Roscoe’s dry dog food, no water purification tablets, (so I eventually found myself bent over a stream with Roscoe, slurping for giardia). The final indignity was the fact that I’d worn shorts with no extenders, and it was cold enough that sleeping was fitful and difficult, as I pondered the shower and hot tub that usually capped my hikes. My youthful experience with the Marines had taught me to hate hiking with a pack, and, hey, “what could go wrong out here?”, so I’d gone down the hubris trail to the other extreme, traveling light without common sense essentials, thinking only of the goal, while scorning the simplest but most necessary tools. What’s the expression? “An ounce of prevention!” Mine was a tale of arrogance and stupidity, and my punishment was the simple inconvenience of having to spend the night outside unprepared, so I’m grateful Nature’s lecture was delivered at the balmiest time of year.

  9. […] spends cold night on Marcy after getting separated from his three partners. Here’s the story at Adirondack Explorer. This entry was posted in Uncategorized by admin. Bookmark the […]

  10. Junebug says:

    I agree with Another Steve. Fools such as this person should receive the full bill for all the fuel costs and time for the heliocopter that was used in his rescue, plus the saleries for all the personnel involved in his folly. On top of that he should be charge with some type of endangerment law and part of that punishment should be a manditory attendence to survivor classes and a minumum 1 year ban from any trail in New York State. People like this are a danger to himself and others around him. Seems from the picture and the big smile he is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame. Hope I never come close to this person on a trail.

  11. Jim says:

    “dryer lint in a plastic case…” Great idea!

    I also have a couple of homemade fire starters that I made at least 40 years ago…you take 2-3 inch wide strips of newspaper, roll them up tightly around a couple of matches, tie them with thread (leave a long thread on the end), and then dip them in paraffin.

    I have not used them in an emergency situation, but still have them even after all these years – good to know they’re there in the event of the un-predicted, un-planned-for event.

  12. Jon says:

    It is easy for us all to play “armchair quarterback”, chastising Steve for the mistakes he made, but the important thing here is that he survived. Congratulations, Steve!

    The obvious moral of the story here is to absolutely “BE PREPARED”. Not only with proper equipment, (low-top hiking boots, Steve? Really?), adequate layers, food, water, fire-starting materials, but with safe methods of hiking. This is true any time of year, but skimping on any of these during a winter hike is just borderline suicidal.

    Hiking in the high peaks is dangerous enough in the warmth of summertime and early fall, but the potential for death increases exponentially in the winter months. That is why I personally don’t have any desire to become a winter 46’er. There’s just way too much that can go wrong, with absolutely no margin for error.

  13. Chris says:

    It’s always good to hear a happy ending to a story like this, but I’m really unhappy with how unprepared this gentleman was.

    I hike alone in the Dacks all the time – but whether I’m alone or with a group, I carry an emergency bivvy sack, a tarp to build a makeshift shelter, extra clothes, food, headlamp, etc.

    There are times when I consider ditching seem of it because of the extra weight. Then I read a story like this…

    I guess sometimes another person’s stupidity reinforces the obvious.

    I’m very glad that no Ranger/Rescue crew member was injured pointlessly trying to save this foolish man.

    Cheers.

  14. Q says:

    This guy obviously was not prepared, and had no business being up there. Unfortunately the NYS taxpayer will have to pay the bill for him. He should be billed for all services included.

    Amazing the ego on some people.

    “Oh, I’ve done triathlons, so going up the states highest peak in the middle of winter shouldn’t be a problem at ALL”.

    If this had been an ACTUAL winter this year, he would have died.

    It’s really quite selfish of people to do these type of things. His ignorance put others lives in jeopardy to get him out.

  15. Paul Finley says:

    Here is a link to WPTZ TV interview with Steve Mastaitis:

    http://www.wptz.com/news/30519714/detail.html

  16. I’m glad that Steve is OK. But as someone else said, what were his companions up to?

    I’m seeing a lot of armchair quarterbacks here. Easy to write when you’re in front of your computer at home, but what would you have done if you were in his shoes?

