Forest Ranger Rob Mecus got the call at 3:15 in the afternoon. A climber had fallen on Wallface. Rob had been at his Adirondack post for only a couple of years, but he knew what all longtime local climbers know — that Wallface was the worst-case scenario. It’s the biggest cliff in the state. It’s five miles from the road. There’s no nice trail to the top for a staging area. It’s blocky and loose. Three of the first four Adirondack climbing fatalities happened on this huge, remote piece of rock.
The cell-phone call from Summit Rock in Indian Pass reported that the fallen climber appeared to be hanging from a rope, unconscious. Yet despite the distance and the complexity of the rescue operation, that same climber would be wheeled into the emergency room at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake at 8:10 that same evening.
In 1977 another climber took a similar fall at Wallface, but this one didn’t turn out so well. This climber stayed put that afternoon, and into the night, and well into the next day when rescuers finally arrived. It was no longer a rescue but a body recovery.
Climber Todd Eastman remembers the incident well. As he described in a recent email from his home in Washington State, he got word of the accident at Eastern Mountain Sports in Lake Placid. Then, as now, the store was staffed by climbers, so Todd and store manager Jerry Hoover eagerly joined up with some personnel from the state Department of Environmental Conservation for a fast hike to the height-of-land in Indian Pass. But instead of roping up and getting to work, they just sat — in the rain, under a tarp — while forest rangers toiled though the night, bushwhacking up the awful north shoulder of the mountain, even clearing trees for a helicopter drop at the cliff edge, from which a long, arduous roped descent would get the first responders to the victim.
Todd was bitter at the time. He’d just come off a season in the Alps, where he not only had put himself in tiptop climbing shape, but he’d also witnessed what a real mountain rescue could be. Together under the tarp, he and Jerry talked about how easily they could have climbed to the spot where the climber had fallen. They would have assessed his condition, fixed ropes for others to follow, and radioed instructions. It all made so much sense (to these naïve twenty-year-olds.)
Many years later Todd acknowledges that “it probably didn’t make a lick of difference.” The climber likely died in the fall. But it did stoke a local conversation about whether volunteer climbers could offer real help or would they just be a nuisance and a liability.
Within a year, Jim Wagner, manager of the Mountaineer in Keene Valley, was advising forest rangers, helping them choose gear and running a few training sessions in the Chapel Pond area. Jim was the man back then, the expert, the paternal figure who knew all the tricks about passing knots on a multi-rope lowering, about packaging litters and loading helicopters. He even designed specialized gear, like a breakaway Velcro tag line to keep a litter from spinning like a Frisbee under the air wash of helicopter blades.
Training was fun, and it was exciting for the small group of volunteers to think about being lowered from a chopper for a life-saving mission, but in fact there wasn’t much call to do so. There wasn’t a rash of accidents. Only a small handful of climbers had gotten to know only a small handful of rangers, so while we had established the outlines of a process, we weren’t at all a team.
My own first call came not from DEC but from Whiteface Mountain Ski Area. John Plausteiner, the ski area’s manager, heard it on his ski-patrol radio: an ice climber had taken a bad fall on Multiplication Gully in nearby Wilmington Notch. His partner had rappelled to the ground, run down to Route 86, and driven to Whiteface, where he knew he’d get the quickest and most experienced help from the ski patrol. Only then did the call go out to DEC, the state police, and Wilmington’s fire-and-rescue squad.
Plausteiner, a seasoned climber from Slovenia and a regular rope mate of Adirondack climbing legend Patrick Munn, knew what the other agencies didn’t: Multiplication Gully is really hard to access from above, and so the standard top-down rescue techniques that Jim had taught the rangers would not be an option. Plausteiner saw in his mind what was actually happening at the scene. Rescuers would arrive at the base of the cliff, but even though the injured climber was only eighty feet above, he might as well have been a hundred miles away. So Plausteiner took it upon himself to ring me at work, where I was running weekend brunch duty as a teacher at Northwood School in Lake Placid. I shouted across the dining room to fellow teacher and fellow climber Jeff Edwards. We loaded up a pile of ropes from the school’s outing program, and off we went.
The scene on Route 86 was startling.
Firetrucks, an ambulance, forest-ranger vehicles, state trooper cars. Firefighters in big jackets and boots. A trooper waving traffic through. Lots of personnel and lots of flashing lights, but still no one had reached the injured climber. Jeff and I were promptly turned away by the police, but as we were backing the car around, Ted Blazer (then assistant manager, now CEO, of ORDA) ran over and escorted us through the police lines and up the hill.
I’ll always remember the odd glance I exchanged with the ranger in charge at the base of the route. To him I was just a stranger with some well-used gear and duct tape patches on his pants. He should have stopped me, I guess, but there just weren’t any other options. As Jeff and I roped up and put on our crampons, Pat Munn arrived with Mark Ippolito, a physician’s assistant and climber. Jeff and I quickly climbed to the ledge where the injured man lay. Within minutes Munn and Ippolito joined us by climbing our fixed lines.
This wouldn’t turn out to be a fatality; nor was it a happy story. He’d broken his neck and lives today as a quadriplegic. But at that moment we had work to do and, by happenstance, had a good crew to do it. Mark took over the medical side of things, loading the wire litter that had come from ski patrollers. Patrick and I used ice screws to create an anchor for lowering the litter, while Jeff Edwards set another anchor on a tree below, where the lowering system would dogleg around a corner. It didn’t take long for us to turn over the litter to the professional ground crew, and that was it, I thought.
