Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mount Marcy Rescue: Another Perspective

Marcy RescueI take issue with Peter Nelson’s piece on the rescue of a woman and her two children on Mt. Marcy in March. Although perhaps the mother taking her children up Mt. Marcy in predictably harsh winter weather didn’t deserve “some of the nastiest condemnations… seen in the online world,” the situation does deserve serious objective assessment, and the lessons learned need to be repeated loud and often.

I would suggest compassion for her and her family, but I also would recommend a serious debrief of the experience that asks questions such as: “What went well?”; “What didn’t go well?”; and, “What would you do differently next time?”


  • It may save wilderness travelers’ lives in the future
  • It may save the lives of possible rescuers (see here, and here)
  • It may save taxpayers money

Pete asks if the mother was negligent. That is a fascinating question. Certainly if she were a licensed guide and taking young people on a winter trip up Mt. Marcy she very possibly could be found guilty of negligence.

The “there but for the grace of God” argument holds no water for me. Yes, many of us, including myself, have had formative experiences wherein luck played a bigger role than skill. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have evaluated what we learned, or that we didn’t deserve to be critiqued and, in many instances, criticized for our actions.

Yes, I introduced my children to adventure and risk, but for them it was more “perceived” risk and little “real” risk. That is how you appropriately introduce children to risk. Risk is the balance of the odds of something going wrong with the severity of the consequences if they do. If the odds of something bad happening are high, then you want to make sure that the severity of the consequences are low; if the odds of something bad happening are low, then you can possibly assume the risk of severe consequences.

I remember when our group, faced with crossing a raging, spring runoff-filled stream in Wyoming on an ice-covered three-foot diameter tree, debated whether to use a fixed line or not. My mentor Paul Petzoldt quipped, “You only need the fixed line if someone is going to fall.” The consequences were drowning, and the odds of someone slipping were higher that morning because of the fresh ice on the log. We determined the odds were high enough that it was prudent to take the time to set up the fixed line. It was the right thing to do.

Have I forgotten an important piece of equipment on occasion? Sure. Have I ever left my pack at timberline? Never. My children and former students will attest to my standard quote in that situation: “It is better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”

I’ve led people of all ages. Have I hiked beyond my turnaround time? You bet, but only with careful consideration of the consequences. Two clients and I decided to complete our hike up Haystack in the High Peaks last summer knowing we would have to hike via flashlight for at least two hours back to our camp. We all concurred on the decision given the beautiful weather, a favorable forecast, and a full moon. Would I go beyond my turnaround time on Mt. Marcy in March with my children given the weather conditions? Never. I turned around on Ampersand Mountain two years ago this month with my niece and nephew (around the same age as the children rescued on Marcy) because it was too icy.

Contrary to Pete’s claim that only one mistake was made, I maintain that several were made.

The mother eventually made some good decisions and helped them survive the night, but I am reminded of Petzoldt’s warning that, if people were careless enough to get into a survival situation, how were they going to be smart enough to survive it. With tongue in cheek he suggested we provide smart pills for those folks to take once they got into a desperate situation.

As a teacher of wilderness skills and leadership for over forty years, I based my teaching on the Wilderness Education Association’s old 18-point curriculum. Let’s assess how the rescued party did on Mt. Marcy.

Marcy Rescue Assesment
I believe the errors made, already pointed out by others, distill down to the following:

  1. Not having another adult in the group
  2. Not turning back given the weather conditions
  3. Not having or not adhering to a turnaround time
  4. Leaving the pack behind

This is just a hunch, but I think that she took a lot of criticism because of her silence. Perhaps if she made a public statement admitting her errors (a mea culpa) and publicly thanking her rescuers, the public would have felt differently.

I wish her and her family many safe and enjoyable hikes in the future, and I hope that many can learn from their experience.

“Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.”

― Brandon Mull, Fablehaven

Photo taken during the rescue operation provided by DEC.

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Jack Drury is co-owner of Leading E.D.G.E., a professional development firm, professor emeritus of North Country Community College having founded the college's Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program and has been an Adirondack guide for 45 years.