  17. iMac says:

    A lesson learned.

  18. Another Steve says:

    @Peter Minde

    In response to your question, Peter, I think many of us simply would not have ended up in Steve’s shoes. Personally, when I leave a trail at treeline I shoot a bearing so I know I can navigate back to it, even in bad conditions. I also carry the necessary gear to bivy safely if I am benighted. Finally, when in a group, we stay together, no exceptions. This was an avoidable situation in every way.

    A certain amount of “Monday-morning quarterbacking” is desirable when these events happen. It is important to analyze the situation at hand so it can serve as a learning experience for the victim and others. Unfortunately this sometimes deteriorates into name calling and smugness, which doesn’t help any one.

    Make no mistake about it though: Steve Mastaitis is alive today purely because he was exceptionally lucky, and I’d bet he knows this at the bottom of his heart. He does not deserve accolades or congratulations for surviving. This was an individual who did not possess the requisite tools or skills to be in the mountains in winter. If he hadn’t been able make that cell phone call, this story would likely have had a very grim ending.

  19. Junebug says:

    Thank you Another Steve for articulating the cold hard reality so well. These types of individuals are a menace when they bring there attitudes and “it’s all about me” outlooks into the outdoors. Helicopter rescues and the like are very dangerous situations and to be put into that environment by the recklous behavior of this individual, constitute nothing less than a crime. Again, this person should be banned from all NYS trails for a significant period of time with reimbursement of all fees involved in his circus of ineptness.

    • Jim Close says:

      JuneBug: That’s really over-the-top. There’s no crime here in the way you blithely throw that word around, but plenty of negligent behavior, combined perhaps with ignorance. If I had to assign “blame”, it would be the two sons who went merrily hopping down the mountain w/out waiting for the rest of their party. Steve may have made navigational errors and perhaps should have known better to do things like take bearings to find his way back to the treeline, but perhaps a lack of experience above treeline and how much whiteouts can disorient you, caused what happened next. I give him credit for saving his own life in difficult circumstances, so I won’t castigate him anymore than the frostbite will – because if he has suffered severe frostbite (like I have) he will be living with the consequences of that for a very, very long time (frostbite damage can cause long-term tissue damage).

      As for paying for the rescue, that’s a whole different subject that has been extensively discussed here and in other states such as New Hampshire and Colorado. Let me just leave you this: If you knew you would have to pay for a rescue,would you call 911?

  20. Another Steve says:

    Junebug, you are certainly entitled to your opinion here. I don’t know Steve M. at all so I am certainly not going to make assumptions about this man’s attitude and outlook. He made some serious mistakes and was fortunate to not have to pay the ultimate price for them. I agree with you that he and his companions absolutely should foot the bill for his rescue because it was preventable, but I’m not going to rail against him personally.

    Truth is, Steve M. is hardly alone in being unprepared/underskilled to be out in the mountains in winter.He just “got caught.” Winter mountaineering, ice climbing and backcountry skiing have all grown exponentially in popularity. Better equipment has considerably shortened the learning curve in these disciplines so you often have folks who are physically fit and able to do a particular sport with some competence, but lack the backcountry know-how to be safe and deal with contingencies.

  21. Chris says:

    @ Peter Minde

    I believe “Another Steve” has summed it up very well.

    But I’d like to reinforce the fact that for some of us this is not playing “armchair quarterback” – we treat the mountains with respect.

    What that means is we are prepared for the worst. This gentleman was not even remotely prepared to be in the mountains in the winter.

    If you watch the video interview of him – by his own admissions he states: “I was not prepared to spend the night outside.” This is a very basic mistake, especially in the winter.

    It is not being an armchair quarterback to find fault with this gentleman’s foolishness – because we quite simply – would never find ourselves in this position ourselves.

    For example: if he had carried a $4 whistle he may have been found before dark. The rescue group got within 100 yards of his snow-hole. Voices may not carry in the wind – but a whistle may have gotten their attention. Of course their a lot of “if/and/buts” – however, the fact remains that if he were properly prepared he could have been in a lot less danger and may have been able to walk out of the mountains on his own in the morning – instead of costing the state thousands of dollars for a needless rescue.

