By Mike Lynch
Thirty-four forest rangers and a dozen volunteers saved a hiker’s life after he injured his leg on an icy cliff on the remote Saddleback Mountain in the High Peaks Wilderness in early February.
“If you’re on trail, it’s probably the worst spot in the High Peaks that you can break a leg,” said forest ranger Robbi Mecus, who led the evacuation team. “There’s no way to get to it without going over a High Peak.”
The rescue took about thirty-seven hours to complete, starting with the emergency call placed by the injured hiker’s friend at about noon on Saturday, February 3, and ending at 1 a.m. Monday when he was put in an ambulance near the Garden parking area in Keene Valley.
Rangers Scott Van Laer and Rob Praczkajlo were the first searchers to reach the hiker and his friend—at 4:45 a.m. Sunday after a five-mile trek through deep snow and icy terrain.
Van Laer said the hiker was alert but shivering and mildly hypothermic. The rangers treated the injury and put the hiker inside a bivy shelter with a sleeping bag and heated blanket. The hikers had made a snow shelter and were well equipped for a day hike but didn’t have overnight gear.
“He stopped shivering within a half an hour and then was asleep an hour later,” Van Laer said.
Van Laer said the temperature was in the single digits, with winds of about fifty miles an hour.
Initially, seven rangers set out from the Ausable Club to rescue the hiker, who was in the col between Basin Mountain and Saddleback. Two rangers turned back after helping to transport gear. The other five intended to climb Basin Mountain from the Warden’s Camp between Lower and Upper Ausable lakes and then drop down to the col. However, one got hurt on Basin at about 2 a.m. Two of the other rangers stayed to help him. Van Laer and Praczkajlo pushed on alone.
“We really believed it was potentially life or death for the injured man,” Van Laer said. “If we stopped it would have been another twelve hours before Robbi’s crew got there. The guy did not have enough gear to stay warm.”
Because of the incident on Basin, Van Laer and Praczkajlo had left behind some of their gear, including a tent, stove, and extra water. After spending eight hours with the injured hiker, they started to worry about getting hypothermic themselves. At noon Sunday, they headed out of the woods (the two hikers were in sleeping bags). Three hours later, a seventeen-person team, consisting of rangers and volunteers, arrived with a rescue sled.
After packaging the injured man in a sled, the teams began lowering him down Chicken Coup Brook, a drainage that would lead them to the Bushnell Falls lean-to and eventually the Johns Brook caretaker’s cabin.
The original plan had been to go back out over Basin Mountain, but the idea of dragging the man uphill over extremely icy terrain through 50 mph winds persuaded them to use the drainage.
“The winds were enough to knock you off your feet,” said Mecus, noting the forest protected the drainage from the winds.
The drainage presented its own difficulties, including the first 500 feet. At this steep section, the rescuers used ropes to lower the man in three stages. For the next 1.5 miles, the terrain was less steep but still challenging.
A third wave of rangers arrived to help out while the team was in the drainage. They helped get the man to the caretaker’s cabin, where he was taken to Smith Road on an ATV.
“At one point, I counted 34 people on the carry out,” Mecus said.