Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Left behind: A lesson in the dangers of splitting up on the trail

By Paul Czajkowski

It was a warm clear morning when I met Ben at 4 a.m. to go hiking in the High Peaks of New York’s Adirondack Mountains.  The weather was forecasted to be sunny, dry and very hot (100+°F).

We had a great drive up to the trailhead and arrived around 6:30 a.m., it was already around 80°F.

Our plan for the day was to hike up over Blueberry Mountain and summit Porter, one of the Adirondacks’ designated 46 high peaks.  We made good time getting to the shoulder of Blueberry where we stopped to take a break.  Ben said he wanted to make a video to send to his old college friends back in Ohio.  He said to go on ahead and he would catch up to me.  I went ahead about 100 yards and found a nice rock outcropping facing towards Whiteface where I stopped to have a snack and take a couple pictures. 

From where I was resting I thought the trail was visible, apparently not.   Unbeknownst to me, Ben had resumed hiking and walked right past where I was resting.  Ben continued hiking and got to the summit of Blueberry.  He looked around for me and after waiting continued on towards Porter.

Ben was hiking at a good pace and hadn’t seen me, he thought I was really moving along and was way ahead of him, so he pushed himself to pick up his pace.

Meanwhile, I was finishing up my snack and resumed hiking.  I was hiking rather slowly since I figured Ben would be catching up (not realizing Ben was about 1-2 miles ahead of me cruising to the summit of Porter).  Once I got to the summit of Blueberry I waited for Ben to catch up.  I waited and waited and waited (about 30-45 minutes).  After calling for Ben and getting no luck, I decided to head back down Blueberry to where he had stopped to make his video, no Ben.

 As I tried to think of what to do, all I could do was think he fell off the cliff where he was.  I called 9-1-1 and spoke to a NYSDEC Forest Ranger.  The ranger instructed me to hike back down to the trailhead and see if Ben was in the parking lot.  I said to the ranger, “I think he would have continued hiking to the summit, since that was our goal.”  As such, I told the ranger I would hike to the summit of Porter and then call again to notify them of the situation.

I began the hike back up to the summit of Blueberry and down into the col between Blueberry and Porter being extra careful since I was hiking alone.  The trail up to Porter from the col is relatively steep in spots so I took my time.  As I got about half way up the steep section I almost fell backward climbing up and over a downed tree.  It didn’t help that the temperature was now about 90°F.  I finally made it to the top of the steep section and started traversing the shoulder of Porter.

Ben had arrived at the summit of Porter and I was nowhere to be found.  He thought to himself, “I wonder if Paul went on to summit Cascade”.  Ben waited at the summit of Porter for about 1 hour before deciding to head back down towards Blueberry.

As I was hiking toward the summit of Porter, and Ben was hiking back down towards the summit of Blueberry we met.  Oh what a relief that was to see each other.  We shared our story with each other about what happened.  We vowed to never split up again on a trail.  We summited Porter together and enjoyed a nice lunch (Ben had a snack since he already had lunch waiting for me).  We got a picture of us together at the summit and enjoyed a nice hike back down the mountain.  As we were hiking down, we passed over a small stream we had seen in the early hours of the morning and there was not enough water flowing to even get a drink from it.  We were happy to reach the trailhead where we kicked off our boots, rolled the windows down, turned the AC on and let the wind fly over us as we headed home in 100-degree air.

Ben and Paul are avid hikers in the High Peaks.  Ben is from Utica, NY and Paul is from Rome, NY.  We both have been hiking for about 6 years now and regularly do at least 1 high peak a year.

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19 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Thanks for that detailed account Paul. Glad things worked out! I feel it is a good idea to recount our worst days on the trail so that others can learn by our mistakes. Who ‘da thunk it??

  2. Hiker says:

    At what point did you call the ranger to say that you guys met and there was nothing to worry about anymore?

  3. Pete Walsemann says:

    The part that is missing is when you called the Rangers back sonthey could stand down and relax!

  4. ADKscott says:

    Did Ben have a phone too? If so, you could have called each other.

  5. Harv Sibley says:

    Our rule is generally 3+ people per hike….

  6. Todd Eastman says:

    A reliance on the cell phone sits in the background of many of these incidents…🙄

  7. John Sasso John Sasso says:

    Thank you for the account, Paul! I follow the weekly DEC Forest Ranger Search & Rescue Highlights, and a number of SARs are for split-up parties which lose each other. Sometimes one party will take a false herdpath. I had this happen to me before with someone in our party hiking in Maine who decided to book ahead quickly, although they had no map nor familiarity with the trails. Luckily, we did not lose her.