29 Responses

  1. Tony Goodwin says:

    Jack, thanks for your careful analysis of this incident. I hope others will learn from it. My main reason for continuing to report on such incidents in “Adirondac” magazine is the hope that those who read about others mistakes will learn from them.

    I believe the family did publicly thank the rescuers, but then asked for privacy and did not admit to having made any mistakes that had put the lives of the rescuers in danger.

  2. Brian Mann says:

    Hi Jack,

    I think this is a strong, reasoned assessment of the crisis on Marcy, and I completely agree that the situation warrants review and analysis. NCPR plans to do follow-on reporting about the case in the weeks ahead.

    Meanwhile, two points.

    First, I think it’s reasonable to have a conversation like this, while also distancing oneself from some of the more extreme and judgmental rhetoric that followed immediately after the rescue operation. There is a huge gap between “child abuse” or “child neglect” (for which there is zero evidence) and parents making what were arguably poor choices while planning and executing a winter trip into the back country.

    Secondly, the family did in fact issue a statement in which they thanked the first responders. Here’s the quote: “In particular, we are especially thankful to all of the agencies involved in the rescue, and would like to once again express our deepest gratitude to each and every first responder.”

    Great article,

    –Brian, NCPR

    • Paul says:

      “NCPR plans to do follow-on reporting about the case in the weeks ahead.” Brian, give it a rest, what else could one possibly learn from this?

      • Brian Mann says:

        Paul – That’s why we do reporting, to find out what we don’t know and to determine to the best of our ability the facts of an event. As Jack points out, there’s a lot to be learned here. This event put a lot of first responders in harm’s way, and cost a lot of taxpayer money. That’s worth discussing factually and accurately. –Brian, NCPR

        • Paul says:

          Yes, and I think it has been. If you can find something new that we have not already heard and learned then fine.

  3. Mike A. says:

    Negligence is a funny thing. As an expert, you and your clients are entitled to expect your higher standard. But what would amount to negligence from an expert does not necessarily rise to the standard of negligence for an ordinary person.

    If she wasn’t negligent she doesn’t owe anyone an apology, certainly not to the public at large just to satisfy some people’s sense of outrage.

  4. Lakechamplain says:

    Her main negligence, it seems to me, was in exercising poor judgement prior to the hike about the challenges and possibilities their hike entailed. Namely, if you elect to climb the highest mountain in New York State during the winter(and early spring for that matter) you’d better have a healthy respect for these mountains.

    She isn’t the first nor sadly the last person(s) to not consider the range of trail and weather conditions she might face. But if you are bringing children it seems that you should ‘over prepare’ to deal with all the possibilities. Did she check the weather reports; they were quite accurate. And even though service is spotty at best in the high peaks, why not have a cell phone? These and other points that Jack brings out aren’t nit picking, they’re valid considerations to a dangerous situation that might have easily led to three deaths.

    And while I understand that Pete Nelson’s piece was sort of trying to tone down the harshness of the rhetoric shown here and elsewhere, I think a lot of people were thinking of the high risks that the rescuers faced that night which could have turned deadly for them as well.

    Combined, I enjoyed the different perspectives that as Tony Goodwin pointed out, will hopefully serve as valuable lessons for those people ‘challenging’ the Adirondack Mts.

  5. Paul says:

    Good article. I disagree with “error”number one. One adult with two kids is fine if you do what you need to do. Nobody, including Pete here, have claimed that there weren’t mistakes or “errors” made.

    • Jack Drury says:

      Thanks for your comment Paul. While I don’t believe that two adults are necessary on all trips I do believe that due to the young age of the children, the time of year, and the difficulty of the trip, two adults should have gone along on this one. My wife and I took our children on similar trips but there were always two of us. It goes along with my belief that four people make the ideal group size. If something goes wrong, someone gets injured or sick, one person can stay with the injured and two can go for help.

      • Paul says:

        I think it would have been better, it would always be better, but not necessary. In this case it seems to me there was no opportunity for someone to go and find help. As I understand it they were lost, so one more adult would have been one more person lost that would have needed rescue.

  6. Jack Drury says:

    Thanks to Tony and Brian for pointing out that indeed she did thank her rescuers which I discovered after I submitting this piece.

