LAKE PLACID – A Niskayuna man and woman were reunited with their families Tuesday night, after they survived two days stranded near the summit of New York’s second-highest mountain.
Maddie Popolizio, 19, and Blake Alois, 20, both Niskayuna High School graduates and students at Hudson Valley Community College, were rescued by helicopter Tuesday afternoon, after they set out early Sunday morning to climb the 5,115-foot-high Algonquin Peak.
They were forced to hunker down for nearly 48 hours after falling off the backside of the summit into deep snow.
As soon as the couple reached the peak, a dense fog engulfed them and everything around them, Popolizio recalled, speaking Tuesday night from a hospital room at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. While scrambling to head back down the mountain and clinging to one another, the couple lost track of the trail, she said.
“It was like walking in all whiteness,” Popolizio said.
They fell about 100 feet, she said, plunging through what felt like a river of snow. Digging into the snow to shelter themselves from the wind and cold, Popolizio and Alois – who celebrated their year-and-a-half anniversary Tuesday – comforted one another through cold, hunger, exhaustion, dehydration and hallucinations. Alois covered Popolizio’s feet with his backpack; they tried to start a fire with hers. As hours in the snow turned to days, they could hardly believe it when they heard the sound of helicopters overhead.
“I looked at him and was like, 'Did you hear that?' and he was like, 'Yes,” she said. “I started crying because I was so incredibly happy. I didn’t think they would ever find us – not in that amount if snow.”
State Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers launched a search and rescue mission Sunday night, after Alois’ mom, Doris, called them, worried that she hadn’t heard anything from the couple. As she frantically texted and called her son's cellphone from Niskayuna, Blake received a brief flash of service – just long enough to see the texts and messages come through – but it was gone as quickly as it appeared.
On the first night, as snow fell well into Monday morning – a meteorologist with the National Weather Service said high altitudes in the area received around 3 inches of new snow – forest rangers searched all the way up the trail to the top of Algonquin and to Lake Colden, which sits well below the southern edge of the mountain. They searched until 3:45 a.m.
On Monday, 20 rangers searched over 40 miles of trails and drainage basins, but it was too cloudy to use helicopters in the search. Rescue crews camped in back-country shelters overnight and resumed the search at first light Tuesday morning.
But as the hours in the cold ticked by, and the forecast spelled even colder weather in the offing, the search effort became increasingly dire.
“Today was the day we needed to get them,” Forest Ranger Captain John Streiff said Tuesday evening, after the rescue was complete.
The couple was located by search crews at around 11 a.m. Tuesday about 265 feet southeast of the summit – the opposite side from where the trail to Adirondack Loj descends. After nearly a dozen attempts were foiled by cloud cover, a helicopter was able to hover long enough to extract the couple. They were airlifted to Adirondack Medical Center and were expected to be released as early as Tuesday night.
Alex Alois, 22, joined his brother, Blake, and their father in the hospital room Tuesday afternoon. Reached by phone, Alex said his brother wasn't ready to talk to the media. But Alex said, on Blake's behalf, "The biggest thing he wants to say is he's very thankful for the state troopers and all their work and all the rangers and the medical staff, and pretty much every single person involved in the rescue mission – and everyone back home for all their support."
“I'm relieved, just happy he's alive and well. Just lucky," Alex Alois added.
Back home in Niskayuna, Doris Alois spent the day with two close friends fielding phone calls from family, friends and rescue crews. She stayed at home as her husband and son and Popolizio’s family headed north in case the couple was transported south to Albany Medical Center. Early Tuesday afternoon, she got a call from a ranger who said the couple had been safely transported off the mountain, and that she should call the hospital.
“He said I would get good news,” Doris Alois said. A nurse at the hospital told her Blake was “up and talking.”
Echoing the appreciation expressed by her son, Doris Alois thanked forest rangers, state troopers and other rescue personnel who worked in below-freezing temperatures and 3-foot deep snow during the mountaintop search.
“They were optimistic the whole time, they kept in constant contact with me, and they found my son,” she said of the rangers. “That last sentence says it all.”
Winter hiking in the Adirondacks presents far more challenges and risks than hiking the same peaks in the summer. Travel can be far slower and more treacherous. There is far less daylight – with sunsets this time of year at around 4:15 p.m. – and temperatures at high altitudes can reach well below zero. Forest rangers have conducted 353 search-and-rescue operations so far this year – not just winter rescues.
DEC recommends hikers in the winter prepare to “spend an unplanned night in the woods” before setting out on a back-country hike. In its weekly condition report on Thursday, DEC cited 2 feet of snow at Lake Colden, far below Algonquin’s summit, and said snowshoes should be worn at high elevations. Popolizio said they had snowshoes with them.
One common mistake: If wind is blowing or fresh snow is falling, hikers can easily lose track of the trail and get disoriented on 360-degree treeless summits like Algonquin. Experienced climbers will take compass bearings as they leave the treed line, so they can orient themselves back in that direction in whiteout conditions.
“It seems like it would be easy to come back where you came from, but when everyplace looks the same ...” said Teresa Palen, who together with her husband runs Rock and River Guide Service near Keene. “It’s very disorienting when there is snow up there.”
(Palen said she wasn’t aware of Tuesday’s search-and-rescue situation and couldn’t speak to the specifics of the couple’s situation.)
Palen, who has summited Denali in Alaska, the country’s tallest mountain, said going with more experienced hikers is the best way to learn how to stay safe on winter back-country trips. She recommended less-experienced hikers be cautious as they plan trips, aiming for less-exposed summits and always checking weather reports.
But even the most experienced hikers and climbers can be felled by bad luck or one poor decision.
“You can be super experienced and have a very bad day, and a bad day can end your life,” Palen said. “That’s just the nature of the mountains, and we don’t control the mountains.”
Streiff said the couple wasn’t prepared for an overnight trip, but that they did take some precautions that proved helpful during the search. The couple had informed family members of their trip plans, leading to early reports that they may be in trouble. They also stayed in one place and waited for rescuers, instead of compounding their problems by trying to find their way down the mountain, Streiff said.
“They did some things right,” he said. “They certainly didn’t have survival gear; the fact they survived 36 hours is a testament to their willpower.”