In the summer of 2001 my family and I undertook an adventure deep into the floor of Indian Pass. The lore related to its unexplored talus cave passages and its rumored near-impassibility had sparked our imaginations for years. Expecting that the journey would be challenging we equipped ourselves with climbing rope, headlamps and a first aid kit. After a good hour of work and having dealt with a number of dangerous obstacles we came to a pile of stacked boulders that rose precipitously from the floor, well above the surrounding trees. With the massive rampart of Wallface towering above us, all we could think about was to climb this talus pile and be lofted into the space above us where surely the best view in the Adirondacks awaited.
Near the top of the ascent there was a tough move to get onto a slanted face that led to the flat top. To slip from that face would have meant a critical injury or death. Below, on the route into the pass, there had been several slippery descents over sloping boulders that could have meant a nasty fall at a minimum. The chances of getting lost in the pass were nil but there were plenty of opportunities for an injury that could have limited our mobility or even led to a medical emergency. Needless to say, with us that deep in the pass help would not have been immediately forthcoming and a rescue would have been a logistical challenge.
I relate this story because at the time we undertook this expedition – which was part of a much longer backpacking trip – our kids ranged in age from eight to eleven… just about the same as the age range of the kids rescued from Mount Marcy on March 21st.
As it happens we needed no rescue, had a marvelous time and returned to our camp without incident. But what if there had been an accident? What if we had become stranded? What if I had been a mother, not a father? What would have been the recriminations? What would have been the judgments of my choices to take my kids on such a hard core wilderness adventure? I wonder because the vitriolic reactions to the incident on Marcy have left me with questions – and a good measure of disgust.
Harshness seems to be the style these days. But when a mother encounters life or death trouble, yet keeps her children alive through a bitter night at the Adirondack tree line only to face some of the nastiest condemnations I’ve seen in the on-line world – well, my patience for that kind of easy, reflexive judgment hits a quick limit.
What astonishes me more than anything is the arrogance displayed by people who should know better – that is, any persons who have spent a lot of time in the Adirondack Wilderness. That’s because anyone who has spent time in the Adirondack back country has had multiple “there but for the grace of God” moments. Wilderness hiking is not without risk and it is not without misjudgments. Oh sure, there can be negligent or grossly ignorant behavior, as can be the case in all areas of life. But well short of that standard we’ve all had moments that could have gone terribly wrong, that could have prompted a rescue.
Was the behavior of this family negligent or grossly ignorant? A lot of on-line commenters certainly think so. The idea that a mother would take her young children to the summit of Mount Marcy in the winter in bitter conditions and be on the summit as late as 4 pm, was condemned repeatedly through a vast array of negative opinions.
Of course opinions are easy, so I went in search of facts. Honoring the family’s request for privacy I did not try to contact them. But I made an information request to DEC and received detailed responses from the rangers involved in the rescue. Then I did a little weather research. Let’s take a closer look.
First there is the critique of the late hour at which the family was on the summit. But critics seem to forget that this ascent was done in March, not January. On that particular day the sunset in Lake Placid was 7:08 pm and twilight was 7:37 pm. That’s the same as it will be on September 14th this year – not exactly a date anyone would freak out about over the time of day. If I were on the summit of Marcy, in snow, with a well-trod path awaiting me below the tree line, two hours before sunset, much less three, I’d have no concerns.
Then there was the bad weather. “It was abusive to take little kids up in such bad weather” goes the accusation. The problem with that opinion is while Marcy certainly had winter conditions that day, conditions were not yet extreme by Adirondack standards, nor were there any big warnings in the forecast. During the ascent it was a perfectly normal day. DEC reported no special alerts or warnings. The temperature was forecast to drop at night and occasional snow squalls were also in the forecast, but the vicious whiteout and life-threatening late-afternoon wind chills that ensued were simply the Adirondacks doing its thing. Whiteouts can happen without warning at any time. Raise your hand if you have winter climbed and have never been caught in an unexpected whiteout.
That’s why anyone taking a hike should be prepared, say the critics. “Unprepared! Untrained! Charge them!” goes the cry. But according to DEC this family was dressed for a winter hike, with layers of non-cotton clothing and water-resistant/wind-resistant outer shells. All were wearing snowshoes. They also had heavy parkas, water, food, a compass and a map. In other words, they were prepared and equipped as they should have been. Furthermore they were not novices – they’d hiked in the High Peaks before.
There was at least one mistake made, based upon the facts. The family left some gear at the tree line, including snowboards and the compass. Leaving the compass was an unfortunate choice (that said, even with a compass it would have been tough to find the trail in a whiteout). Was that a serious error? Sure. Was it abusive or negligent? Raise your hand if you never left or lost important gear somewhere, or failed to bring something along that you should have.
To survive the night the family descended to the tree line, found a sheltering spot and dug a trench in order to have relief from the bitter winds. DEC tells me they chose a trench – presumably as opposed to a snow cave – so that there would be clearance and room to do exercise routines, which the mother had the children do throughout the night in order to keep their body temperatures high enough. I’m not the greatest expert in winter survival on earth, but those decisions don’t sound entirely stupid and novice.
Those are the facts, but facile, self-promoting judgments have a way of so easily trumping – or willfully ignoring – the facts.
Then there are the kinds of angry attacks that have nothing whatsoever to do with facts, but something deeper. The most withering criticism was directed straight at the mother of these children. “Who but a terrible mother would take such young kids on such a dangerous adventure?” say the arbiters of good parenting.
I would. Condemn me as a parent at your peril. I know exactly why I’d do it.
I remember a few comments about how a seven year old is too young for such expeditions because they can’t take care of themselves. Nonsense. At seven my kids knew how to take care of themselves in the woods quite well. Yes, that includes winter. Would I have sent them to Marcy’s summit alone? Of course not. But I would not have thought twice about taking them along. Could something have happened to require a rescue? Sure. There but for the grace of God, friends, there but for the grace of God. Yet together we braved as bitter and challenging conditions as the Adirondacks can provide. And we did it because I knew we could. I knew that together we could handle ourselves, even if something went wrong. And you can be certain that I knew what it would mean to do that as a family.
Isn’t that the point? Ask my now-grown children about our Adirondack adventures and they’ll tell you they made them who they are. Raising children is not about minimizing risk. If you think it is you’d best never put your kids in a car again, where the chances for injury or death – and the chances of causing government authorities to spend a lot of time and money on your behalf – make winter hiking look like a stroll in the local botanical garden. Wilderness adventure builds character, confidence, self-reliance, strong values and good decision making. Plus it is exhilarating experience and tremendous fun. It’s worth a little risk. I know it. Those fabulous DEC Rangers know it. So do many of you. So, unquestionably, does the mother of those kids who went snowboarding on Marcy on a March afternoon.
There’s another wonderful thing wilderness offers: the maximum distance possible from our trendy world of instant condemnation and mean-spirited opinion.
Photo: Eastern Ranges in Winter