  7. Marco says:

    Leaving her pack behind was her only major mistake. In it she had her compass/map which could have allowed her to navigate her way out of the white-out. In the High Peaks, many of them are Up and Back. These yo-yo trips are usually short, as is the trip up Marcy. There is no difference between setting up a base camp and doing a day hike up one of these peaks and dropping a pack for a short summit. Yes, you wear appropriate clothing, you carry water and snacks. You do not need a shelter, nor sleeping bag, or 2 days of food, or stove, or kitchen gear, or all the other myriad of items that go in a pack. The 20minte hike up to Marcy is not that bad from treeline. But, I believe she should have had her compass/map.

    I leave my compass attached to a lanyard around my neck at all times. I am wearing it now, even as I sit in front of my laptop pounding out a few thoughts. Obviously, she does not.

    This is not negligent, nor irresponsible, though. Again, the 20 minute hike was easy…up till white-out conditions meant she lost her way. But, everyone DID survive the night!

    Most GPS systems have a compass on them. I never use a GPS, though, soo, it was not surprising to me that she did not. I know the trail is generally north approaching the summit. I could have likely found my way off with a compass. I believe that this was the only mistake. ALWAYS bring a compass and know where you are (more or less.)

    Even white-out conditions can be fairly ignored if you can navigate. Like on a lake in a fog bank. That meant the rest of the above chart simply falls apart as part of a simplistic mental exercise, because, if she could have navigated off the mountain, the weather would have been fairly irrelevant, her decision making would not be called negligent, and so on. There would not have been a rescue for any of us to dissect and learn our lessons from. Her decisions would not be in question. And no, the ratio of one adult for two kids is fine. How many times have I taken my two kids out for a hike in the ADK’s? Hundreds… If she is irresponsible, so am I. Turn around time??? In winter it is more or less SOP to hike with headlamps. There was a time I finished a hike well after midnight calling my wife for pick-up about an hour earlier with my daughter because she forgot her bag. A long day, but we did survive. I did notice no one from the rescue crews was asked about this. They were undoubtedly hiking at night. Poor decision making??? I think not.

    This is my last comment on this subject. Drop it. It was a fair rescue under fair circumstances due to a forgotten item. It happens. Leave the family alone to deal with it.

  8. Bruce says:

    I believe honest and straight forward analysis of this and other stories needs to be done and published widely, so that folks are made aware there are things they can do to if not avoid the need for rescue, make waiting for rescue less life-threatening under practically all reasonable conditions. Discussion of these things is not a time for political correctness.

    For example; whom among us today carries some kind of small homemade, and lightweight survival kit when we go for what starts out as a day hike, but many times ends in ways we don’t allow ourselves to think about?

  9. Hawthorn says:

    Map and compass is great and I have always carried them on even the shortest hike, but how many would actually be able to use them in emergency conditions? Ever tried using a map when the wind is blowing 40? Same goes for GPS. I have met many hikers who say they don’t need a map because they have a cell phone. Boats and even ships manage to blunder ashore constantly despite high-tech navigation plotters with GPS, radar, long-range radios, and other gear. My point being that no single piece of gear is going to save people from mistakes in judgment and there is a danger that having the equipment (or requiring it) leads to a false sense of security and greater risk taking in some cases. The decision to press on for the summit was the error, and everything else hinged on that. If she had turned around we wouldn’t be discussing this.

    • Paul says:

      My perspective is a little different. I spend lots of time in the woods where I have no idea where I am. Then I use my compass to find my way out (sometimes a GPS, I have one but usually just use the compass). So there is really no sense of security issues. You are “lost” until you are ready to get out. Having a compass won’t give you a false sense of security it’s a necessity.

      • Bruce says:

        Paul, I think you have a sense of where you are in relation to where you want to get to, or where you’ve been; otherwise having a compass can only be used to maintain a direction, but how would you know what direction to go? It’s what I call “staying found.” You may be “lost” in the sense you do not know your exact position, but if you broaden the picture in your mind somewhat, you know you want to go southeast to get to a particular road, trail, river or whatever.

        So many folks take off blindly down a trail, then get lost because they didn’t pay attention to their surroundings. All they did was go 50′ off the trail to look at something interesting or take a natural break. It happens on relatively short, popular trails here in WNC all the time, mostly during tourist season.

