Right above timberline on Algonquin Peak the trees are twisted and stunted by battering storms and fierce winds. The krumholtz, as it is called, is a tangled mess of old spruce and fir that grows low to the ground for shelter from the ever-changing and often brutal conditions.
Climbing toward alpine summits in the Adirondacks, the mess of trees lends a foreboding sense that this is not a comfortable place to live.
In the winter, snow covers the top of the krumholtz, but big pockets of air around the trees create spruce traps. Once inside one of these traps, the effort to get out will sap even a fit and experienced climber’s energy.
“You cannot, absolutely cannot, function down in the trees,” said longtime Adirondack climber Don Mellor.
On Tuesday morning, Mellor and veteran forest ranger Scott vanLaer skirted a steep edge of Algonquin Peak, just above the krumholtz, shouting down into the mess of trees as they searched for a pair of missing Niskayuna hikers who had spent two nights stranded on the mountain.
As a state police helicopter flew overhead, 19-year-old Maddie Popolizio, one of the missing hikers, called out. Her voice was too soft for the pilots to hear but just loud enough for Mellor and vanLaer to catch.
“It’s a faint, faint shout,” Mellor said, at first thinking it was another ranger across the summit. Mellor and vanLaer shouted back and heard the voice again, this time clearly that of a female.
“Oh my gosh, there they were.”
Mellor climbed down about 200 feet to the pair, as vanLaer radioed in to a search command center down the mountain that they had made contact with Popolizio and 20-year-old Blake Alois.
They were in surprisingly good shape, the rescuers said, both alert and able to communicate but clearly hypothermic. Mellor and vanLaer immediately started to warm them up, sliding on new clothes and hats and gloves and sliding the pair into sleeping bags. Mellor handed them each a cup of hot chocolate.
“I asked: ‘Do you want a candy bar or roast beef sandwich?’” Mellor said, offering the lunch he had picked up at Stewart's on his way to the trailhead that morning. “She looked at me: ‘Roast beef.’ She ate half and he ate half, and I didn’t get lunch.”
Forty hours earlier
Van Laer arrived at the Adirondack Loj trailhead at around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, the second ranger to respond to a call from Doris Alois that the hikers – who have been dating for a year-and-a-half -- were overdue. Piecing together information from the trailhead – identifying cars and checking the trail register -- the rangers concluded the couple had not made it back. About a half-dozen hiking parties had signed in to hike Algonquin that day, including a group of three that had not checked out.
Meanwhile, the DEC caretakers at Lake Colden outpost where changing shifts, with one skiing in and the other skiing out, using a trail that would be an exit route for hikers who loop off the far side of Algonquin. “Did you see any trails on your way in?” the rangers asked the caretaker who had just started her weeklong shift. No. “Can you go back and look again?”
That time, the caretaker said she did see tracks; about an hour old. It was hard to tell if there was one or two pair of tracks in the snow, however.
“We thought, hey, this sounds like Blake and Maddie,” van Laer said. “Suddenly, there are tracks down there that look fresh and, hey, these are our people.”
But even if the tracks along the Avalanche Pass and Avalanche Lake trail did belong to the couple, they still hadn’t made it back to the trailhead. Maybe they were still struggling to find their way out in the dark, or maybe they were injured, or maybe the tracks weren’t theirs at all. So vanLaer and fellow ranger Rob Praczkajlo hit the trails.
VanLaer started up the 4.5-mile-long trail to the top of Algonquin, while Praczkajlo headed to Avalanche Lake and Lake Colden, which sit 1,300 feet below and southeast of Algonquin's summit. By the time he got to Avalanche Lake, he hadn’t seen the couple.
(When rangers Monday called the other hikers in the register, they talked to a solo hiker who had looped off Algonquin, leaving the tracks the caretaker saw. And the group of three never went after Algonquin that day and didn’t sign out when they left the trail.)
It started snowing Sunday night, and vanLaer reached the summit at around midnight. He searched for tracks with a headlight; he saw some but, they ended quickly. He called out the couple’s names and looked around, but in the time he was on the trail that night, it had snowed 3 to 5 inches.
It was soup,” he said. But temperatures were still relatively mild – around 20 degrees.
“That’s when I called out to my supervisor, and we developed the plan for the next morning -- bringing in many more resources,” he said. “At that point, we know they are not injured on a trail. They are not on a trail.”
A wave of rangers
VanLaer returned to the trailhead by about 4 a.m., drove back to the DEC headquarters in Ray Brook and jotted down initial search assignments for Monday, factoring in all his experience of the mountain – roughly 60 percent of hikers descending Algonquin get lost to the northwest and about 40 percent get lost to the southeast. He also considered Sunday’s weather conditions, particularly the direction a strong wind might have blown them off the summit.
The case histories from past search operations inform the rangers as they attack the mountain and surrounding trails and peaks in search of missing hikers. What gullies do hikers travel down? What trails do they end up on? How do the lost hikers typically behave?
Praczkajlo stayed overnight at the Lake Colden outpost for an early morning climb up the steep trail that leads above the lake to Algonquin from the southwest – the one approach to the summit that wasn’t covered Sunday night. He loaded up extra equipment at headquarters and headed back to the trailhead.