  8. Ranjeet S. Tate says:

    Another suggestion, “Wait for me at … if I don’t catch up by …”, mutually agreed on.

  9. Jeff says:

    Yet another suggestion, albeit pricey… Both people have a two-way satellite communication device, like a Garmin InReach. No worries about cell service in that case.

  10. I used to lead hikes for the Albany Chapter of the ADK. My fundamental rule on these hikes was that the group stays together— with a designated point and sweep person. I would try to put the slower hiker(s) in the front. My second rule— if you get separated from the group, sit down and wait. We will find you.

    Why the rules? On the first hike I led (Marshall from Upper works) I lost someone, twenty seconds into the hike. My sweep, a winter 46er, let a hiker stop to relieve herself in the woods. He kept going, the trail immediately forked. She took the wrong fork. I noticed she was missing 15 minutes in, and figured out what had happened. Two of us went back to get her, while the others waited at the brook. We found her, ten minutes up the other trail. Sitting waiting for us to find her.

    The third rule— always tell someone where you are going, and the latest you should be out of the woods. Then— stick with your plan. Don’t go elsewhere, unless you tell the person who know where you intended to go.

    Be safe.

  11. Tina says:

    It’s idiotic episodes like this that strain our resources and give tourists a bad name. A little planning goes a long way.

    • Boreas says:

      This isn’t a DEC account. It is an honest, personal account of what happened and why. I give the author a great deal of credit for explaining what happened. Idiotic? Not from my point of view. There was no indication either hiker was unprepared. They didn’t split up intentionally – it was a simple mistake that could have been avoided easily. Luckily no one panicked or actually became lost. They did many things right. I give the author a great deal of credit for giving us insight into the story. That takes some courage. This is how we learn. The more hours we spend on the trail, the more stories like this we can tell. Doesn’t make us idiots.

      • I just want to chime in on what Boreas said (thanks for coming to Paul’s defense.) There was nothing in Paul’s situation that struck me as idiotic, just some circumstances that could happen to anyone. Let’s please be kind to each other, and refrain from shaming people who are opening themselves up by sharing their stories.

  12. Zephyr says:

    I understand that mistakes do happen, but it does seem that this message about “not splitting up” is just not getting out there. It was a fundamental rule ever since I first started hiking, which is about since I can remember anything. Maybe its because I have been hiking since young childhood, and my father drilled into us that you never, ever split up, no matter what. This carried on through many years of leading scout groups on hikes, and again this message was one of the fundamental ones we hammered into everyone. Is this lesson still taught anywhere on signage, LNT, or other sources? It seems like a high percentage of “rescues” we read on here start with a party splitting up.

  13. Ryan says:

    See if you can point out the pretentious trail pros.

  14. Christine Hubbard says:

    I’d rather see people share their insight than 1)have state resources diverted from true emergencies, or 2)hear of someone getting injured or worse. Thanks to all those giving some sound advice.

  15. Boreas says:

    Another notable lesson that this account doesn’t particularly focus upon is the importance of being prepared. What was the result of this particular trail mishap? A few scary, confusing hours trying to get caught up with your partner, and a precautionary call to DEC dispatch. Contrast this with what could have happened without proper preparation, equipment, and experience. No one became lost or injured. It could have been much worse if foul weather or medical factors were introduced to the equation IF the hikers were not properly prepared or became panicked.

    Serious or fatal results happen when MULTIPLE things go wrong. Rarely would one single mistake or mishap have a terrible outcome, but rather, it is several mistakes and mishaps that accumulate to become lethal. The more steps each hiker and each group take to prepare and coordinate, the less the likelihood of a bad outcome if a single accident, oversight, or mistake were to occur. The ability to handle unforeseen accidents without panic is part of preparation. This is why the recommended safety items to pack on every hike are so important. MANY decades of hiking experiences in the backcountry have honed this list to contain items that hopefully will not be necessary, but can save your life if they do become necessary. Pack them, carry them, and know how to use them! Above all else, have a plan, leave it with others, have a no-show time set, and sign in properly at the trailhead!

    Here is a good article on backcountry preparedness:

    https://www.adk.org/hiking-preparedness/

  16. Chris says:

    Engaging the ranger and dialing 911 for such a minor situation was unsound.

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