Bad luck on the peak of Algonquin, the state’s second highest mountain, can be fatal in winter. On December 29th, 1979, a member of the Brooklyn College Outing Club took a fall just shy of the summit. Tremendous pain shot through the shoulder of 18-year-old Michael Boxer.
Thankfully his legs were unaffected, and he was able to walk for a time before rangers arrived, stabilizing the injury and carrying him out to minimize the pain and more safely navigate the terrain. The swelling was severe and upon arriving at the hospital, it was learned the shoulder was dislocated.
The rangers I spoke to for this article – 40 years after it happened – can’t remember many details from that rescue, but they do remember Michael Boxer by name and the search for him on the same mountain, 371 days later.
The Brooklyn College outing club came back to the Adirondack Loj, the main trailhead for the High Peaks, a year later, camping for several nights in December and into the new year of 1981. Michael Boxer was now the leader of the club, which comprised a total of 6 students. He was strong, fit, and determined to reach the summit of Algonquin, after failing to make the summit the year before. The group spent several days at the ADK campground getting outdoor experience, building improvised shelters, and doing day trips into the wilderness.
A deep freeze – even for the Adirondacks – hit the area as 1980 faded into 1981. On January 2nd , after spending a night outside at 35 below, the group awoke conflicted about a planned hike of Algonquin. Boxer, young and undeterred by the cold, found only one other member of the team willing to go with him, Steven Sygman, who was a few years older. The rest of the outing club remained behind.
Boxer and Sygman had excellent gear at the base camp but deciding what to bring with them would be fateful and such choices are always a matter of some opinion as mountaineers try to minimize weight while having adequate gear for emergency use. If everything went well, the ascent would only be 6-8 hours. They dressed appropriately for the conditions in layers and wool sweaters. They had crampons for the icy sections they were sure to encounter along the wind-swept slopes. However, they chose not bring snowshoes since the trail was well packed down. They packed their ensolite sleeping pads but left behind a tent and their sleeping bags, they also carried quite a bit of food for a day hike, including a stove to heat up food and water.
They got an early start, departing the Loj at 8 am. There were a few other hikers on the MacIntyre range that day. The winds were strong, one hiker described being knocked off his feet by a gust on Wright Peak. Things went well for the pair and by early afternoon they succeeded in their goal and were atop Algonquin in some of the most extreme weather the High Peaks had ever seen. It was not a time for long celebration and they quickly turned around and began the descent.
The summit is above tree line and finding one’s way down in winter can be tricky. There are well built stone cairns and yellow paint markings on the bedrock to guide hikers but in the winter, and especially in heavy snow, these can be invisible. They attempted to follow their fresh foot prints in the snow made just minutes earlier but suddenly they were gone, obliterated by the wind.
Then bad luck struck Michael Boxer yet again as the clouds came in and a white out descended. They were lost in arctic conditions. They moved around the summit cone attempting to find a stone cairn or the tracks they made on the way up, to no avail. As they wandered the barren landscape the wind and slope began to affect where they went. It pulled them into a funnel, a drainage that has collected dozens of wayward hikers and mountaineers over the years, several of whom did not survive. However, all of those were climbing solo. Michael Boxer and Steven Sygman had each other.
They found themselves in a drainage which not only collects lost mountaineers, it also collects snow, several feet of it much unconsolidated. They lacked snowshoes which would have allowed them to travel on top of the snow. They now were wallowing through it and getting wet. The temperature was still below zero. Eventually, they found themselves in the trees, protected from the wind but encountering more snow.
They were committed to this direction. Going downhill following a drainage was good or better than the exposed summit but bad luck struck again. Although the snow was shallowest and travel generally easiest in the drainage, there was still water flowing beneath their feet. Boxer broke through the snow and ice and got both feet wet above the ankle and had water in his boots.
They kept going for a time, but it happened again. They stopped. Boxer took off his boots and they almost instantly froze. When he tried to get his feet back in the boots, he couldn’t. Instead, he put mittens on his feet and placed them inside his pack sitting on his sleeping pad. The pair was stopped; it was dark. They decided to bivouac together and wait for help.
They had plenty of food. They fired up the cook stove, making hot chocolate and capturing some warmth from the open flame of the burner. They had very little fuel for the stove and it soon ran out. They ate some instant Jello, dry and cold. They exercised in place when they began to shiver. They huddled together sharing body heat.
Steven Sygman’s feet were wet also, though not as bad, so eventually he took his boots off and wrapped up his feet in his pack as well. There, deep in a drainage on the west side of Algonquin they struggled for their lives, battling hypothermia at -35 degrees. “I kept Michael awake through most of the night,” Sygman would explain to a Lake Placid News reporter in 1981. “He seemed drowsy and incoherent at times and he shivered a lot.”
