Tuesday, September 2, 2014

81 Years Ago: An Amazing Rescue on Wallface

Wallface3boysEighty-one years ago—on September 3, 1933—three Plattsburgh youths in their late teens, accompanied by a schoolteacher, climbed Wallface Mountain in the Adirondacks. Their purpose was not to ascend the infamous steep cliffs there, but instead to retrieve a length of rope valued at $40 (about $720 today) and deliver it to the Lake Placid Club. For such a mundane outing, the press coverage was extraordinary, extending to newspapers in many faraway locations. And therein lies a harrowing tale.

Five days earlier, those same boys had embarked on another trip to Wallface, reaching the base of the cliffs at Indian Pass early in the morning. The trio—Tyler Gray, 19, Robert Glenn, 17, and William LaDue, 16—were all Boy Scouts, so they were better prepared than the average youths taking to the woods. Accompanying them was William’s younger brother, 14-year-old Robert LaDue.

At about 7:30, the older boys decided to scale the steep cliffs, while Robert remained at the bottom. Initially they made good progress, using trees and brush to pull themselves upward. The going soon became much more difficult, with potential footholds sliding from beneath their shoes. At one point, a supporting rock broke free and fell 400 feet to the cliff bottom. They soon realized that the loss of so many footholds during the ascent meant there was no going back: they must reach the top. All three were still confident they could do so by working together.

However, as Robert Glenn later explained, that proved to be a miscalculation: “We came to a ledge and were stuck there awhile, but by pushing Bill up, he was able to find a place to brace himself and help us up.” They continued climbing, but at the next ledge, said Robert, “We couldn’t go farther because the cliff above us stuck out farther than the ledge. Nor could we go back.”

Their only hope was William’s younger brother, watching their progress from far below. Said Tyler, “We semaphored to Robert, telling him our predicament, and he immediately went for help.” Semaphore was something they had learned in scouting, a signaling system used by the navy for ship-to-ship communications. Young LaDue understood the problem and rushed off towards Adirondack Loj, some six miles distant.

After a difficult and worrisome trek, he notified Loj manager Henry Hicks, who went to work on coordinating a rescue plan. In short order, three parties of potential rescuers were assembled: one from the Loj, one from the Lake Placid Club, and a third consisting of six New York State troopers. Other aid, including from the Coast Guard with unique rescue equipment, was eventually put into motion.

Hicks asked local pilot Fred McLane to pinpoint the boys’ location, which he did with an added flair, as described by Robert Glenn: “About two hours later a plane appeared. The pilot shut off his motor, glided down, and yelled that aid was on the way. That first pilot was a great guy. We felt better after he had cheered us up. We passed the time by talking and singing.”

At around 4:30 pm, one of the rescue parties arrived at Indian Pass and attempted to climb towards the ledge. That effort was abandoned after ascending only about 75 feet up the incline. The men yelled encouragement for the trapped youths to hang tough, but said there was no avoiding it: the boys would have to spend the night on the narrow ledge. The team, while staying in contact, would camp in the pass.

William Ladue estimated the ledge at “about two feet wide and sloping at about a 45-degree angle. We had a hard time staying on it.” Robert characterized it as about four feet wide in most places and “sloping downward, which made it harder to stay on it.” Tyler assessed it at 13 feet long and slanted at about 30 degrees. Suffice it to say that “precarious” was an appropriate assessment. All three agreed it wasn’t easy to remain safely in place.

Robert Glenn noted the safety measures they took to avoid falling from their lofty perch: “Ty had on high boots with long laces so I took one, tied one end to my wrist and the other to a bush. Ty took the other and tied himself to my belt. Bill hung on to Ty. It was freezing and we were cold, but by pounding on each other to try and keep warm, we managed to pass the night.”

WallfaceWiki01Tyler and Robert slept for about an hour; William didn’t sleep at all. They later reported concerns over a mouse repeatedly “nosing at the straps,” fearing it would sever their only safeguard against disaster.

The period following sunrise brought much-needed warmth. About two hours later, they heard voices from the mountaintop. Another McLane flyby confirmed that the boys had survived the night intact. A light line was used by rescuers to lower a knapsack, providing the boys with sandwiches, their first food in about 30 hours.

A heavier rope was also lowered for the task of lifting the trio to safety. Then, setting the rescue attempt in motion, William LaDue tied himself securely and was hoisted upward. But trouble developed, as described by Robert Glenn: “… they started pulling. Bill was a couple of feet off the ledge when they stopped. We learned later that the sash cord had parted and that Bill was dangling 500 feet from the bottom by one small rope.

“After five minutes he was lowered slowly back to the ledge. We were then told that we would have to wait for a heavier rope … [to be] dropped from a plane.… At four o’clock we still saw no signs of the plane.In the valley, they said they were sending food and blankets because we might have to spend another night on the ledge. This left us rather discouraged.”

