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From the June 2014 Conservationist

View of Mount Colden from Marcy Dam

Photo: John Bulmer

Help-I'm lost!

The importance of signing trail registers

By Scott VanLaer

It's been more than a decade since I noticed Howard Hughes's name signed in at one of our trailheads. In the late '90s, he regularly registered for hikes in the High Peaks region. His destination? Well, that section of the DEC register sheet was always left blank. Where would I begin my search response if Howard's wife called in to say he was overdue? Was he cruising the upper slopes for timber to build another Spruce Goose? Probably not, as the real Hughes died in 1976.

Signing a trail register
Signing in at trail registers is important
for safety. (Photo: Carl Heilman II)

While seeing Howard Hughes's name probably elicits a chuckle from many who sign in after him, it sets a bad example and is not amusing to forest rangers like me. Properly signing in at a trailhead helps searchers find you, or others, if lost or injured. And this is true even if your trip went smoothly. By properly signing in, you could assist in locating another person if a forest ranger needed to call and ask if you saw someone. The register sheets are a great investigative tool for creating a timeline. While most searches are resolved quickly, some go on for weeks and, sadly, some go on indefinitely.

In the Adirondack High Peaks wilderness, backcountry users are required by law to sign in whenever they pass by a register. The register sheets ask for only basic information: name of group leader, number of people in the group, address, phone number, planned length of stay, and destination. It takes just a few minutes to fill this out, and it can make the difference between life and death. In addition, signing in at trail registers also gives the property manager important information about how many people use a particular trail or area, and when they use it.

Map of High Peaks Wilderness
Map of Adirondack High Peaks by
DEC Division of Lands and Forests

In one case, failing to sign in at trailhead registers caused serious problems for two young men, as well as for the rescuers who searched for them (myself included). It was fall, and the two men had begun an overnight trip to Avalanche Lake. Ten hours later, they made a frantic call to 911from their cell phone. The caller indicated that (while navigating with the GPS app on their iPhone) the two had attempted to go to the lake, but ended up off the trail in an area with "thousands of downed trees," and became stuck on a "ledge," unable to go up or down. Then the call went dead.

Attempts to call the men back were unsuccessful, so we tried to pinpoint their location from the call's coordinates. These placed them on Avalanche Lake. However, in the Adirondacks, getting an accurate location from a cell phone call has extreme limitations. The phone needs to be in contact with multiple towers, and towers are few and far between in this rugged wilderness. As a result, the coordinates we get from this technology are sometimes spot-on, but at other times they have been off by miles. Unfortunately, the coordinates provided to us that night proved to be wrong.

We began our efforts with only the callers' names and the few bits of information they provided in the call. When we checked the register at the Loj, we couldn't find their names. So we looked for their car, and eventually found it, which gave us the location of their starting point.

"Thousands of downed trees" could have been Avalanche Pass, itself; "ledges" could have been any number of slides along Mount Colden or Avalanche Mountain. Consequently, knowing where to look was difficult. Did they take a wrong turn at Avalanche Camps? Did they take the ski trail, or mistakenly turn towards Lake Arnold?

The initial search team consisted of Forest Rangers Chris Kostoss, Sarah Bode, and me. We quickly made our way to Avalanche Camp, checking the trail to Lake Arnold for tracks. We then covered the ski trail and the hiking trail to the top of the pass, and looked for tracks around Avalanche Pass, but found nothing. Every few minutes we yelled out the subjects' names; we never got a response.

Hiking a slide
Hiking a slide (rock, devoid of vegetation)
is difficult in good conditions, let alone
at night in snow. (Photo: Kevin MacKenzie).

We decided to check out a new slide on Mt. Colden that was created when Hurricane Irene came through. It was hard to imagine someone could mistake it for a hiking trail, but in the mud, right at the base, was a fresh set of footprints. There weren't many people hiking through there that day, so we felt confident these were the missing hikers' prints.

