Prayer and fear in mountaintop ordeal Tale of survival: Boy, father are home in Harford County after their rescue from Adirondacks where they were stranded in a snowstorm.

January 20, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In the darkest moments of their ordeal lost on a frozen mountainside, a father and son from Harford County planned, prayed and cried before their dramatic rescue.

"I'm not sure how much longer we could have gone on," Ray Mastnjak said after arriving home in Darlington with his 12-year-old son, Nathan, yesterday. "We were at the end of our physical strength. It was incredibly scary, but somehow we kept our wits and survived."

Mr. Mastnjak, 43, and Nathan were released Thursday from Adirondack Medical Center near Lake Placid in northeastern New York. Both suffered severe hypothermia and frostbite to their feet, and Mr. Mastnjak's fingers were frozen.

They were caught without their gear in a sudden blizzard atop Algonquin Mountain on Sunday. They survived 13 hours in a hand-dug snow tunnel beneath a hemlock tree and were rescued Monday morning by park rangers in a state police helicopter.

"We're both walking around on our heels, but we feel pretty good," Mr. Mastnjak said. Nathan, a seventh-grade honor student at North Harford Middle School, said his first winter climb taught him and his father a valuable lesson.

"You should never leave your gear behind like Dad and I did," he said. "We made it to the summit in 10 minutes, but the storm hit that quick, and you couldn't see 10 feet in front of you.

"I was pretty scared," he said. "I was cold, especially my feet, and very thirsty and hungry. I cried when we couldn't find a trail. The next time I climb, I think I'll wait for the warm weather."

Mr. Mastnjak, a veteran climber who has scaled two mountains in the Rockies, said he ignored one of the basic rules of climbing by leaving their snowshoes and backpacks at the mountain's tree line. He and his son scampered up a rocky trail to the bald 5,100-foot-high summit, expecting to make a quick return for the gear and head down to the base of the mountain.

"It was about 40 degrees, a beautiful day, and you could see for 50 miles," said Mr, Mastnjak, a risk management officer at Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood section.

The check he made of the weather that morning indicated stable conditions.

"The weather did an incredible about-face, the blizzard struck so suddenly," Mr, Mastnjak said. "I had a compass, flashlight and map, and Nathan and I sat behind a rock and made a plan. The wind was so strong at the top that we couldn't stand up. So we wanted to get to a lower elevation and find a trail that led to some shelters near the base."

They were dressed well in winter parkas with hoods and waterproof boots. But without snowshoes, they sank in the crusted snow -- up to Mr. Mastnjak's armpits and to Nathan's eyes. Occasionally, they would hit deep puddles of water beneath the snow, and it gushed in over their boot tops.

"It was exhausting, like walking in quicksand," Mr. Mastnjak said. "We were relatively warm because we were walking, but around 4:30 in the afternoon, it started getting dark.

"We dug a decent shelter and there we stayed for 13 hours."

Both were dehydrated and ate snow, but their body fluid levels were getting critically low. And Mr. Mastnjak started feeling guilty about leaving the snowshoes and packs behind.

"Nathan reassured me it wasn't my fault because climbers do it a lot," he said. "Incredibly, his spirit stayed high. He was amazing. We stayed warm all night with Nathan getting in a fetal position and lying against my chest. We prayed some and gained strength that we could stick it out because I felt strongly there were searchers out for us, because my wife, back at our motel, knew to alert authorities."

At first light, the two set out down a ravine but kept breaking through the deep snow.

"After an hour we were pretty much wiped out," the father said. "We would take five or six steps, then have to rest. We weren't making any progress, and I started to worry that we might not make it. Snow and ice were crusted around our boots."

About 7:30 a.m., they saw the searchers in the helicopter who had spotted their tracks. Ten minutes later, the rescuers found the hikers, hoisted them onto the hovering helicopter and flew them to the hospital, where they were gradually warmed with heating pads, warm intravenous fluids and warmed oxygen, and lukewarm foot soaks.

"I was so thirsty and hungry, but all I got was Jell-O, then some toast and then some hospital food," Nathan said.

"I was so glad when we were discharged and that we stopped at McDonald's and I got a chocolate milkshake and some Chicken McNuggets," Nathan said.

"With everything that happened to us, that was the best food I think I've ever eaten."

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