By Mike Lynch
Forest rangers found a 49-year-old Saratoga County man alive but exhausted Wednesday, July 5, after he spent two unplanned nights in the woods after getting lost near the summit of Nippletop Mountain.
Richard Maxwell had successfully hiked three mountains – Bear Den, 4,020-foot Dial, and 4,620-foot Nippletop mountains – but as he was descending Nippletop Monday, he mistakenly wandering off the marked trail, according to forest rangers from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“In Elk Pass, instead of veering right following the actual hiking path, he took a left onto the herd path that goes to the Nippletop slide,” said forest ranger Rob Praczkajlo.
Maxwell soon found himself lost on the herd path, which rangers described as very hard to follow. That was at about 4:30 p.m. Monday. Praczkajlo said at that point, Maxwell didn’t want to climb back up the mountain because the terrain was steep and difficult to ascent. “It’s just so shelfy and drops off down there,” Praczkajlo said. “He had a compass and map and decided I’m going to try to make it to Elk Lake.”
Forest ranger Scott Van Laer noted Maxwell was also exhausted at that point from the long day of hiking. But Maxwell, who was following a drainage to Elk Lake, also found the terrain going downhill difficult to traverse.
After then spending Monday night in the woods, forest rangers said Maxwell had a change of heart about trying to go back the way he came. So Maxwell spent about an hour trying to ascend the mountain Tuesday but was unsuccessful. “He just physically found it impossible, so he turned around again and stuck with his plan again to go to Elk Lake,”said Praczkajlo, noting Maxwell was following a drainage that led to Elk Lake.
But Maxwell was only able to hike until about 3 p.m. that and didn’t make it far down the drainage toward Elk Lake Tuesday. “He slid down off the falls. He was going off of rock ledges in the stream. He was just smoked,” Praczkajlo said.
That evening, he heard a state helicopter nearby and realized there was a search for him. Maxwell tried unsuccessfully to make a smoky fire in the thick spruce-fir forest to attract attention, but he wasn’t noticed by the searchers.
Wednesday morning, after his second night in the woods, Maxwell found a two-acre beaver meadow a short distance from where he slept. Knowing the helicopter was looking for him, he got up on a boulder, hoping the helicopter would return.
Instead of being found by a helicopter, Maxwell was found at about 10 a.m. by Praczkajlo and fellow forest ranger Glen Bronson. He was a few miles southwest of the summit of Nippletop. Praczkajlo said Maxwell was in good shape but exhausted. Maxwell was well prepared, Praczkajlo said. He had still had a little bit of food left over and had used an emergency blanket to sleep at night.
The Explorer was unable to reach Maxwell for this story but he thanked the forest rangers on the Explorer’s Facebook page. “I can’t express how deeply thankful I am for the Rangers and everyone involved,” he said.
Forest Ranger Captain John Steiff said 18 forest rangers participated in the search. Many of those came directly from the search for a swimmer who died while swimming below the Flume waterfall on the West Branch of the Ausable River Monday. The body of 31-year-old Matthew Miller was found at 2 p.m. Tuesday, ending that recovery effort.
The search for Maxwell started at Tuesday morning, after a family member reported him missing through the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department at about 7:30 a.m. However, the search was hindered at first because forest rangers weren’t clear where Maxwell was hiking. They were told Maxwell may have been hiking Hadley Mountain or perhaps even near Indian Lake. “So rangers throughout the region started checking trailheads from north to south,” Streiff said.
Maxwell said on Facebook that “people did know where I was hiking.” It’s unclear why that info didn’t get to forest rangers.
Eventually at about noon Tuesday, a family member located Maxwell’s car in the Adirondack Mountain Reserve parking lot, Van Laer said, giving them a clear indication he was hiking in the area. Forest rangers then noticed that Maxwell had signed in at 7:22 a.m. Monday at the Ausable Mountain Reserve trailhead run by the Ausable Club. Van Laer said he also called and talked to hikers who summited Nippletop just before and just after Maxwell and who had been interacting with him throughout the day. The descriptions provided by those hikers to forest rangers helped narrow the search area even more to the Elk Pass area.
“The public really helped,” Van Laer said.
This article was updated at 10:30 a.m. July 6.