By that point, the gears of a much more extensive operation were already in motion.
“The wave of rangers just kept coming in,” he said. VanLaer wouldn’t sleep until 2 p.m. that day – not that he was able to sleep well.
The forest rangers employ what’s called Incident Command System – a widely-used response system for emergencies. Starting with a single ranger responding to a call for overdue hikers, the initial response grows into a full-blown search operation by the following morning. As vanLaer was descending Algonquin with the outlines of Monday’s search in his head, other District 5 forest rangers were contacted and directed to the trailhead. A command center was established at Adirondack Loj and the different pieces of an “extended attack” started to come together.
“It went from two to 20 rangers within the matter of a night,” said District 5 Captain John Streiff, who would ultimately oversee the operation.
Algonquin was socked in by clouds all day Monday, and snow continued to fall. The searchers could not use state trooper helicopters at all to search near the summit, a strategy that is often successful in finding hikers stranded on treeless summits like Algonquin.
Below the summit, working in teams of two or three, 20 rangers started searching the drainage basins that run up the slopes of Algonquin, where lost hikers often find themselves as they try to make it down the mountain.
The searchers carry bags that weigh 30 to 40 pounds as they search, brining enough gear for themselves and the missing hikers: Sleeping bags rated for temperatures as cold as 20 below zero; heating blankets; a bivy sack; hand warmers; extra clothes; a stove; radios; a GPS device.
“Enough stuff to not only take care of a person but to take care of them for a day if you had to,” vanLaer said.
Zeroing in, through tough conditions
Covering 40 miles Monday, the rangers searched the trails that run along the northwest side of the Macintyre range – of which Algonquin is the tallest – all the way to Scott Clearing lean-to and up toward Iroquois Peak. Other rangers stayed on the Avalanche Lake side of Algonquin, searching the gulley that climbs between Wright Peak and Algonquin and a gulley that runs up the southeastern side of Algonquin. Yet more rangers attacked the summit again, searching between the top of Algonquin and Iroquois, peaks that are commonly hiked in tandem if hikers are feeling strong. As a team, the rangers circled the mountain and the trails and drainage systems that lead up and down Algonquin. But the conditions on Monday were slow and challenging. Visibility at the summit was virtually non-existent.
“They struggled to make their way and find their way,” vanLaer said of the searchers at the summit on Monday. “They reported very ineffective searching.”
As Monday started to fade – some rangers returned past 7 p.m., after more than 12 hours in the back-country – two things started to become clearer: Tuesday was the day the couple needed to be found, and the likelihood they were hunkered down somewhere at a high altitude was growing. Cellphone data showed the last towers their phones had pinged at around midnight Sunday, suggesting the hikers were up high and likely on the southeast side of the mountain.
“It looks like perhaps the snow cave scenario is what’s happening here,” vanLaer said.
Last chance for a rescue
Rangers stayed camped at three back-country outposts Monday night, maintaining fires and doing some searching in their immediate areas. Tuesday started with a 6 a.m. briefing at the Adirondack Loj. Bolstered by a group of four experienced climbers called in Monday night, two teams of four headed up the trail for another direct assault on the summit. With the hours continuing to tick away and forecasts calling for colder weather, the searchers’ goals were clear.
“Pay attention to everything. Stay focused, and this is the day we need to pull them out of here,” Streiff said.
At the summit, the rescuers split off and started to encircle the top of the mountain just above timberline. Part of one group split off to head down a gulley where they thought they saw movement, as vanLaer and Mellor continued slowly along the southeast edge of the summit. That's when they heard Popolizio’s faint yell to the helicopter.
VanLaer said his initial assessment was that the hikers were doing better than he would have expected. But they were just on the “precipice” of falling into far more dangerous phases of hypothermia, when the body starts to shut down.
“She was shaking -- shaking violently -- but that’s great; that means her body is still trying to warm her up,” vanLaer said.
The goal was to lift them into a helicopter and fly them to a hospital in Saranac Lake. But the clouds were stubborn at the summit and opened up for only small windows. After two hours and over a half-dozen attempts, the pilots were able to hover 40 feet above the hikers just long enough for the pair to be hoisted to safety. They each returned home late Tuesday night and are still recovering in Niskayuna from frostbite. Alois may lose part of his big toes, his mom said Friday.
“It was a roller coaster ride from beginning to end,” state police helicopter pilot Peter Mclain told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. “It was hair and dicey, absolutely… If I never do another dramatic rescue in my life, I’m good.”
Since the rescue, Facebook pages and hiking forums have exploded with people parsing every move.
On the one hand, vanLaer said Alois had “above average” gear packed for the trip, and the pair carried a GPS device, emergency blanket, extra layers of clothing, fire starting equipment and a crank flashlight. They each had microspikes, but they had just one pair of snowshoes – which are required by DEC this time of year while hiking at those elevations.
As for how they got lost, vanLaer said his best guess was they lost visibility and lost the trail.
“I think the extreme aspect of the weather was the visibility and not the wind or the cold,” van Laer said. “I believe this was a disorientation due to lack of visibility.”