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Lonely, excrutiating death breaks our hearts
September 22, 2017

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People up here in the Adirondacks never got the chance to know Alex Stevens, and that's part of the reason we are saddened by his recent death in the High Peaks Wilderness.

In a way, the way we feel about this 28-year-old from Hopewell, New Jersey, is similar to how we felt about Australian Army Capt. Paul McKay, who came to Saranac Lake without telling anyone and froze to death - intentionally, according to authorities - atop Scarface Mountain on New Year's Eve as 2013 turned into 2014. McKay was an Afghanistan war veteran who experienced some terrible things and apparently suffered from post-traumatic stress. By the time he got here he was apparently suicidal, but we believe that if he had really talked to someone in Saranac Lake, he would have been talked out of it. There are veterans' services here that aid soldiers like McKay.

Likewise with Stevens - we are confident that if he had talked with just about anyone in Newcomb or whatever Adirondack town he stopped in before setting out, that person would have cautioned him about his plan for a three-day solo camping trip at Wallface and urged him to bring more and better equipment. He would have gotten help if he had asked for it.

But these men, unfortunately, were not inclined to ask for help. McKay, based on extensive research by journalist Kathryn Joyce, had internalized a huge amount of guilt and become withdrawn. Stevens we know less about, but his puzzling, sometimes disturbing Facebook posts, which none of his 500-plus Facebook friends liked or commented on, reflect someone who has receded so deeply into his own mind that it's impossible to understand what he means.

It wasn't very long ago that if one wanted to come to the Adirondacks to hike or paddle in an Adirondack place one had never been, one had to either read about it in a guidebook - the like of which was hard to find far outside the Adirondack Blue Line - to go with someone who knew where they were going, or to come up here and ask people where to go.

The guidebooks, mostly published by the Adirondack Mountain Club, were written by serious experts who knew how to warn novices against doing anything too foolish. Sure, the would-be adventurer might skip or ignore the warnings, but at least they had been warned.

And the other two options ensured some level of human contact. Sure, the so-called "experienced" trip leader may not be ready for prime time, nor may the locals who point the eager visitor this way or that. The "good old days" weren't great, but at least they weren't so lonely.

Now many novices do all their pre-trip research on their computers or phones, and never feel the need to speak to another living soul. One of the greatest dangers, as we see it, is to assume that everything a hiker needs to know is available somewhere online. Much valuable human knowledge remains offline, yet it's widely available if you ask around.

Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw said Stevens possessed no means of making a fire and had run out of food. His clothes got soaked, and he had no way to dry them. And he brought the wrong clothes to begin with. When he was last seen near Wallface Saturday, Sept. 2, witnesses said he was wearing sandals, shorts and a T-shirt.

He ended up living two weeks in the woods, starving, freezing and likely delirious, before he succumbed to pneumonia. It must have been excruciating, physically and mentally, as well as lonely. Our hearts break for him.

There's much that's wonderful about the digital information that's now available on the Adirondacks, but it has by now been proven that people's reliance on unreliable and/or inadequate internet research - and, worse, social media - has led to a surge in under-prepared hikers in the Adirondacks, especially on the Labor Day and Columbus Day long weekends. Forest rangers last year averaged one search-and-rescue per day statewide, which takes them away from the important backcountry patrolling they used to conduct.

As we've said before, the state needs to hire more rangers, but that's not all. It also needs to do much better at putting out public safety information instead of just tourist promos. Visiting hikers should be urged to prepare properly, question their internet-based assumptions and ask local people before they take on risky adventures. People here want to help.

Maybe Stevens wouldn't have taken the advice of rangers or local people, but we can't help but think that almost any local person would have loved to have the chance to help him avoid a fatal mistake.

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