Then I got a call from Lou Curth, the forest-ranger captain for DEC’s Region 5, who wanted to convene all parties involved for a sit-down to evaluate what we had done and maybe look ahead a bit to see what we could formalize.
Thus began the first real relationship between volunteer climbers and professional rescuers. After the Wilmington Notch incident, there was a lot of initial energy. We made up a call list. We filled out the paperwork that would give us the insurance coverage and protections of state employees during any rescue. In 1982 my friend Albert Dow died in an avalanche during a rescue on Mount Washington, and it was clear right from the get-go that the risks and liabilities were huge and needed to be addressed.
Yet for the next twenty-five years or so the program underwent almost a mathematical series of oscillations: a climber would fall or get stuck, and afterward we’d all get psyched, train like crazy, wait for the next mission, and then nothing. Folks would move away. Rangers would retire. Gear stocks would atrophy. And then when we were at our worst, something would happen again, and the cycle would begin anew
Once in a while climbers were called in to help — several times up on the Trap Dike on Mount Colden and a scattering of assists around Chapel Pond. But it wasn’t a system as much as it was a series of personal relationships. Rangers knew and respected Ed Palen of Rock and River Guide Service. His phone rang once in a while. Jeff Edwards was another familiar and trusted helper. Yet another generation of rangers was retiring, and the climbers listed at DEC dispatch were getting gray and arthritic.
There was one time that really drove home to me the need to cast a wider net for skilled volunteers. The leader of a group of young hikers thought it would be fun to get off the main trail on Crane Mountain in the southern Adirondacks and make a bushwhack beeline to the road. This works on some hills. But not on Crane, where a complex of cliff bands makes such a descent impossible without a rope.
My phone rang at about 3 a.m. Dispatch said that the kids were squatting tenuously on a sloping grassy ledge and it was beginning to rain. Rangers had exhausted every option conceivable to get to the group, but in unfamiliar terrain, in the dark, there didn’t seem to be a way up. My house in Lake Placid is a long way from Crane, and despite my traveling in the back seat of a trooper car at ninety-plus miles an hour, dawn was breaking when I arrived. For a rock climber armed with all the gadgets, it wasn’t a hard climb, and it didn’t take long for me and Ranger John Chambers to get up to the shivering kids.
What got me thinking about this years later was that we had staged the rescue right down the street from Jay Harrison’s house. Yes, Jay Harrison — a professional guide who has made a life scampering all over that complex band of cliffs. The single best resource, the guy who could have done the job in under an hour, slept right through it all, even as we passed his house in the dark, because rangers didn’t know he was there.
Fast forward to this past winter.
“I want to make one thing really clear,” Mecus says to the group assembled in the parking area by the Beer Walls near Chapel Pond. “You aren’t climbers. You are rescuers.” Rob knows that rock climbers tend to be a self-assured and independent lot. He’s heard stories about those old days when a couple of climbers would scoot up to a stranded hiker, say, on one of the slides. In minutes the subjects were rigged and lowered — safely, but some might say “creatively.”
Mecus came to us from the Gunks, that world-famous cliff band outside of New Paltz in southern New York. If ever there was a place to hone one’s rescue skills, this was it. On a summer weekend hundreds of climbers are swarming over the place, and while some of those climbers are seasoned and skilled, a disturbing number of them are engaged in Darwinian studies.
Our practice session was up on the Dogleg Route, a popular ice climb across from Chapel Pond. Kevin “MudRat” MacKenzie played the victim, strapped into a litter and guided down a two-hundred-foot pitch by guides Bill Dodd and Matt Wiech. Rangers Jake Deslauriers, Ben Baldwin, and Megan Dominesey joined Mecus this time. Will Roth, John Mackey, Colin Loher, and Doc Livingston — all professional guides — supported from above. With MudRat handcuffed and bouncing around in the dangling litter, suffering a faceful of snow every time a climber moved above, the beginnings of a team was emerging. Laughs and learning came in equal doses.
It’s not as though the rangers can’t handle any challenge thrown their way. They’re well-trained, really fit, and most can inexplicably take part in a full night’s rescue operation right after a full day of trail patrol. But the climbers offer welcome assistance on occasions when, like that day last summer on Wallface, the clock is ticking and a quick technical approach from below is so much better than fighting the forest on top.
Every time the team gets together, more ideas are exchanged and more techniques practiced. But in the end, it isn’t so much the skills acquired or the protocol established as it is the familiarity and trust built simply by getting climbers and rangers together. Then, when you are out there, and it’s just a constellation of headlamps shining in the dark, the trust is total. You recognize the voice. “Anchor’s good. Ready to lower.” You don’t need to check.
Photos from above: The Trap Dike on Mount Colden, photo by Karen Stolz / Vertical Perspectives Photography; A ranger and two volunteer practice rescue techniques at a cliff near King Phillip’s Spring, photo by Kevin Mackenzie; A Forest Ranger lowers a litter during training at Lake George; and Kevin “MudRat” MacKenzie rappels off Diagonal on Wallface, photos by Karen Stolz / Vertical Perspectives Photography
A version of this article first appeared on Adirondack Explorer Magazine.