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Adirondack Explorer

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Hiker dies in near Wallface in High Peaks

Questions remain about the death of hiker Alex Stevens

By Mike Lynch

Officials remain puzzled by the behavior of a New Jersey man who died after hiking up Wallface Mountain in the High Peaks Wilderness in September.

Alex Stevens, who was twenty-eight, died of bronchial pneumonia while on a solo hiking trip. After a nine-day search, his body was found near Wallface Ponds, not far from a makeshift campsite he had established.

Wallface Mountain looms high above Indian Pass. Its seven-hundred-foot cliff attracts many rock climbers, but few hikers visit the wooded summit. There is a trail to Wallface Ponds, but it stops well short of the 3,700-foot summit.

Forest Ranger Captain John Streiff said police examined Stevens’s computer for clues as to why he went up Wallface Mountain, but they came up empty.

“We will not know why he chose Wallface. I can’t answer that. Anything else will be conjecture on my part,” Streiff said.

North Country Public Radio reported that, according to investigators, Stevens had developed a fixation on Wallface.

Stevens, who lived in Hopewell, New Jersey, signed into the Upper Works register in Newcomb on September 2, indicating he was going on a three-day camping trip. A family member reported him missing on the afternoon of September 10, triggering a massive search involving state police helicopters, forest rangers, and rock climbers.

Officials said Stevens was unprepared for the wilderness. For instance, he wore sandals instead of hiking boots, despite the rugged terrain and nighttime temperatures that dipped into the twenties. He carried a small backpack with some clothes, a tarp, a hammock, and little else. He had no way of starting a fire.

Stevens was found on September 18. At the time of his death, he was wearing a T-shirt. His gear was strewn haphazardly in the vicinity.

Essex County Coroner Francis Whitelaw said Stevens likely suffered from hypothermia, which can cause confusion. Some hypothermia victims take off their clothes, thinking they are hot.

“He was wet all the time,” Whitelaw said. “He was out of food. He got sick, and he had no way of getting better. It just took on a life of its own and eventually took him.”

Whitelaw said Stevens probably died on September 15—twelve days after he signed the register and five days after he was reported missing.

Officials wonder why Stevens did not try to signal or contact rescuers. State Police helicopters flew low over the area, and searchers were using loud chainsaws to clear landing areas. “We had a very active search area, so why didn’t Alex do more to make himself visible?” Streiff asked.

In contrast, a Fort Drum soldier who got lost on St. Regis Mountain in early September was spotted by a helicopter on the edge of a swampy clearing. The soldier, Streiff noted, “made himself very visible, and we found him.”

Stevens was the second hiker to die in the backcountry this year. In late July, Ralph “Skip” Baker accidentally drowned in the East Branch of the Ausable River after a strenuous hike in the Great Range.

Twelve other outdoor recreationists died in the Adirondacks this year. Six people, not including Baker, drowned while swimming or boating. Four snowmobilers drowned after falling through thin ice, and a fifth died after hitting a tree. Finally, a fifty-one-year-old man passed away while camping with his family.

The death toll was higher than average. Streiff said a warm winter may have contributed to the snowmobile accidents on thin ice and heavy rains may be partly to blame for the drownings this summer.

“The numbers speak for themselves, the numbers [of backcountry users] are up,” Streiff said. ”The trailhead numbers are up. Our missions are up, and statistically speaking, everything is going to be up statistically. Usage is up. Searches are up. Rescues are up. Ergo, fatalities will be up comparably.”

There were 356 search-and-rescue missions in 2016, compared with 245 a decade prior. ν

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