    Cheers.

  22. Paul Dwyer says:

    A good cautionary tale. Obviously this fellow should have had a whistle, high boots and gaiters, bivy, etc. Yet he was not a newbie. There are signs on the trail cautioning folks not to proceed unless they have proper clothing and gear, but what might seem adequate in the benign environment half a mile below the summit can be wholly inadequate up top, amid heavy snow, howling wind, and low visibility.

    One thing about the story I don’t understand:

    “He tried calling 911 and his sons, but he couldn’t get a signal on his cell phone. He then tried his wife … She picked up.”

    Did he change position, and get a bar on his phone?

  23. JimH says:

    Of course we should all carry navigation devices and maps as back-up to simple visual navigation and GPS, but does anyone honestly believe they would have helped this guy stay on the trail or get back on the trail? I say no way. While it is a mistake not to have such tools, the accuracy of those tools ain’t gonna keep you from making a mistake of a few yards that took him down a slope from which he could not escape. His biggest mistake was not sitting on his butt the instant he lost the trail and not moving until he knew which direction to travel or until help arrived.

    Add to that his improper shoes and failure to pack for emergencies and there you have it. He made the papers.

  24. Phil says:

    Paul, I don’t believe he changed position when he made the calls. I can’t explain why he failed to get a signal for the first two calls and yet later was able to speak to his wife and 911.

    He admits he was ill-prepared to spend the night, but I have seen worse: people hiking Marcy in shorts when it was spring at the Loj and still winter at the summit.

  25. RTSpoons says:

    Marcy is a very popular mountain and many people do it without incident, whether new to the game or not. It is easy to lose sight of the carins and thus wander off in the wrong direction. A compass bearing is the only cure for this situation.

    The bottom line, he was with a friend and two sons, why didn’t they stop at some point for him to catch up. Many lost hiker stories are group hikes where someone is separate and becomes lost.

    Groups should stay together especially in winter. People hike at different paces so they should stop at junction or certain point to ensure everyone is OK.

  26. TCOZCO says:

    I just watched the video and read all the responses. What a bunch of jerks. What happened to this guy has happened to me many times (Before you say anything, I’m a W46’er and have 134 ADK High Peaks to my name). You get off the trail and are shocked at how quick it happens. In the wind and cold, he was just trying to get to a safe place. His mistake was that he should have realized very early on that he was off trail and retraced his steps. That’s where the inexperience comes in.

    As far as him having to pay for the rescue…isn’t that what those guys are for? So I suppose if he hadn’t gotten lost and in trouble the state wouldn’t have paid the DEC salaries and owned the helicopter? I realize there are fuel and OT charges incurred, but it’s not like this guy got tired and asked for someone to pick him off the mountain, which has happened before. He was screwed. He needed help.

    We tax payers are paying millions of dollars every day for a whole bunch of deadbeats to sit at home and watch cable TV claiming they can’t find a job, yet we’ll bitch about spending tax dollars on a rescue of a guy that was literally close to death. Go figure!

  27. Harold Sperazza says:

    I believe that most backcountry explorers would agree that there were many mistakes in preparation here but to describe the gentleman in terms of “criminal” and to suggest that he be disallowed from taking future trips in the north country seems quite extreme and smug at best. I would bet that many off the more vociferous critics, if completely honest, have made I’ll-advised trips in the backwoods in their early years. It’s all a learning process, albeit in this case it was life threatening and yes it did put his rescuers in some harm but there sounds like a great deal of overreaction out there. Just my two cents, for what it’s worth.

    Harold

  28. Tom Murphy says:

    Why didn’t they stay together as a group above treeline?

    Why didn’t he have a compass and map?

    Why didn’t he have the other 10 essentials?

    Why wasn’t he prespared to be benighted?

    Why weren’t these questioned asked in the interview?

  29. Junebug says:

    here is a link I suggest you read;

    http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Rangers-rescue-three-more-in-High-Peaks-3364020.php

    OK, I’m jusy over reacting., Yea, right on!