Chris and I continued up the slide, while Sarah followed the trail. She planned to hike the entire length of Avalanche Lake, looking for lights on the various slides and ledges. Neither Chris nor I had been on the new slide before, so we didn't relish doing it for the first time in the dark, but the tracks kept going. It was windy and snowing, so our sense of urgency was high. We believed the subjects were planning on camping, and hoped they had a tent and sleeping bags with them.

After donning safety equipment, we headed up the slide, taking care to avoid a narrow drainage gully along the side. After a few minutes we lost the tracks, but it was dark, so we kept going from one pitch to the next, trying to get a view farther up the slide. We really expected to see the twinkle of LED lights, but it was not to be.

When our elevation indicated we were more than halfway up the slide, we determined the men were not in that location. Rather than continue to the top and fight the spruce-fir trees we knew to be between us and the false summit of Colden, we decided to rappel down, and then meet up with Sarah. At one point our rope got stuck, and Chris had to climb back up to change the set-up so we could recover the rope by pulling it down when we reached the bottom.

It was 10:30 p.m. when we hiked to the Marcy Dam outpost to get some rest. On our way, we checked the camping areas around Marcy Dam, looking for empty sleeping bags in a lean-to or an unoccupied tent. We didn't find any, which was good news and meant our lost hikers probably still had their gear.

Hiking Cruciflyer slide
The author, after reaching the top of
Cruciflyer slide on Mt. Colden.
(Photo: KatieTyler)

As we opened the outpost, we realized that it had just been winterized. This meant no running water for us. Instead, we had to filter water from the brook, which was more effort than we wanted to muster at that point. However, the woodstove was ready for lighting, and the fire quickly warmed the outpost. As we ate some emergency rations stored there, we made plans for the next phase of the search. Day Two would bring considerably more resources, including a helicopter.

We took a quick, three-hour nap to refresh, and woke at 4 a.m., ready to resume the search. We attempted a hasty version of coffee. What it lacked for in taste-namely any flavor-it made up for in caffeine and particulate matter! Our gear was dry and slightly toasted from the woodstove, and it actually felt good to put it on.

Chris and I took the hiking trail up Mt. Colden; we planned to explore another slide off the trail. Sarah took the outpost's UTV (a small all-terrain vehicle) to South Meadows Road and began shuttling in more rangers for their assignments. There was fresh snow, which steadily increased in depth with our ascent.

It was a very different climate at the false summit. The 20 mph winds battered us, and five inches of snow blanketed the ground. While it was still autumn below, up there it was winter. When there was a break in the clouds, we could see into, and down, the full length of the various gullies and slides. We yelled when the wind eased; still no response. We then bushwhacked down toward the top of the same slide as the previous night, and moved on to the "rabbit hole," a local name for the entrance to another slide we wanted to check. Then we got the call: the subjects were at the Loj. They were at the Loj? Didn't they know a dozen or so rangers, plus a helicopter, were looking for them?

Happy to call it a day and not head into another slide, Chris and I speculated the whole way out about what had happened, and where the hikers had been. When we reached Marcy Dam, we warmed up and learned the details from the other rangers. The hikers had never crossed the new bridge at Marcy Dam. Instead, they stayed on the west side, walking past the lean-to, following old trails and deer paths that clutter the banks of Marcy Brook. Exactly where they camped was unknown, but it was someplace along that drainage towards Caribou Pass. The subjects had a terrifying night. They both thought they were going to die. The next morning, they headed out early, eventually finding the Whales Tail ski trail and then the hiking trail.

These hikers were lucky. It could just have easily turned out differently. If they had signed in at the Loj when they began their trip, but not signed in at the register on the east side of the bridge at Marcy Dam (indicating they did not go this way), we would have known where to concentrate our search efforts. I have no doubt we would have found them, and gotten them out in time to get a first-rate room in Lake Placid.

Bottom line: Always sign in and out when you pass a DEC trail register. It could save your life. Or that of another hiker.

Forest Ranger Scott VanLaer works out of DEC's Ray Brook office in the Adirondacks.

See more information on hiking and hiking safety.