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.”