Recalling fruitless search on cold mountain

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ALBANY, N.Y -- Years later, after the trails had led nowhere, a poster kept vigil. It was stuck to the Mount Marcy Dam registration station by dozen of staples, so that anyone thinking to remove it would have had to tear the paper to shreds.

Steven Paul Thomas. Lost on Mount Marcy, April 12, 1976.

Thomas was last seen by the five members of his climbing party. He left alone. The snow was hard packed and offered ideal walking conditions. It was cold, about 10 degrees, and windy. A snapshot showed Thomas hiking in the Cascade Mountains at 19, with long hair, smiling, arms at his side. "Isn't life sweet?" he seemed to say.

Ranger Gary Hodgson wasn't surprised when three worn-out college students showed up at the police station at 8:45 p.m. April 13, 1976, to report a member of their party missing.

April is the cruelest month for hikers on Mount Marcy, the highest point in New York state, with extreme weather changes that can crush any sign of spring with an icy arctic blast. A 5,344-foot dome with a poorly defined northeast ridge, Marcy's upper trail wanders on and off the crest. In April, the cairns and yellow-paint blazes that mark the trail are buried under a hard snow crust. Hikers who reach the summit can take a wrong turn coming down. In a storm, some duck southeast to dodge the wind and wander into a deadly 50-foot snow dump known as Panther Gorge.

Delay causes worry

But what worried Hodgson was the delay. Thomas had walked away at 3:30 p.m. April 12. Searchers wouldn't reach the mountain until the morning of April 14 -- leaving him alone for two nights with no gear and no food, in wind gusts of up to 60 mph. In the meantime, his five companions had tramped the mountain, obscuring his trail.

When they left the Adirondack Loj, a lodge near Lake Placid, the hikers wore down parkas. But 100 yards up, it was so warm that they shed their jackets. They were college pals, starting a mountain trek over Easter break -- T. Mark Seymour, James Thackaberry, Ken Sherwood, Robert Bromley and Bruce Weaver. At the last minute, Weaver had invited a childhood friend, Steven Thomas, making a group of six. First stop: Mount Marcy.

Thomas had some Colombian marijuana buds and they smoked them on the way up. By 3:30 p.m. they'd climbed to a lean-to. They could see the summit, about a mile away. But by now, they were chilled and wet and the summit would be there tomorrow. They built fires.

Thomas dropped his pack in the lean-to. He hadn't eaten since lunch. He drank a cup of tea. He looked up at the pinnacle of the Adirondacks. He glanced at a map.

"I'm just going to walk up the trail," he told Weaver. Ken Sherwood watched Thomas walk away, a yellow rain slicker over his blue down jacket.

When Thomas walked away from the lean-to, nobody gave it a thought. "As far as I know, he was just checking to see how far he had to go to the summit," Sherwood said. "We just started putting up tents and talking and having a good time. Then it started getting late, and it was like: 'Where is he?'"

Going up Marcy is the easy part. "You just keep going until there's no more up," said Hodgson, a retired Department of Environmental Conservation ranger who took part in 714 search-and-rescue missions during his 39-year career. Coming down is when the trouble starts. Sudden white-outs, winds or fog on Marcy's summit can obscure the way.

"You've got 360 degrees to choose from," said Pete Fish, also a retired DEC ranger. "About 2 degrees are right. If it's snowing, you haven't a clue where to go."

At 6 p.m., Weaver told the group not to worry. Thomas knew what he was doing.

By dark, wind howled

By dark, the wind howled across Marcy peak at 60 mph. The temperature had dropped to 10. At 10 p.m., under a full moon, some of the group set out with a flashlight. "Steve!" they called. Near the summit, the wind drove them back. Ice crystals raked their faces.

Coming down, they took a wrong turn. They realized their mistake, found their original trail and made it back to the lean-to.

One of the hikers had brought a dog. "I remember the dog freaked out that night," Sherwood said. "He just kept whining. He wouldn't leave the tent." They hunkered down and hoped that Steve had found shelter. Nobody slept that well.

At daybreak, the group made a decision that has bothered the Thomas family ever since.

Rather than go for help, they decided to search themselves. It made sense at the time, Weaver said. "The thought was, rather than burn up four or five hours" hiking for a ranger, "with someone who's hypothermic, it would be better to find them right then."

For several hours, the five men split up and hiked around the summit and up and down the nearby trails, looking for Thomas.

As the day wore on, disbelief set in like a low front. On snow packed like concrete, they could find no footprints. At 3 p.m., Thackaberry, Bromley and Seymour decided to hike out for help.

The most extensive search ever conducted on Mount Marcy, in some of the most rugged territory in the Northeast, was about to begin. From the start, it was marked by acrimony.

For two weeks, DEC, State Police and military helicopters circled the mountain, making 32 search trips and dropping rangers, family, friends and National Guard reservists at the summit to scour the trails.

By Wednesday, April 14, the arctic wind had given way to a heat wave that boosted temperatures in Lake Placid to 63 and broke a record on Easter Sunday, April 18, at 83.

It didn't help.

"We searched that whole mountain down three sides and we never found a trace of anything," said retired DEC pilot Ace Howland. "And that's unusual." Thomas had made several classic mistakes. He'd hiked alone late in the afternoon above tree line. He'd left his gear behind and worn uninsulated boots and cotton clothing, which, once wet, is useless. His companions' delay in seeking help turned bad to worse.

Rangers had theories. Thomas could have fallen into a gorge, possibly breaking a leg. He might have stepped off the trail into a spruce trap. At that elevation, where snow is deep enough to cover the tree tops, hikers can step unknowingly onto the top of a spruce and drop six to 15 feet, tangled in the branches. If they don't climb out before more snow falls in, searchers can't find them. After two weeks of searching with no trace, some folks wondered if Thomas had simply walked down the Hopkins trail, bypassing his fellow campers, and gone out to Route 73 to hitchhike his way to a new town and a new identity.

"That would have been tough to do, in that weather and him not ever having been up there before," said Weaver, who later moved to the West Coast and now lives in California. Thomas' sister also doubts her brother took off. He was too close to his family and grandparents, she said, to hurt them. If he wanted to move away, he would have done it openly.

Giving up hope

By May 1, DEC had given up hope of finding Thomas alive.

But his family kept searching.In July, amid dense vegetation and downed trees, they came upon a sleeping bag, boots and a shotgun, and, later, a moss-encrusted skeleton. Dental records revealed the remains were those of George Atkinson, 20, of Chicopee, Mass., lost while camping on Marcy in March 1973.

His discovery struck searchers like a bolt. While looking for Thomas earlier, in the snow, they'd walked right over Atkinson's body.

"Let's face it," said Hodgson, "you could walk within 10 feet of someone and not see them."

Over the years, Marilyn Thomas Ireland and Bob Thomas, Steven's sister and brother, assisted in a number of searches, helping other families. Many mountain lean-tos were dismantled. Camping was eventually banned above 4,000 feet.

Bob Thomas moved to Lake Placid, where he still lives today. After skiing or hiking Marcy more than 1,000 times, he walks in a slight hunch, his elbows cocked as though holding poles.

In February 2000, Bob Thomas' shepherd-husky mix, Winter, located the body of avalanche victim Toma Vracarich, 27, under 4 feet of snow. Thomas, now 51, believes his dog will find his brother's remains.

A quarter of a century later, Marilyn, now 48, can see why her brother wanted to reach the summit that day. "That was Steve: Let's keep going. Let's get there. We're so close, don't stop now."

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