Rescuers pluck Harford man, son, 12, off N.Y. mountain Close call: Frostbitten hikers in guarded condition after becoming disoriented and spending night in snow cave.

January 16, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Joan Jacobson contributed to this article.

From his perch in a helicopter, New York state forest ranger Fred LaRow scanned the side of Algonquin Mountain with a sense of urgency -- below, lost in the wilderness, were a father and son from Maryland with little time to live in the subzero temperatures.

"Suddenly, the helicopter pilot and I saw what resembled snowshoe tracks leading from the summit," said the 19-year ranger.

"But they weren't snowshoes -- they were blocks of ice frozen around their boots. The father was waving at us. The boy was next to him on the ground."

Ray Mastnjak, 44, of Darlington in Harford County and his son Nathan, 12, were in guarded condition yesterday at Adirondack Medical Center near Lake Placid in northeastern New York.

They had weathered the night huddled together in a hand-dug snow cave under a hemlock tree. Both suffered hypothermia and severe frostbite of the feet, and the father also had several frostbitten fingers.

Ranger LaRow said it could be several weeks before doctors determine if tissue heals properly and normal circulation returns to the affected areas. If gangrene sets in, amputation may be necessary, he said.

The pair had started a day hike at 5 a.m. Sunday and failed to return to their Lake Placid motel. Debi Mastnjak notified authorities that her husband and son were missing, and a ground search was started at 10 p.m. The helicopter joined the operation at daybreak, and by 9 a.m., they were found.

A few more hours of exposure, officials said, and the rescue would not have been successful.

Survival expert LaRow, another ranger and a state police pilot were credited with saving the Mastnjaks, who became lost in a snowstorm after shedding essential items such as snowshoes and water on New York State's second-highest peak.

Ranger LaRow said the pair had hiked above the Algonquin tree line to the summit at 5,100 feet, possibly to take pictures -- leaving their gear behind.

"As it turned out, the blocks of ice around their feet could have contributed to their survival," Ranger LaRow said. "Since they didn't have snow-shoes on, the blocks acted as flotation on the snow and ice that was, at one point, up to my armpits. They allowed them to keep moving above the ice and snow surface and stay warm."

At the medical center, doctors and nurses familiar with treating victims from the nearby mountains had to "chip the footwear off the two," the ranger said. "When I pulled them aboard the helicopter from the hoist neither was shivering, a very bad sign. At the hospital, when they cut their clothes away the father and son started to shiver, it was a very good sign."

Mr. Mastnjak is no stranger to the mountain.

"We have done the trail before as a family," his wife said. "My husband told me he and Nathan reached the summit on a beautiful day that turned ugly. A cloud came in with snow, sleet and freezing rain. They got disoriented."

She said that about 4:30 p.m., her husband -- a safety officer at Aberdeen Proving Ground -- and son dug out the snow cave. "They held onto each other all night, kept warm that way, and started walking again in the morning."

Sgt. Denis Millea, the state police helicopter pilot, said he spotted the Mastnjaks in a frozen stream bed in a clump of spruce and fir.

"We brought the boy up first and he looked in big trouble," Sergeant Millea said. "There was no movement from him; he was just hanging from the hoist like a limp sack."

At the hospital three hours later, "The kid was excited about his helicopter ride. He had improved immensely."

The survival was not only a tribute to the search and rescue skills of the rangers from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and police -- who average 150 such operations annually -- but to the quick action of the medical personnel who treated them at the hospital, a five-minute flight from the rescue scene.

The Mastnjaks' body temperatures had dropped to 90 degrees, and their blood flow was concentrated in keeping the brain, heart and lungs functioning -- an advanced stage of hypothermia with less blood in the extremities that leads to frostbite.

In both of their cases, warm intravenous fluids of saline and glucose were started. Their clothing was cut away and warmed, soft blankets were placed next to their skin. A respiration therapist was brought in to provide warm, humidified air to warm the victims' lungs gradually. Later, heat lamps helped with the gradual process of restoring normal body temperatures in both victims.

Ranger LaRow said the father and son made a mistake in judgment, and lacked understanding about what could go wrong. "They had a false sense of security and they probably didn't know you lose body heat and fluids terribly quickly in a winter survival situation."

Saturday night, rangers rescued two Prince George's County men from a cliff on Poke-o-Moonshine Mountain, north of Albany.

Rangers said Todd Post, 34, of Takoma Park and David Chiu, 30, of College Park became stranded in the dark as they were ice-climbing on a sheer 800-foot slab of rock overlooking Route 87.

They were found suspended 300 feet above the ground, unable to descend in the dark, after a passer-by reported seeing a light on the mountainside shortly before 7 p.m., said the district ranger, Lt. Louis Curth.

With the help of rangers, a volunteer climber rappelled down the cliff and was able to bring the Maryland men to safety four hours later. They had been on the cliff about 12 hours and were unharmed, Lieutenant Curth said.

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