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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Mountaintop Miracle

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SARANAC LAKE – From the side of Mount Marcy, where he spent nearly 20 hours enduring frostbite, hypothermia and dangerously cold weather, Steve Mastaitis survived what many would consider their worst nightmare.

The 58-year-old Saratoga Springs lawyer was airlifted Tuesday morning, February 21, from the southeast side of New York’s tallest mountain and airlifted to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, where he is recovering from frostbite and hypothermia, and is receiving treatment for the fluid in his lungs and an elevated enzyme level that could threaten the integrity of his heart.


“It was the worst experience of my life,” Steve said.


What resulted in such a life-threatening, life-changing experience, began so innocently on Monday morning, February 20, when Steve, his two sons Benjamin, 34, Evan, 30, and Ben’s friend, Matt, began their assent to the summit of Mount Marcy.


The forecast was crystal clear, and they were pumped.


“We had an uneventful, successful climb, until things turned sour at the top,” Steve said.
When the group emerged from the tree line, about 500 yards below the summit, they encountered strong winds and heavy snow drifts. Without premonition of the danger ahead, the group split apart. Steve stayed behind with Matt as he switched from crampons to snowshoes before tackling the final stretch. Benjamin and Evan continued the climb.
By the time the former pair reached the summit, Steve’s sons were about to make their way back down. Rather than re-group, Steve and Matt stopped to snap a few pictures before heading down the trail.


All of a sudden, Steve found himself disoriented, his visibility challenged by heavy winds and drifting snow.


“I couldn’t see the trail,” Steve said. “It quickly turned very treacherous.”


As Steve explained, Matt had stopped, perhaps to add an extra layer and he had unknowingly moved forward without him, veering from the trail.
It didn’t take long for the hiker to realize that he was lost.


His group reported him missing at approximately 2 p.m.


Steve fell into a spruce trap (a deep snow-filled crevasse) and called for help through fierce winds righting himself just before tumbling toward the edge of a cliff at the base of Panther Gorge. Realizing the severity of his situation, the hiker pulled out his cell phone to call his wife, Jane.


As the corporate financial officer for Saratoga Bridges, Jane’s schedule rarely keeps her in the office long enough to pick up her phone. By coincidence, even miracle, she answered the call.
“I immediately felt severe panic, but, somehow, it must have been the adrenaline, I went into a very focused and controlled mode and called 911,” Jane said.


While she initiated the chain of communication that became both hers and his lifeline as the search ensued, her husband was bracing himself for a painfully cold night alone in the gorge.
The hiker dug a hole in the snow, burrowing for cover from the wind and insidious cold. He fought to stay awake because he feared sleep would kill him.

“The night went by very, very slowly,” he said, describing the feeling of cold settling into his bones. “I have never felt pain like that before.”


Search efforts were called off at midnight due to severe weather conditions. Temperatures were in the single digits and wind gusts exceeding 30 mph brought chills of 20 below.
Jane feared the worst.


Steve kept himself awake, keeping body in motion to stay warm.


At 4 a.m., when weather conditions improved, a group of forest rangers began the hike to the summit. At day break, two helicopters with forest rangers onboard brought the search effort to a team of 20.


“I knew they were looking for me, but where I was located there was very little chance they could find me,” Steve said, explaining how at 7 a.m. he forced his body out of the snow hole to climb out of the gorge.


“I managed to climb probably 200-300 feet above where I spent the night, when I head voices and looked up above. I could see people climbing. I yelled to them and said I needed help,” Steve explained. “And lo and behold they said ‘are you Steve? We are looking for you.”


Within minutes of the search team reaching her husband, Jane received the call she was praying for.


As of press time, the Saratoga Springs lawyer was still in his room at the Adirondack Medical Center with his wife by his side. Doctors expect for him to recover within a month.


The couple wants to thank Scott Van Laer, Forest Ranger Lieutenant for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and Brian Dubay, incident commander.

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