    People just don’t don’t get it!! The ONLY thing that gets people to think is a potential criminal charge for putting these rescuers in dangerous situations, like reckless endangerment charges, fines and penelties of banning them from trails. It’s 2012, wake up and smell the cat food! People run amuck when left to their own vices. Now if it just affected them, I could care less if they die on the trail every day. But it dosen’t! The tax dollars could be spent in so many better areas than saving another idiot. I’m afraid that what it will take take to change your minds is when a heliocopter full of rescue personnel goes down while in route to save another “poor guy/girl” that “made a mistake” and kills/maims them all. Think that’s a remote possibilty? Do some research on how often medical and other heliocopters go down just like that.

  30. 46'er says:

    Junebug, you’re an idiot!

  31. TCOZCO says:

    Hey June Bug, maybe when a fire breaks out in a home, we should charge the home owner for the costs to respond; chastise the homeowner for being foolish and putting the firefighters lives at risk.

    But wait a minute…that’s what the firefighters get paid for and why the homeowner pays taxes.

    Just because someone screws up doesn’t mean you hang them out to dry. You help them out of the problem they’re in, show them where they went wrong and teach them the correct way for the future.

    • Jim Close says:

      I think JuneBug would be the first to want that chopper whump-whumping to her rescue if she got in trouble in the mountains; trust me on that.

      I have also personally been on the receiving end of a chopper rescue, and as much as I didn’t want to be in the position I was in, there I was: Broken ankle, 4,000 feet up Sawteeth. I was not entirely blameless for what happened, but very few things that go wrong in the wilderness truly are accidents in the sense that the person is completely blameless for what happened. If you stepped on a rock the wrong way and broke your ankle, would you say that person is to be held accountable for not watching where he set his foot? You see how dicey this thinking can get?

      On the other hand, there are clearly situations where there is gross negligence or abuse of SAR services, and those should be acted on by the authorities — case in point the man from Ohio who activated his satellite rescue device twice while in the western Adirondacks. His idea of an emergency was not what the Forest Rangers considered an emergency, and he was hauled into court and prosecuted for it. No disagreement on that one, but you can, and should, only make those decisions after the fact. I have no problem paying for the services of the rangers with my tax dollars, nor my firefighters, EMTs, you name it.

  32. Tom Murphy says:

    Breaking an ankle while hiking is an accident.

    Failure to bring a map, compass, adequate footwear, a whistle, etc on a winter hike to the summit of Mt Marcy is negligent.

    There is a big difference.

  33. Winter search and rescue report | says:

    […] searches. For some reason, it does not include the Mastaitis rescue, but you can read about that by clicking here. The DEC report follows […]

  34. Ron Lester says:

    My 20 years as a winter hiker and group leader in the High Peaks,among other venues around the world, suggests that had Steve left his cellphone in his pocket, and employed a little common sense to the situation, he likely would have spent the night in his own bed, rather than a snowhole. He had 4 hours of daylight to turn around and go back up the gully to his last known vicinity of the trail. Which he did the next morning, essentially rescuing himself. His cellphone seems closer to the cause of, rather than the saviour of his predicament

  35. Scouter Paul says:

    We just climbed Mt. Cacade in early March. It was 10 above zero at the bottom and spring conditions and below zero and high winds at the top. We knew the conditions, consider ourselves reasonably experienced climbers and we took rope, first aid kits, maps, compass, whistle, flashlight and a myrid of other gear including snow shows and microspikes. Why – because we used common sense. Oh yeah, we stayed together and were in visual and voice contact – especially at the top where we knew where the conditions were nasty.

    There is nothing in an ironman that teaches safety for mountain climbing. There were so many basic common sense rules ignored here that makes this another senseless risk of the rescue team.

    If there is a penalty and a lesson to be learned, let it be the cost of the rescue helicopter and mandatory lessons on mountaineering.

    I’m glad everyone made it out safely and with luck no permanent damage. Let’s hope these individuals realize how foolish and how lucky they were and fortunate that others who came out to search were not hurt.

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