KEENE VALLEY — Before gazing over the desolate Adirondack High Peaks from a rescue helicopter, Lecco Morris considered himself an experienced hiker.
With experience on the Appalachian Trail, backpacking through Europe and much of the Adirondacks, Morris was geared up for a new challenge on Sunday: navigate the five High Peaks of the Dix Mountain Range, solo.
The only problem — unforeseen, like many things in the wilderness — was that out of all of Morris' hiking experience, his only solo treks involved little to no need for navigation skills. The Appalachian Trail was well trodden. Europe had just enough English and population density, along with the occasional Australian who had done it all before. When Morris came across the need for navigation in the Adirondacks, the task always fell to someone else in his group.
“I have extensive hiking experience, but no route-building or solo-navigation experience. I’ve never been in charge of making a map or planning and building the route prior," said Morris, The Alt weekly's advertising and promotion director. “There’s a difference between physical confidence and orienteering confidence, and I have the former in spades and the latter not at all.”
Arriving at the Dix Range around 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, Morris dedicated his confidence to traversing 18 miles of mostly unmarked trails, known in hiking communities as herd paths. The trip would take him to the summits of five mountains, and the plan was to return to his car by sunset.
Wearing just a t-shirt and shorts, Morris was equipped with three liters of water, three apples, two energy bars, two lighters, a penknife on his keys, and a cell phone, which he would rely on for navigation, and, eventually, as a light source.
It became quickly apparent that Morris had bitten off more than he could chew, he said, with his GPS going haywire on the unmarked terrain. By the time 4 p.m. rolled around, Morris had only reached the third of the five peaks.
Morris recalled an ominous warning from the leader of another group of hikers he met at the summit.
"I'm not one to tell someone what to do, but even if you ran the whole way you couldn't finish this loop before daylight," Morris said a woman told him. "If you turn back and run, you might get back to your car."
So Morris ran.
And then his phone died, leaving him without a light source.
Morris had told his father, Proctors CEO Philip Morris, where he planned to hike that weekend, but now he was off the grid.
“At that elevation, at any time of year, once it gets dark, you need to stay warm, and I was only wearing a t-shirt and shorts," Morris said Tuesday. "Fifty degrees doesn’t sound life threatening, but it is.”
Having to spend the night, Morris was able to light a fire and stay warm enough. But shortly after 6 a.m. the next morning, he had to acknowledge to himself that he had no idea how to find his car.
Unable to determine how long it would take for help to arrive, Morris saved energy and stayed put, in addition to trying to figure out how to ration his final liter of water.
Creating another fire, Morris sought to catch the attention of a helicopter.
He also said he killed two salamanders for food.
For another five hours, Morris heard the fluttering of helicopters out in the distance, leaping out into a clearing to call for help.
Eventually, DEC Supervisor Christopher Kostoss and his team were able to find Morris. The ranger said Morris "did a good job in that he was persistent and didn’t panic."
“He was in great shape," Kostoss said Tuesday. Kostoss said Morris "admitted he was bad with navigation, and took on a difficult herd trail.”
Kostoss said the DEC sees hikers bite off more than they can chew "all of the time," and that the colder months and inclement weather can make getting lost a matter of life or death.
“We run into this all the time, where people underestimate the physicalness of the hikes," Kostoss said. "People see all of these big popular hikes, the 46 High Peaks, and want to do those, rather than starting with a smaller, simpler trail.”
Morris believes he survived to tell a cautionary tale, and that, had the weather been different or had he embarked on the hike during a colder time of year, his chances of survival could have been slim.
“Physical fitness and ability is no equivalent for preparation," Morris said. “I did all the right things only when the situation became dire ... I’m both grateful and ashamed.”
Morris' mother, Kathleen, has prepared a two-page letter to the DEC, thanking the rangers for saving her son. Morris said that, for his mother, the rescue "fortified her faith in governance."
What impressed Morris the most about the DEC rangers who found him was their supportive attitude toward what he described as a "level of irresponsibleness" that was "criminal."
“I was expecting when the chopper came down to get an earful [from the DEC rangers]," Morris said. "They were just glad I was OK."
"He was hiking alone, so I would suggest not hiking alone, planning and preparing ahead, and understanding your limitations," Kostoss said. "He got lucky."