Monday, September 24, 2007

Outdoor Adviser Lost On Adirondack Peak

Stories of being lost in the great north woods were so prolific in the early centuries of America that there could be jokes about them like this one from 1873:

Conversation between an inquiring stranger and steamboat pilot Andrew Hulett: “This is Black Mountain?” “Yes, Sir! The highest mountain above Lake George.” “Any story or legend connected with that mountain?” “Lots of them. Two lovers went up that mountain once and never came back again.” “Indeed-why, what became of them?” “Went down the other side.”

An 1895 newspaper account warned of the “unburied bones of hundreds of men and women who have lost their way in the pathless miles of timbered country, and have ran on terror-stricken until death overtook them in their madness.” The reporter’s caution: “sit down and wait until they find you.”

Today, geographic positioning systems (GPS), emergency beacons, and helicopter rescue teams mean that being dangerously lost in the Adirondack wilderness is usually only a temporary situation. The lack of significant large predators capable of harming us and our generally warmer weather (thanks to persistent global warming) all make traveling in the Adirondack region less dangerous.

Still, at every river crossing, every icy trail, and every dangerous ledge or mountaintop, every swimming hole and picturesque lake, danger continues to lurk. The unprepared and ill equipped, the inexperienced, and sometimes the just plain unlucky, can all still find themselves in dangerous, life-threatening and sometime life-taking situations. Each year dozens of people are lost, stranded, injured, and killed in the wilderness, on mountaintops, and lakes and rivers of the Adirondack region.

Recently, there was one more.

Barbara Brotman, who describes herself as the Chicago Tribune‘s Outdoor Adviser columnist, found out that it takes more than a cushy newspaper job title to make someone safe in the wilderness – it takes careful planning and preparedness.

Brotman, her Tribune photographer husband Chuck Berman, and their daughter, decided to take on Crane Mountain in Johnsburg, Warren County. Without a map and without enough water.

They did remember to bring their poorly charged cell phone however.

Before they left, Brotman called Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth, apparently thinking he had little more to do then give hiking advice:

His advice was a warning. Crane was an outlying mountain. The trail was hard to find and hard to hike.

“Crane Mountain is a very steep climb,” he said. “Many Adirondack High Peaks are not as challenging as Crane.”

And Adirondack trails in general are difficult and steep, he said. Unlike in the Rockies, where switchbacks allow gradual gains in altitude, Adirondack trails were cut by 19th Century guides who took the shortest route to the top.

First, Berman dropped out. While he no doubt got some great snap shots and video footage, he had failed to drink enough water as he climbed the fairly steep 1.4 miles. As he approached heat exhaustion and dehydration two young hikers descending on the same trail met the Chicago party. Did the Outdoor Adviser assist her ill husband back down the mountain? No. She left it to the other hikers to take him down.

Brotman and her daughter continued up, saw the sights, and while eating lunch realized they had little water left. That didn’t stop them from continuing on for an afternoon swim on the shoulder of the mountain – no trail markers, no map, no problem.

Swim complete, it was finally time for Brotman to begin to worry:

Again, my failure to bring a trail map was proving costly. There was no sign telling how to return to the parking lot. The trail continued along the pond’s edge, but it was in what felt like the wrong direction. We had passed what seemed to be another trail heading back into the woods marked by two red blazes on trees, but where did it lead?

I had no idea which way to go.

There was no one to ask.

It was 4:30 p.m. The sun was getting lower.

We had no water.

And now we crossed the line from challenged to scared.

But we did, at this one spot, have cell phone service. I used it to call the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation emergency line.

No sign telling how to return to the parking lot? Outdoor Advisor expected signs to lead her through the wilderness?

This time they were lucky. They had climbed a minor Adirondack mountain unprepared and had gotten lost. Sure they hadn’t listened to Woodworth’s advice, had divided their party and burdened other hikers, and had relied on a cell phone to call for help from the DEC. Luckily, they managed to make it back to the car before dark.


John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for more than 45 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John's Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on North Country Public Radio and on WSLP Lake Placid.

He is also on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and edits The New York History Blog. He is the author of two books of regional history.




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