Volunteer searcher and well-known Lake Placid climber Don Mellor was hiking just above treeline on a frigid Algonquin Peak when he heard the faint sound of a man calling. Then he heard a woman’s yell.
That’s when he knew he had found them.
Twenty-year-old Blake Alois and his girlfriend, nineteen-year-old Madison Popolizio, had been hunkered down in deep snow and tangled spruce near the summit for more than thirty-six hours, waiting for help to arrive.
The two had set off from Adirondak Loj on the morning of Sunday, December 11, to climb Algonquin, the state’s second-highest summit at 5,114 feet. After reaching the top, they got lost in a whiteout and wandered off the trail, eventually sinking into shoulder-deep snow. When they failed to return, forest rangers initiated a search that evening.
But it wasn’t until about 11 a.m. Tuesday that Mellor and Ranger Scott Van Laer located the shivering couple. Alois was standing, but Popolizio was sitting, unable to use her legs. “She was soaked,” Mellor said.
He took off Popolizio’s wet jacket, wrapped her in a large down jacket, and zipped her in a sleeping bag.
“I got the guy seated down and gave him better clothing, gave them a warm drink, and offered them whatever they wanted to eat,” Mellor said. “I had a roast-beef sandwich and some candy bars. They wanted those. They took my whole lunch.”
Roughly an hour and a half later, the two were hoisted into a state police helicopter and flown to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, where they were treated for hypothermia and released.
Mellor was one of four local climbers with mountaineering skills who had been asked by DEC to volunteer for the search effort that day. The others were Allison Rooney, Adam Crofoot, and Colin Lohr. Those three and Mellor joined forest rangers Robbi Mecus, Ben Baldwin, and Jamison Martin atop the mountain.
The four volunteers were chosen off a list of experienced backcountry users the DEC utilizers in searches-and-rescue missions, although Mellor said most of the time that he offers assistances it’s when more technical skills are needed on a rock or ice climb.
Early in the search effort, the DEC put out statements asking volunteers not to come forward. That’s because this effort was focused in the alpine zone, where people without experience could have hindered the search because they could have become victims themselves without proper experience and fitness.
“For a search, you just need to have a lot of experience up there because it can just be unnerving: the weather, the loss of visibility, and even someone who is a good outdoorsman can experience a little uncomfortableness up there,” said Van Laer, who noted the DEC has a long history of using outdoor guides on search-and-rescues that dates back to the early part of the 20th century. Van Laer noted that Baldwin and Lohr not only worked on the summit but took on the physically demanding task of exploring a high elevation gully.
“Ben and Colin peeled off down a drainage because there was a chance we had seen some movement way, way, way down there,” Mellor said. “They did a horrific descent, just on a longshot that there was movement down there.”
The efforts of the eight searchers were especially crucial because it’s extremely challenging to survive three nights on the summit of a High Peak. Tuesday may have been the last chance to find the missing hikers alive. “It was definitely the nick of time,” Van Laer said. “It was hardly the hardest physically demanding search I’ve been on, but it was gratifying. It was one of those that you did feel like you got them at the precipice, you really did. It felt like you yanked them off the cliff and they were ready to fall.”
The search had started Sunday night. That day Alois and Popolizio — both from Niskayuna, a suburb of Schenectady — emailed photos and videos to their families during the hike. In the photos, they appeared to be in good condition and wearing winter clothing. But the last communication was about noon. As evening approached, relatives became concerned. At 5:42 p.m., they called the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Soon after the call, rangers searched the trails to Algonquin and Lake Colden until 3:45 a.m.
After daybreak Monday, more than twenty rangers began searching the trails and drainages around Algonquin. Snow, clouds, and winds prevented the use of helicopters to aid the search and posed difficulties for the rangers. The snow was up to three feet deep.
On Tuesday morning, more than two dozen rangers, along with state police, resumed the search. Mellor and Van Laer located the couple just a few hundred feet below the summit on the east slope.
At the hospital, Popolizio released a statement thanking the searchers: “I cannot even begin to articulate how unbelievably grateful I am to the rescue group who found us and to the people who saved us, and to the people who never gave up looking for us and kept us in their prayers.”
Photos courtesy of DEC: Top, Here Madison Popolizio receives some warm liquid and assistance from the search crews. Bottom, A DEC Forest Ranger hikes through three-foot deep snow on Algonquin Peak during the search. Wright Peak can be seen in the background.