        • Paul says:

          No, when I am in the woods I am often not trying to “go” anywhere. But yes, like I said, you do need to know what direction to get out. That is what the compass is for. If you are on Mt. Marcy and you get lost I would head in pretty much a northerly direction toward the loj and eventually route 73. You don’t need a map for that. I almost never have a map for the areas I am in. The geography of the high peaks is much easier to navigate in than other flat feature-less areas.

          • Hawthorn says:

            Bruce and Paul you both not only know how to use map and compass but have done so enough so that you could do it again if caught on Marcy in whiteout conditions. But, I bet you two could also get yourselves off the summit safely even without any gear by using wind direction, the angle of the slopes, the tracks of stuff blowing across the snow, the sound changes, etc. I think there is a danger in a lot of backcountry advice in telling people they must bring this, that, and something else with them. So what happens is that a lot of people have all kinds of stuff and therefore think they are safe, when in reality the most important piece of gear is located between your ears.

            • Paul says:

              Hawthorn, don’t forget the moss on the north side of the trees!

              Seriously thought I think you should feel pretty confident if you have a compass and you generally know which direction is out. That is the fun of being in the woods I don’t see it as some sort of overconfidence thing. I don’t see any danger in telling someone to bring a compass and a working flashlight.

            • Bruce says:


              You are right about using what’s between your ears. But when one doesn’t have the back country savvy some of us have, a little simple advance preparation can make the difference between a horrible, cold night in the back country and something more akin to an “adventure,” especially if kids are involved Everything you need except water and perhaps a flashlight, can be carried in your pockets or a small daypack.

              I’m well on my way to purchasing a Personal Locator Beacon, not because I’m spending much time in the woods, but because I’m 70 and still enjoy fly fishing alone in places not necessarily far from civilization, but cell phones don’t work (surrounding mountains). It’s mostly in the event I get injured and can’t get back to, or operate my car. (thoughtful advance preparation)

  10. Tim-Brunswick says:

    For crying out loud people…… happened in “March”……! It’s been analyzed to the point of being boring. Must be the Adirondack Almanac is short of material?

  11. Scott says:

    This was a good article and most of the comments are good as well, except for the few comments suggesting after-action reviews are bad. One thing to consider when evaluating these decisions isn’t just if “they survived” in the end, but at what cost, like evaluating crossing that icy log over that swollen river. When all three hikers loose fingers and toes, and the youngest one almost dies, that is a significant consequence. And remember in this case if the weather front didn’t pass through so quickly, they would not have been located so easily the following morning. While you may think it is okay to ditch your gear during good weather, it is always a bad idea since you never know what may change your plans.

    • Paul says:

      Scott, where did you see it reported that they all lost fingers and toes, and that the youngest almost died?

      • Scott says:

        Paul, I did not see it reported that all fingers and toes were lost, and I did not try to suggest all fingers and toes were lost. I apologize if it seemed that I wrote that. I heard indirectly that the family said that all three hikers lost some but not all digits.

        • Paul says:

          As in “all” I meant you claim that all three of them lost some fingers and toes, and the youngest almost died. I don’t think there is anything that backs either of those facts up. This is probably the classic problem where stuff gets exaggerated as it goes along.

  12. rb says:

    What I noticed in the story and the subsequent commentaries is that this and other emergency situations were not the result of a singular poor or questionable decision. For example the 2 adults comments. All by itself it was not the issue, but when each subsequent decision was made the sum total of all the questionable decisions are what created the emergency situation. This bears out in many analyses of emergency situations. Rarely was there one choice or event which was the ultimate cause. It usually is a series of small, individually minor choices/events which led to the emergency situation.

  13. Bruce says:


    Some folks like to bury questionable events as quickly as possible, especially when they involve errors in judgement. Political correctness is a fatal disease, once it takes hold it isn’t letting go. Not only should such events be thoroughly analyzed, what we learn from them should be published widely as public information, hopefully saving lives down the road.

  14. Jeff says:

    Excellent analysis of the mistakes made in the Marcy incident. Much of the condemnation and rush to judgement immediately following the incident obscured the opportunity to learn from it. Thanks for contributing a rational perspective.

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