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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Adirondack Hikers Have Close Call

John Leahy and Kay Frey
John Leahy and his mother Kay Frey at the top of Round Mountain before being separated during their frightening night on the mountain. (photo by John Leahy)

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based on a news article in the Eastwick Press

One of the alternate routes through the Adirondacks which North Country Trail hikers might currently choose, until we have an official route, includes crossing Round Mountain. It is a smaller peak in the Daks. Both Ed Talone and Joan Young used this route. People think that the eastern mountains are just silly little peaks. Those who know the area, know better. You can read the full story of this outing by following the link.

On October 12, 2009, John Leahy and his mother Kay Frey decided to go for a little outing. They are both experienced hikers, including in the fickle Adirondacks. They decided to climb Round Mountain, a 3100-foot peak with 1280 feet of vertical ascent from Keene Valley. They allowed 6 hours for the 4.5-mile round trip. Although Kay is 86, the two hike together routinely, and expected to easily return to the car by nightfall. "After so many hikes under our belts we were pretty nonchalant," noted Leahy.

The day was mild, 50 degrees under cloudy skies. The two had fleece jackets and gloves, sweat shirts, wool hats, wool socks, boots and a light sports training jacket. They carried food for one meal. John said that he carelessly listened to the weather forecast for the overnight hours, and failed to remember clearly that it said rain with a chance of snow.

They made slow progress and reached the top of Round Mountain after most other hikers had begun to descend, but there was still plenty of time. However, on the way down, Kay began to feel week and her legs became rubbery. Even with John supporting her, they realized that they would not make it to the car before dark. "The occasional joke[s] about doing things the hard way were being replaced by unspoken anxiety about getting down the last stretch of trail and reaching the car."

With about 1.5 miles yet to reach their vehicle they held a conference and it was decided that Kay would wait on a large rock and John would try to reach the car by dark and return with a flashlight. "In afterthought, the idea of my mother hobbling out a mile and a half in that condition, even with a flashlight, was completely absurd, but the reality that we were in serious trouble hadn’t penetrated into our consciousness yet," John recalled.

It became completely dark as John descended, and he tried to stay on the path by noting that the treadway was packed harder than the forest soil. Anyone who has hiked Adirondack trails knows that this might or might not work. After he accidentally stepped off a rock into nothing, resulting in a nasty fall, he realized that he was going to have to hunker down and wait for morning. And he knew that his mother was going to have to do the same thing, alone.
The unimaginable had occurred. I could not see enough to be able to move from my dark prison space, and I had left my mother alone in a state of physical exhaustion and could do nothing now to help her. I was shocked to find myself trapped in such a vulnerable position, not being able to help either myself or my mother. I was frustrated at being so close to safety and assistance but not being able to move even a step closer through the black forest shadows.

John tried to break off branches to fashion a crude shelter, or at least cover himself, but was unable to keep them from sliding off. He had no watch, and began counting the seconds, minutes and hours, to keep the panic at bay and wait for dawn. It began to rain, and he jogged in place whenever he needed to warm up. "The air temperature that night never got below the mid-30s and with a tent and a sleeping bag it would have been a comfortable routine night of camping." As it was he was miserable. The sky began to lighten, and John thought that the dawn had begun to break. Then he realized that the brightness was due to snow which was falling. He began to think that he wouldn't survive the night, and dared not think about his mother on her rock.

Finally the night ended and John determined that he was still actually on the trail. He decided that the best option was to hurry down and seek medical assistance for his mother, who was likely suffering from hypothermia at this point. He reached the AuSable Club at 7 am and their security Chief called the NY DEC Rangers.

The Rangers made John wait at the foot of the mountain. "It was time for the professionals to take over." The Rangers found Kay awake and in good spirits, moving about in the little clearing around the rock. She was shivering, but one Ranger noted, "she's tough."

Kay explained that she realized very soon after John left that nothing was going to happen until morning, so she hunkered down and tried to make the most of it. The biggest problem was that the rain created a stream around her rock and her feet were actually in the water all night, but the wool socks still kept them warm. She, too, had moved around as much as possible and stayed awake through the entire night. Her first question for the Rangers was whether her son had also survived.

After a few hours of observation, the pair were released from medical care, and returned home, with yet another story of how one needs to respect the mountains, and always be prepared.

See Desperate Hours for Two Grafton Hikers


Tom Salwasser said...

wow, I hope I'm still hiking 1200 foot ascents at 86!

Sharkbytes said...

No kidding, Tom! I have been thinking the same thing.