The mother, Ning Cai, and her two sons, ages 7 and 11, were helicoptered off the summit at about 11 am Sunday. They suffered cold-related injuries. The two boys are still hospitalized, according to an Associated Press report. The mother was treated and released from Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake Sunday.
The Potsdam family had gotten into trouble Saturday evening after losing the trail as they were descending from Marcy’s summit, which they left at about 4 pm. Forest ranger Scott Van Laer said there was a whiteout during the afternoon and evening, making visibility very poor.
“When I was skiing across Avalanche Lake, it was pretty bad,” Van Laer said, who responded to the rescue call from the Lake Colden interior caretaker’s cabin.
Realizing they were in trouble at about 5:30 pm, Cai called Essex County 911, which transferred the call to a state Department of Environmental Conservation dispatcher in Ray Brook. She eventually talked to Van Laer and another ranger to provide details about their predicament. Although Cai was able to talk to the emergency responders, they were not able to determine the GPS location of her cell phone because it was an older foreign model.
The call did initiate a rescue response however, which included 26 forest rangers, four environmental conservation officers, the state police special operations response team, and state police supervisory staff.
Rescuers launched such a large response because of the age of the children, the time of day, the weather and terrain, Forest Ranger Captain John Streiff said. It was the largest rescue team since at least December 2012 when an ice climber was saved on Nippletop Mountain.
“As far as our urgency chart, this was way up there,” Streiff said. “We had many, many red flags popping up.”
The first team of forest rangers reached summit of Marcy at 9:30 p.m., about the same time communications between them and Cai ended. That first wave of searchers worked until midnight until being replaced by another group.
Cold temperatures, strong winds and rugged terrain made the search difficult. Winds up to 30 and 40 mph with gusts to 50 mph, -10 degrees temperatures and dangerous wind chills of -30 to -40 were forecast.
Van Laer said he believed the family was just below treeline and sheltered from the wind during the night. He noted that it’s not uncommon to be able to survive the first night of being lost, but the chances of dying increase significantly the second night. He said the mom had the kids do exercises to keep warm during the night.
On Sunday morning, state police helicopter pilot Sgt. John Haverly spotted the family at about 11 am, about a quarter mile from the summit.
“We took one lap around (Marcy) and on the southwest side, I see some woman waving her ski poles. I said, ‘I think that might be them.’ We circled around, confirmed it,” Haverly said.
A forest ranger was then lowered down to the family. After assessing them, the forest ranger determined they were all were in fair condition with some cold-related injuries. Forest rangers hoisted the two boys up to the helicopter that then transported them to Adirondack Medical Center in Lake Placid around 12:15 pm for further evaluation and treatment.
Additional forest rangers arrived and tended to the mother while the boys were transported. The helicopter returned for the mother, hoisted her from the mountain and transported her to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake for further evaluation and treatment at about 12:50 pm .
After the rescue, the efforts of the responders were applauded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and DEC Commissioner Joe Martens.
“We are all grateful that the family is now safe, thanks to the exceptional work of the Forest Rangers and State Police,” Cuomo said. “Time and time again, DEC forest rangers, DEC environmental conservation police and the New York state police selflessly heed the call to help others in the most dire of situations to ensure the safety of the residents and visitors of New York state. I congratulate them all on a job well done.”
Martens said that “DEC forest rangers are one of the premiere search and rescue organizations in the country. Their knowledge of first aid, land navigation and technical rescue techniques are often critical to the success of their missions. This successful search and rescue incident demonstrates they don’t do it alone. It often takes the cooperation of state and local agencies, working as a team to ensure a successful ending no matter what conditions they face.”
Photo provided by DEC: Forest rangers search Mount Marcy Saturday night.