- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

NORTH ELBA, N.Y. — When rangers hiked up New York’s highest mountain on a recent rescue, they were answering a cellular phone call from the peak.

A Virginia man and his 12-year-old son were crossing Mount Marcy on a camping trip in late March. Though the trail over the mountaintop is marked by small piles of stones known as cairns, they got lost in the blanketing mist and sleet and then followed a bad compass reading. The man phoned 911 at midnight.

He was told about when to expect two rangers, who went up the next morning. They heard him blowing a whistle, and they helped the lost pair get back to the trail and down.

“In general, while hiking in the Adirondacks, a cell phone should not be depended on in the event of an emergency,” says Maureen Wren, spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “The department advises hikers to come well-prepared, not only for their hike, but also for what’s called self-rescue.”

Of course, that advice applies to hiking everywhere. Hikers using cellular phones to call for help “is definitely an increasing problem,” says Mary Margaret Sloan, president of the American Hiking Society. “People assume if they take their cell phone, then that is their safety measure. But there are other things they need to have.

“A cell phone should be a last resort, and, depending on whether you can even get cell-phone service on a trail, it might not be any kind of resort at all.”

Preparing to save yourself in the wilderness, according to the conservation department, includes packing first-aid supplies, extra clothing, food and water. You should bring a map and a compass, and you should know how to use them. Find out the forecast before you go, and tell someone at home where you’re going and when you’ll return.

Miss Sloan cautions that because of shrinking budgets for public-land managers across the country, trail markers are not always well-maintained and maps are not always available at trail heads. Before you go, check local sporting-goods stores for maps of the area where you’re heading, or search the Web.

Retired ranger Pete Fish says a flashlight is handy, too. He recalls collecting a string of lightless hikers one evening along a trail where they had been stopped by darkness.

Although you can telephone from some mountaintops, rangers say there are many backcountry blackout areas, including valleys and mountainsides blocked from the relatively few cellular towers in the Adirondacks region.

Rangers have rescued 59 people in the past two years from the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, out of about 204,000 hikers who registered at trail heads. Last year included what rangers believe was a technological first in the lower 48 states: the rescue of a man who activated his personal locator beacon on Nov. 14, sending a satellite distress signal.

After a search, Carl Skalak, 55, of Cleveland, was found at his campsite along the middle branch of the Oswegatchie River in the town of Webb, according to the conservation department. He was taken out by helicopter.

About three weeks later, on Dec. 2, Mr. Skalak set off his locator beacon again while hiking, and for the second time, searchers found him in good health.

Adirondacks Regional Tourism Council: Visit www.adk.com or call 800/487-6867.

American Hiking Society: Visit www.americanhiking.org or call 301/565-6704. Trail Finder feature offers access to information on 30,000 trails and unlimited topographical maps for $39.95 a year.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: Visit www.dec.state.ny.us.

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