During the boys’ long wait, an urgent plan was in motion. Corporal Harold Muller, one of six state troopers at the summit, hiked back to Adirondack Loj in 75 minutes. At 4:30 that afternoon, from a plane piloted by Lyle Churchill of Plattsburgh, Muller dropped a few coils of larger rope, along with more food. Before anything else was done, more nourishment was lowered to the hungry lads.

Robert Glenn again picks up the story. “We ate for a few minutes, then hauled down the heavy rope. We flipped coins to see who would go first. Bill was first, Tyler was second, and myself third. Bill tied himself to the rope securely and then yelled in the valley, telling them to signal by three shots he was ready. They did this and they began hauling him up. After about three minutes, the cheer from the valley told us he had reached the top.

“We then hauled down the rope again and Ty went up.… They hauled me to the top, and what a sensation going up! I skinned my hands and arms where I rubbed against the cliff, but otherwise arrived okay.” The five state troopers who worked the rope greeted them with hugs of joyous relief.

Dozens of others were involved, giving their all to save the three boys. In the aftermath, there was exhaustion all around for the immediate participants, many of whom had hiked 15 to 20 miles under very stressful conditions. And there was praise, of course, for young Robert LaDue, the 14-year-old who had initially gone for help. He ended up hiking 18 miles that first day.

The boys were thankful to everyone and not at all put off from mountain climbing, although there was mention of sticking to trails in the future. LaDue was already scheduled to climb Whiteface the following Thursday, but first came the Sunday hike to recover the coils of rope tossed from Churchill’s plane. Newspapers reported that despite the ordeal, the boys had jumped right back on the horse.

The three friends were linked by the now famous story, and coincidently by birthdays spanning just fifteen days. Though they were all born in different years, William and Robert were born on March 13, and Tyler on March 28.

All three scouts went on to varying degrees of success in life. Robert Glenn served in WWII as an instructor pilot, and was manager of Pal Blade Company and Aranac, both in Plattsburgh, where he ran for mayor (unsuccessfully) in the 1960s. Tyler Gray was one of Clinton County’s first two Eagle Scouts. An employee of Clinton Prison for a decade, he then spent 30 years on Long Island as an engineer for the NYS Office of General Services. William LaDue, son of Dr. William and Alice LaDue, became a physician, serving as a captain in the Medical Corps in WWII. He then operated a family medical practice in Plattsburgh for about 50 years. For more than half of that time, LaDue was medical director of the Clinton County Nursing Home.

He was also a member of the Adirondack Mountain Club and a 46er. No surprise there.

Photo, below: Wallface’s cliff, from Indian Pass (courtesy Wikimedia user Petersent).

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

9 Responses

  1. Scott van Laer says:

    Great Historical account! My next post was going to be about an incident on Wallface in the 70’s. Would that be a good follow up or should I reconsider?

    Pilot Fred McLane was a Forest Ranger, although I am not sure he was in 1933. He would become one of the great early aviators in the ADK, honing his skills at aerial detection for search and for fighting wildland fires.I have a great photo of him leaning against his plane where he looks like Clark Gable. I will post it to my twitter account.

  2. BC says:

    Thanks for a great recount of these events. Scott’s will be good too, but with a not so happy ending

    • Larry says:

      Thanks to both of you. Rather than write about Wallface in general, I decided to stick with just the story of the boys, allowing an upbeat ending. I’m sure the other stories, particularly of the pair of climbers, will be of interest to readers. Looking forward to it.

  3. Robert Glenn says:

    Thanks for the great account of one of my grandfather’s early adventures. His greatest legacy is a bunch of grand kids and great grand kids that are passionate about the outdoors – especially the Adirondacks.

    Robert Glenn – Tallahassee, FL

  4. Robert Glenn-Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico says:

    That is, by far, the best account that I have seen about my father‘s ordeal with his friends. In my own younger days, we hiked the same areas. Now, however, I live in the mountains of Mexico, on the shore of Lake Chapala. No more climbing.

  5. Heather Ely says:

    I was searching for information to share with my children, Tyler Gray’s grandchildren, about this event and was thrilled to come across this account. Thank you!

  6. Dan Plumley says:

    Lawrence – that is simply an amazing and harrowing account. I have climbed the diagonal route twice – fully roped and geared up of course. Thank God for their young 14 year old friend Robert, the sky pilots and the rescuers. I know what sitting on a sloping ledge at height feels like. Those boys had a hell of a night and no doubt nightmares for months to follow.

    Incredible mountain rescue story. Never heard of it before, but it is the stuff of legends and told well here. Thanks!

  7. Larry says:

    Thanks Dan. Very kind words, and certainly appreciated. For me, your use of the word harrowing is timely. Just hours ago, I watched a video of Alex Hannold. That perspective, looking down from narrow ledges and using no ropes, can be unnerving!
    A bonus that came my way … a few descendants of those Wallface climbers have emailed me about the story and shared it with the climbers’ grandchildren. Pretty cool!

  8. Susan Gray Morrison says:

    Thank you for a very concise and accurate article on my father’s adventure. It was fun to share with my children and grandchildren and brought back fond memories of my Dad telling about his mountain rescue. Susan Gray Morrison