Saturday July 02, 2022  

Thanksgiving Weekend Death in the High Peaks

Adapted from "Anatomy of Death on a Mountain," by Martin Linksky Boston Globe, January 12, 1975. Reprinted in Backpacker Magazine #13. Reprinted without permission. This is a companion piece designed to be used with the Outdoor Action Safety Management Workshop.

The following is an account of a true story of two hikers who went on a backpacking trip in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks during the winter of 1974. Tragically, one of them dies of hypothermia during the trip. Listen to the story and figure out what these two did wrong.

Steven Collier-fit, lean and 23 arrived in the parking lot in the town of Newcomb at Dusk Thanksgiving Day. A hint of snow was in the air. While Patrick Eagan, 27, organized his equipment, Steven contemplated his first backpacking trip. For him, the trip would be the beginning of the end. About 29 hours and 15 minutes later, he would be dead. Steven-5-feet 9-inches tall, weighing 165 pounds-was dressed in waffle-type cotton long johns, blue jeans, a cotton flannel shirt, wool socks, and summer hiking boots. Patrick was dressed similarly except he wore cotton corduroy knickers. About 5:00 PM, they started the 1.75 miles to the lean-to, following the yellow trail markers. At 6:00 PM they arrived to find 5 others occupying the shelter. They broke out their freeze-dried casseroles and Lipton Cup-o-Soup, heating them up on Patrick's gas stove. Patrick has his thermometer along and the temperature was 19 degrees F. They snuggled down in their sleeping bags as about an inch of snow began to fall. Steven's equipment was new, a Camp Trails pack, a down sleeping bag, foam pad, and a down jacket, all good equipment.

They awoke about 8:30 AM Friday morning, had a breakfast of tea and oatmeal, and were on the trail by 9:30 AM. The pair did not carry any liquids with them except for Patrick's flask of brandy. Three hours later, at 12:30 PM, they reached Indian Pass, a distance of 2.67 miles from the lean-to during which they had gained about 800 feet of elevation. They ate a light lunch of rolls, cheese, deviled ham, and a mouthful of brandy each. The flask was leaking so there was hardly any brandy left. The pair had expected to buy candy bars to use a trail snacks, but they had forgotten to buy them. The day was bright, about 20% cloud cover and the temperature was in the low 20's. They were on their way within 30 minutes. They started through Indian Pass towards Lake Colden.

"That's where it first started. We left the trail junction about 2:15 PM. I got the time from the party we stayed with at the lean-to. They were still with us at the time; we kept passing each other. I asked the time and someone said 2:15 and that we should be at Lake Colden about 4:15 PM." At this point Patrick felt Steven was "absolutely normal." With 3.3 miles to go, they hiked up the trail to the height of land between Mt. Clinton and Mt. Iroquois as a light snow began to fall. Patrick was breaking trail and the climbing was strenuous. Steven began to slow down. Patrick remembers. "He was slowing down before we got to the top, as I was, too. I didn't want to stop until I reached the high point. When I did, I took my pack off and waited. The first person around was from the other party. He said 'Your friend is back there a ways; he's not doing to good. He's got that I-don't-care-if-I-make-it attitude, and that's not a good attitude to have up here.' All five of them just tromped on past. They were making pretty good time. So I went back down the trail-maybe a 100 yards or so-before I finally found him. He was coming kind of slow." Steven told Patrick he was tired.

"I walked him up to where I'd left my pack and gave him a piece of cheese. He ate it and I said to him let's take breather for a minute." By now Patrick was becoming concerned about the oncoming darkness and the cold. Steven wanted to wait longer but Patrick said that the longer they waited, the longer it would take to get to the caretaker's cabin at Lake Colden. They started off again. The snow was now 12 - 18 inches deep, but the going was easier because the party of five was now breaking trail ahead of them. The situation was becoming more and more difficult for Steven. "The thing that struck me," Patrick recalls, "was that he couldn't walk more than 10 paces without falling. I had assumed that maybe his pack was throwing him off balance. I told him to stop trying to run and to take it easy-heals first and just shuffle along. We weren't floundering in the dark or anything because the light on the snow was good enough to see the trail." Steven just could not keep his balance. At one point he asked, "Why am I the only one who seems to be falling?" Steven wanted to stop. "Look ," Patrick said, " that's not getting us there. The best thing for us is to get down and get warm." Patrick was aware of the tent and warm clothing in their packs. He even though of bivouacking but decided against it because he thought they weren't far from the caretaker's cabin. Eventually, Steven became unable to walk. Shortly before, he had broken through a shallow brook and fallen in the water twice because he couldn't keep his balance. Moreover, a good deal of snow was melting into his clothing from his frequent falls.

Down the trail a bit, Patrick decided he needed help. He estimated that they were 1/4 mile from the cabin when, in fact, the distance was a steep 1/2 mile. "Looking down, I could see the lake. I thought the best thing for me to do was get down there quick and get back instead of taking time to get Steven into a sleeping bag. I though it would be best to get him into the warm cabin rather than trying to set up the tent. And it was steep, not a good place for tents. Before Patrick left, he put his down jacket on Steven, who could hardly get his arms into it. Both men had lost their hats by this time. As Patrick dashed down the mountainside, Steven sat alone on the trail; with his new pack beside him-with its down jacket, sleeping bag, pad, and empty water bottle. He was to remain there alone for the next two hours.

The next part of the tragedy now began, the rescue. Patrick arrived at the cabin and the caretaker suggested he recruit an experienced hiker, Arthur, who was camping nearby. Arthur agreed to help and the two went looking for others. The first lean-to was occupied by the five who had passed them on the trail, but they weren't interested in helping, even though they had seen Steven earlier. They kept trying other lean-tos, and finally, at the fourth stop, found two others willing to get dressed and come out. They returned to the cabin and got a snow boat, a six-foot fiberglass rescue sled. They departed from the cabin about 8:30 PM. Steven had been alone for 1 1/2 hours. The temperature was 16 degrees F with a 5-10 mile an hour wind.

"We got up there and he was pretty far gone." Arthur said. "When I went up, I thought we'd be able to dump some tea down him, stand him up, and march him down. But it didn't turn out that way. He seemed to be in the last stages of hypothermia. I couldn't estimate was his core temperature was, but it was pretty darn low. He was in shock already. His pulse was shallow and he was just barely conscious. He couldn't talk and he was moaning a lot, but he seemed to moan in response to his name. He had a little muscle control and we managed to sit him up, and he could sort of cooperate a little bit. First we tried to feed him some hot tea. He swallowed just a couple of sips and then couldn't swallow any more. So we gave up on that. There were only two possibilities-one was to attempt to warm him up there, which would have been tough. And the other was to get him down to the cabin as fast as possible." They wrapped Steven in his down bag, put him in the snow boat, and started down the steep trail.

"About 15 minutes from the cabin, we noticed that he had stopped breathing. I tried for his pulse again and he didn't have one that I could discern. But it wasn't going to do any good stopping there, so we went as fast as possible for the cabin. When we got to the cabin, he had no heartbeat at all. I wasn't sure just how far up the trail his heart had stopped so we got him out of his clothes and started CPR. But he was dead."

So the question is, what did these two do wrong? In fact, it's easier to ask what they did right. As the group gives ideas, separate them on the board into environmental hazards and human factor hazards. Then introduce Dynamics of Accidents model and explain how the different factors in this case combined to create an overwhelming Accident Potential. If they had been able to selectively reduce or eliminate some of the hazards, they could have avoided the tragedy.

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