Recent rescues highlight potential dangers
By Mike Lynch
On Oct. 30, hikers were injured on Mount Marcy and Saddleback in the High Peaks Wilderness.
The Marcy hiker slipped on ice while descending from the summit, sliding about 30 feet and fracturing their leg. That same day, a second hiker also slipped on ice and broke his leg on Saddleback. Both hikers fell despite wearing microspikes, traction devices that go beneath boot soles.
Both hikers were airlifted to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake by a State Police helicopter.
The incidents highlight one of the dangers of hiking in the early winter, before trails are fully covered with snow.
To help navigate the trails during this time period, we interviewed Adirondack Mountain Club Education Programs Manager Mary Glynn. A licensed guide, wilderness first responder, and 46er, Glynn is acutely aware of how important being prepared during the early winter is for hikers.
She recommends bringing a headlamp for the short days, winter layers for the cold (even on warm days), wearing proper footwear, and planning ahead. (Read this story from our archives for a full list of gear needed in winter and these ADK blogs — here and here,) Snowshoes or skis are required in the High Peaks Wilderness when snow depths exceed eight inches. Hikers should also wear orange so they are visible to hunters.
Below is the question-and-answer session with Glynn about the recent High Peaks incidents and hiker preparation. This was edited for clarity and space.
EXPLORER: A pair of recent incidents involved hikers injured in the upper elevations of Marcy and Saddleback after slipping on some thick ice. Are those conditions normal for this time?
GLYNN: That’s pretty typical conditions that hikers can expect to encounter this time of year where we’ve got snow and ice up high and then temperatures down low can still be pretty comfortable. Sometimes you don’t know exactly what’s going on at those higher elevations until you’re up there.
EXPLORER: A recent forest ranger report described the two hikers as wearing microspikes, but they still had falls. Do you need equipment beyond microspikes at this time of the year for those kinds of conditions?
GLYNN: On Saddleback, that’s a pretty technical area of trail. Microspikes are helpful on most Adirondack trails, but once you get up into parts of the Great Range and some really technical spots in the High Peaks, you would really want crampons instead. They’re meant to assist you going up really steep terrain. Microspikes will suit you well for more moderate climbing, or more moderate hills and mountains. But remember there’s no gear item that’s going to guarantee you will not get injured. Microspikes will certainly take a lot of that risk away. But you know when you’re out there on the mountains, you know people get injured all the time. People get injured in the summer. So, having microspikes was better than having nothing. Without having seen the ice myself it is hard to know exactly what would have been the best.
EXPLORER: What equipment do you generally recommend for people in this season (fall/early winter) when you have variable conditions? It could be below freezing or it could be 60 degrees on your hike.
GLYNN: Yeah, it really depends where you’re going and what the specific weather is for that day. But this time of year, I’m always prepared for winter conditions. (Visit ADK’s website for a full list of gear for winter trips.) You can start at the trailhead, and it’s 55 degrees and you’re in shorts and a T-shirt, and you’re pretty comfortable as you’re hiking. But if you are up on the summit, it’s pretty easy for temperatures to be below freezing, especially when you factor in wind chill; that’s likely to be your most remote spot of the day. If your injury happens while you’re up there, which is more likely because the terrain is typically deeper and icier, it can be a while before help makes its way to you. In those last two rescues, those folks were fortunate that the New York State Police aviation was able to get to them fairly quickly and rescue them. Sometimes that’s not an option and the helicopter is not available, and you’re looking at hours until rangers can get to you and then several more hours of getting packaged and carried out —so you want to stay warm. The injuries are important to attend to, but you’re more at risk of hypothermia this time of year if you’re not prepared. If the sun’s out and it’s 50 degrees down in town, no one’s really thinking about hypothermia. But if you get up high, and you’ve been sweating and get hurt, then you sit there and you don’t have enough layers or a sleeping bag and sleeping pad to keep yourself warm while you’re waiting to get help — that’s where hypothermia will show itself.
EXPLORER: So for the average person who has some experience going in the mountains, but isn’t necessarily an avid hiker who hasn’t done a ton of High Peaks, what routes do you recommend this time of year?
GLYNN: This time of year I’d stay away from the High Peaks. We don’t do guided trips this time of year because the conditions are so variable. You’re better off waiting for it to be true winter and a nice snowpack for using your snowshoes (or skis). It will just be more enjoyable. But folks who do still want to get out should stick to lower elevation hikes. And if you do want to go up something for those views, stick to trails that are on the southern aspect of a mountain, facing the trails on the south side of the mountain, so it gets more sun, and it’s less likely to be icy on that side.
EXPLORER: Anything else to consider?
GLYNN: This time of year is an especially sensitive time for the rare and fragile alpine plants found on many of the High Peaks. When hikers arrive at treeline to find the bare rock coated in ice, the alpine grasses and shrubs can seem like a safer option to walk on since they would provide some grip. This has devastating consequences for these plants, many of which will die after being stepped on just a few times. All the more reason to bring traction and stick to the marked trail.