I’d been leading paddles and hikes for a couple of local outdoor clubs for years. Most of them—fortunately—had been fun and uneventful though I admit I did have a couple of rescues on the water. With a successful kayak rescue, the crisis is over in minutes, with the capsized boat righted and the paddler back safely in the cockpit—a rush of adrenaline and problem solved. But not all outdoor emergencies unfold and resolve quickly.
Compared to leading paddles, leading hikes seemed somehow less of a responsibility. My primary function as leader was that of organizer, planner, facilitator. That was until March 11, 2017, when my husband Joe and I co-led a hike across the Blackhead Range in the Catskills.
Blackhead, Black Dome and Thomas Cole are somewhat challenging in the best of circumstances with 7-plus miles of rocky terrain, approximately 2,500 feet of elevation gain and some scrambles on the steep ascents to the peaks. But that late winter weekend clearly did not offer the best of circumstances.
All week leading up to our scheduled hike, the forecasts had been bleak. Though the calendar assured us spring was coming, winter was not giving up easily and a frigid air mass was descending from Canada. We debated canceling, but Joe and I hike all winter. We have the necessary equipment, we watch the forecasts, avoiding winter storms and sub-zero temperatures and, in addition, we both have completed courses in wilderness first aid.
So I sent out a note to the folks who had signed up describing the mountain forecasts of temps below 10 degrees and winds above 10 miles an hour. I listed the gear necessary for these conditions, including both snowshoes and crampons, and suggested that if they had any reservations, they should feel comfortable backing out of the hike.
List of required gear for this hike:
Warm base layer
Six people backed out; six decided to come and met in the morning at the end of Barnum Road. From there we shuttled cars to the starting point on Big Hollow (County Route 56). The thermometer in my car read 4 degrees. As is often the case, the mountains sheltered us from the winds. Despite the cold, everyone was excited to hit the trail.
We all started in microspikes, which worked well since there was not a lot of snow at the base and the trail was packed hard. I took my spot in front, Joe took sweep, our preferred arrangement. We chose the slightly longer, but less steep Black Dome Trail to the col between Blackhead and Black Dome. Though it would mean repeating the 0.6 miles between the col and our first peak, we would avoid a scrambly section of the Escarpment Trail, particularly treacherous when icy. For the first hour, hour and a quarter, a decent pace and the uphill climb kept everyone warm.
Before the col, the trail negotiates a steep section via a couple of switchbacks. When we hit this section of trail, microspikes no longer held and the trail fell off sharply to our left. For safety reasons we decided to switch from spikes to crampons. This obviously required a stop, a stop that proved problematic. It is difficult, as anyone who has hiked in the winter can attest, to adjust gear in the cold. Extremities get cold quickly when not moving; ungloved fingers freeze. And it is a serious challenge to fasten the straps of snowshoes or crampons in extreme cold. We all worked as quickly as possible. Perhaps the knowledge of how important speed was in those conditions added stress. Mark, one of our group, was unable to get on his crampons. In preparation for our hike, he and his wife, Sheila, had bought them during the week and had tried them on in the warmth of their living room at home. They had never put them on outside, leaning against a tree in the bitter cold.
The rest of the group was waiting, shivering, apprehensive. I figured that it was important to try to keep people moving so I urged my friend, Tanya, a strong and experienced hiker, to continue slowly with the group while Joe and I stayed back with Mark and Sheila. Mark tried a few more times, would start to walk and the crampon would slip off. Joe finally lent him his spare set of Hillsound trail crampons. Mark got those on and we were on our way, trying to catch up with those who had forged ahead.
The four of us met the others a little past the col beginning the ascent to Blackhead. Here the trail wound its way up the side of mountain, and we were exposed to a raging wind. I picked up the pace to reach more quickly the protection of the balsams at the summit. At the top I suggested that we return to the more sheltered, warmer col and consider our options.
Our choices were to continue across the Blackhead Range, going over first Black Dome, then Thomas Cole, finally a sub-peak, Camel’s Hump, followed by a 2-mile slog out, or we could abandon the remaining mountains and return the way we had come, a 2-mile descent to our cars. Joe and I conferred briefly and decided to seek unanimous agreement before proceeding across the ridge.
We explained the options and asked the participants how they felt about continuing according to plan. Tanya, Mark and Sheila were eager to continue. A couple of others said they preferred to go on, but were willing to do whatever the group decided. Vicki didn’t say much, but nodded her concurrence.
Before leaving the col, we did a quick survey of the hikers’ clothing, asked how cold they felt and handed out several pairs of hand-warmers. Seo-Jun, a young Korean hiker, assured us he felt fine although his top layer seemed little more than a windbreaker. Vicki was cold. I had a very warm vest in my pack and gave it to her. Then I noticed her hands. She was wearing a thin pair of street gloves, probably acrylic. I took off my double knit, oversized wool mittens and lent them to her, put hand-warmers into a spare pair I had in my pack and donned them.
