Editor’s Letter: Play It Safe

Vermont’s landscape is intimate. It is not a place of vast forests and formidable mountains. Even in our most remote wilderness areas, it’s hard to get lost.

As Stowe Mountain Rescue’s Chief of Rescue, Doug Veliko says, “If you walk 5 or 10 miles anywhere in a straight line, you’re bound to come to a road in this state.” Vermont can lull you into a sense of false security.

In the Adirondacks, that’s not the case.

In the last few weeks, there have been two tragic, fatal accidents in our region. On Saturday, Sept. 17, University of Vermont junior Rebecca Ryan plummeted to her death on a 90-foot cliff at Bolton. Ryan, an experienced rock climber, ski racer and a graduate of the Green Mountain Valley School, had been climbing in the area all day with friends.

It was the end of the day when she  finished a last climb, top-roping. Due to a miscommunication, she was off belay as she prepared to rappel and fell to her death.

The other is the case of Alex Stevens, a 28-year-old hiker from New Jersey. The story of how he lost his way in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, just across Lake Champlain, is on page 8. Stevens survived for nearly two weeks in the wild with little food, few warm clothes and no water before he died of pneumonia.

It’s not easily or lightly that we write about accidents like these. They are heartbreaking reminders of our human shortcomings. While it’s easy to pinpoint mistakes that were made or point fingers, how many of us have made similar—though perhaps less costly—errors? As Veliko says: “It’s usually not just one mistake that brings you down but a series of them.”

How many of us actually regularly carry the things Veliko recommends in a day pack: fire starters, a space blanket, a compass, 6 energy bars, a water filter? How many of us have snuck into the woods by ourselves to find an untracked stache of powder? How many consider  the worst-case scenarios before we set out beyond the implied safety of cell-phone range? How many discuss safety plans in an adventure?

Vermont has an inordinate number of top outdoorsmen and women and athletes. We have outdoors schools and guides such as Petra-Cliffs, which make teaching backcountry safety and techniques a priority. Vermont is the birthplace of the National Ski Patrol and we have excellent patrollers at every ski resort. We have one of the best rescue teams in the nation in Stowe Mountain Rescue. And we have the former head of Stowe Mountain Rescue, Neil Van Dyke, holding a unique state-funded position, Search and Rescue Coordinator.

That position was created in 2013, nearly two years after state police failed to conduct an overnight search for Levi Duclos, 19, opting to wait until morning. Duclos had headed out for a trail run in Ripton late in the day on Jan 9, 2012.  He died of hypothermia.

In September, Van Dyke received a Commissioner’s Award from the Department of Public Safety for his efforts to continuously improve search and rescue efforts across the state by conducting regular trainings and coordinating response processes from public safety groups, be they search and rescue or state police.

For a small state, we have remarkable systems of safety nets. But none of us should rely on these when we head out in the wild, whether for an afternoon or a weekend. “You should always think ahead to  ‘what if…’” says Veliko. And be prepared for that ‘what if’ to happen.

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Rebecca Ryan and Alex Stevens, two people who loved the outdoors. —Lisa Lynn, Editor