When neither Sygman nor Boxer made it back to the campsite at the Loj, the rest of the members of the Brooklyn College Outing Club reported them overdue. Forest Rangers began heading in at first light on January 3rd . Ranger Pete Fish led a crew up Algonquin following the main trail from the Loj. Dick Blinn, Lake Colden caretaker, began up the trail from that side.
Ranger Gary Hodgson, who was in charge of the incident, theorized on the hikers’ possible location to the Lake Placid News: “They probably started down my favorite stream. If they follow it, they’ll come out near the Scotts Clearing leanto on the Indian Pass Trail.” Hodgson was already a legend by 1981. He spent as much of his off time roaming the woods as he did while working as ranger. The reason it was his “favorite” stream was because he had caught big native brook trout there deep in the woods, well beyond where any other angler would venture.
Hodgson was correct, they were in his favorite stream. Ranger Joe Rupp led the crew heading that way. More bad luck, a helicopter was not available. They were still waiting for the cloud cover to clear. The forecast was favorable for a break in the weather in the afternoon. Meanwhile the search crews on the ground pressed on.
Rupp’s crew had to contend with deep snow on the Indian Pass Trail and eventually the drainage, their primary search area. Fortunately, the forecast was correct and by 2 pm a helicopter was in the air. Hodgson drove out to the Lake Placid airport to meet it. Ranger Doug Bissonette was the Crew Chief and Ranger Dave Ames was also aboard.
They flew straight for Scott lean-to and began searching the drainage. They couldn’t see anything in the trees but above tree line they saw the pair’s tracks from the day before heading down hill and into the drainage. Circling again, they could not find Boxer and Sygman. Ranger Pete Fish’s crew was now on the summit and moving towards the top of the drainage. Rupp and his crew were making slow progress up the drainage and were not that far above the lean-to.
From the helicopter, Ranger Bissonette peered down on the mountain and picked out an opening in the drainage to lower Rangers Hodgson and Ames. Maintaining a hover about 80 feet above the ground he lowered the two Rangers to join the search on foot. Once inserted, the Huey banked away to allow the search teams space to work and yell for the missing men.
Hodgson and Ames put on their snowshoes and began following their tracks. Within minutes they heard a whistle blow and moments later they were at the bivouac site where the boys from Brooklyn had huddled together for the past 18 hours. They had survived. They saw the helicopter flying overhead and had been frantically waving at it to no avail.
Reflecting on it nearly 40 years later Michael Boxer tried to recount the night and what was going through his mind. “I was in charge of the group, I felt responsible and things had to be done to stay alive,” he said. “Falling into the water was distressing but I kept going as long as I could. I could not feel my feet very well and I knew I had to stop.”
The Rangers began a medical assessment and were surprised at how well they had held up. They were shivering and were able to drink hot fluids the rangers brought in a thermos. Their feet were a problem. There was frostbite and they were not well protected beyond the backpacks they were standing in. Walking was not an option even as the rangers fashioned makeshift mukluks from various insulating items they had with them. They needed the helicopter to come back and pick them up. The Rangers tied improvised harnesses onto the boys and one by one, Ranger Bissonette picked up all four of them by hoist and pulled them back into the helicopter. He slid the door closed and they flew directly to Saranac Lake Hospital for treatment.
Dr. Ed Hixson was there waiting for them. He had treated numerous hypothermia and frost bite victims over the years. He found their core temperature to be around 96 degrees, astonishingly high. Some rewarming had occurred in the field, but the time from being found by the rangers and arriving at the hospital was only about an hour.
The frostbite was more serious, especially for Boxer who froze every toe on both feet. Sygman had only minor frostbite on two toes. He would be released from the hospital the next day. Boxer remained there for a week or more. When speaking to the Lake Placid News at the time Dr. Hixson was uncertain if he would lose any of his toes. He did comment that taking their boots off given their remote location and extreme cold temperatures was a bad idea. “You can walk with your feet frozen in your boots,” the doctor explained. “Once you take them off, you’re trapped.”
Michael Boxer did keep all his toes. “They got real bad, black, cracked badly” he told me reflecting back on the experience all these decades later. “They took really good care of me at the hospital. Some of the nerves died, my feet were never quite the same. My toe nails are pretty ugly but it never slowed me. I stayed very physically active.”
Professionally, Michael Boxer became an accountant and his outdoor recreational interests eventually took him to the water where he competed at the highest levels nationally, including for a spot on the U.S. Kayaking Team.
There was one point of humor as he told me the story, at least it’s funny now. “My girlfriend was with me and she stayed back at camp. She left me for one of the guys who stayed behind with her while I went up the mountain.”
More bad luck.
Illustrations, from above: Mount Colden and Marcy during winter from a frozen Algonquin Peak; Forest Ranger Dave Ames (DEC photo); the same helicopter above Algonquin on a different mission (DEC photo); and Forest Ranger Bissonette by artist Kati Christoffel.