A word about Vicki. She was in her twenties, looked strong and fit. When she signed up for the hike, she’d told us about her hiking experiences in the Adirondacks. She was fast and at the start of the hike, a bundle of energy. We learned during this day that she lacked experience with serious weather.
So we began our ascent of Black Dome, resuming our customary roles, I as leader, Joe as sweep.
Black Dome is the third highest peak in the Catskills, measuring just under 4,000 feet. It is steep, and the ice underfoot required care and constant attention. About half way up, I turned around to assess how everyone was faring. Vicki was maybe 50 feet behind me. I waited for her and asked whether she had warmed up with the extra layers and the climb. She didn’t answer, just stared at me blankly.
We had learned about hypothermia in wilderness first aid classes—confusion is a classic symptom. I realized there was a problem and waited for the rest of the group to reach us. I told Joe we had a serious issue and should turn around. Vicki was hypothermic and we needed to get her off the mountain. We gave her a hot drink and a protein bar. Joe offered to take her down himself, giving those who wanted to continue the opportunity to complete the hike as planned.
Once again Tonya, Mark and Sheila unequivocally voted for going on. Seo-Jun and his friend, Ji-Ho, said they were fine and would continue. Joe approached Seo-Jun, questioned the warmth of his clothing, faced him square on and asked him if he was sure.
“I’m fine. I go on.” And he did.
Joe would tell me later that not only Seo-Jun’s clothing was troubling, but the way he had looked hiking up the ascent. He had looked unsteady, unsure.
I took my wool mittens back from Vicki, exchanging them for the spare set with warmers that I’d been using, and we said good-bye, Joe heading down with Vicki and six of us determined to complete our hike across the Blackheads.
The hike over Black Dome and Thomas Cole to the shoulder between Cole and Camel’s Hump was uneventful and our spirits were high. The views along the ridge were spectacular, but the thick balsams of the three high peaks had finally given way to small hardwoods and scruffy brush, and we were beset by frigid and whipping winds. We still had over 1,000 feet of icy descent and 2 miles to go.
We devolved into three groups of two. Tanya and I chatted and set the pace. Not far behind, Sheila and Mark still looked strong. But the two young men were lagging. We waited for them to catch up. They assured us they were fine, and then a few minutes later, we had to stop for them again.
Our waits for them were getting more frequent, and I was getting worried. Finally when they caught up, they said they had been really tired and had stopped to rest. Somehow Ji-Ho had lost his hat. Mark lent him a spare from his pack. I asked Tanya to lead and I went to the back. I tried to keep Seo-Jun and Ji-Ho engaged in conversation, tried to distract them from their feelings of exhaustion and despair. Their lack of energy and growing confusion—losing or removing items of clothing—were signs once again of hypothermia. This was serious.
I advised them to walk slowly, if necessary, but to keep walking. Each stop made them only colder and more desperate, more disconsolate. Keeping up the conversation was important and it was a challenge—after all what did we have in common, two twenty-year old Korean men and me, a seventy-year-old hike leader? So I remember discussing with them what had happened on Black Dome with Vicki. As I talked about the glove situation, explaining the difference in warmth between gloves and mittens, synthetics and wool, I must have taken off one of my mittens to show how I used thin Manzella gloves as liners.
It was working. They talked and walked. Though the others were ahead, we were making progress. We must have had about a half-mile to go when I noticed my hand was starting to chill. I looked down, and on my right hand, I had only the liner. I had dropped my wool mitten, a thrummed mitten I had painstakingly knit purposefully for hiking. I knew where I must have dropped it, not very far back, a tenth of a mile, at most two-tenths. I wanted that mitten—because of the hard work and for sentimental reasons—and I needed it—my hand was getting cold. So I told them to continue. I would catch up.
I started back, but instantly had second thoughts. They had been so close to giving up. I was not sure how they would manage the next 10 or 15 minutes on their own. I turned around and watched them plodding on, slowing down again, and I decided to tuck my right hand into my pocket, quickly catch up to them and get them out.
Another 15 minutes or so and in the distance I spotted the shine of metal that meant cars. I pointed them out as well as the muffled voices of Tanya, Sheila and Mark talking in the parking area, and Seo-Jun smiled a great, big smile, jumped up and down, hugged and thanked me, saying he didn’t think we were ever getting back.
Joe was waiting there in the parking lot with the rest of our group. He and Vicki had slowly made it back to Big Hollow. He said that she had become more responsive throughout the descent. She dropped me a note a few days later saying that after her hour-and-a-half drive home with the heat blasting, she took her temperature. The thermometer read only 95.8 degrees.
All of us who hiked that day learned, Joe and I probably the most. On future winter hikes, we will vet participants more closely, follow up more aggressively on our hunches about a hiker’s fitness for a particular hike and, before we leave the trailhead, check everyone’s equipment and clothing. Finally our group will stay together. If one person needs to go back, we all go back. From now on, life-threatening, frigid conditions cancel a hike.
All’s well that ends well. I left a note about my lost mitten at the sign-in register at Big Hollow, almost 7 miles from where I’d dropped it. Two days later the local ranger called, said she’d found it and would drop it in the mail.