SARANAC LAKE - Time moved unimaginably slow for Steve Mastaitis Monday night on Mount Marcy as he lay in a snow cave on a ledge above Panther Gorge.
"I could see the stars slowly moving across the sky for what seemed like hours," the 58-year-old Saratoga Springs attorney said Thursday from his room at Adirondack Medical Center, where he was recovering from frostbite on his hands and feet.
On Monday, he had become separated from a hiking party that included his 34-year-old son Ben, 30-year-old son Evan and their friend Matt Peluso.
Jane and Steve Mastaitis sit at the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake Thursday. Steve was admitted to the hospital Tuesday after spending Monday night on Mount Marcy. He was rescued by forest rangers.
(Enterprise photos — Mike Lynch)
As the four men headed up the final stretch to Marcy's summit, they broke into pairs. Evan and Ben stuck together, and so did Matt and Steve.
Although Steve has climbed 15 High Peaks in the Adirondacks, this was his first time climbing Marcy, the state's highest mountain.
As they left the 5,344-foot-peak around midday, Matt and Steve were behind the other pair when Matt stopped to make an adjustment to his gear. Not noticing that Matt had paused, Steve continued snowshoeing downhill.
Steve estimates that he got about 100 yards ahead of Matt when he accidently walked to the right of the main trail. He said high winds caused drifting snow to fill in the footprints on the trail.
"I probably veered off what should have been my trail by 50 yards or 100 yards and ended up in a really bad spot in terms of the depth of the snow," Steve said "My snowshoes were not working to keep me above the snow."
Steve found himself falling into spruce traps, which are air pockets around spruce trees. He fell into one about chest deep that he thought he might not get out of it. Eventually, he escaped after about 15 minutes, but one snowshoe and a boot came off. He wound up getting both back after expending a lot of energy.
He was now alone and headed in the wrong direction. He yelled, but no one responded. Matt had continued down the main trail, passing him, unknowingly.
"I felt like I couldn't go back the way I came because I had come through some heavy snow, so I thought if I continue down the hill, I might be able to go left and connect with the party and get back on the trail," Steve said.
To get down the hill, Steve slid on his backside. He thought this was the best way to avoid falling into another spruce trap. He did this for a short while until he realized he was in serious trouble.
"All the sudden I saw a drop-off," he said. "I realized there was no way to get down. It was very steep, the point where I stopped to the edge of the ledge. It was treacherous. I was afraid to take another step or that I would go off the edge."
Now Steve was not only lost, but he felt trapped. He said the ledge was about 10 feet wide, but the flat spot where he could move around was a 3-by-3-foot space.
"Behind me was this severe hill," he said. "I thought it impossible to climb back up it. It was hard enough to come down it."
Feeling like he was running out of options, Steve pulled out his cell phone. It was a desperate move, and he didn't expect it to work. First he called 911. It didn't work. Then called his sons. It didn't work. Then he tried his wife, Jane.
"I couldn't believe it rang," he said.
Soon after, she picked up the phone, a rarity when she is at work, Steve said. His cell phone battery was low, so he talked quickly.
"I said, 'Listen. I'm on a rock ledge,'" Steve said. "'I got separated from my party. I'm 500 feet below the peak. I'm on the southeast side of Marcy.' I said, 'I can't go down. I can't go up. I can't go left or right. I'm stuck here.' I said, 'Please call 911.'"
Then the cell phone reception cut out.
Soon after, he tried calling out again. This time he called 911 and got an emergency dispatcher who tried to calm him down, telling him help was on the way.
Thinking help was on the way and that it was a difficult spot to climb out of, Steve hunkered down. He hoped rescuers would be able to find him before dark. It was only about 2 p.m. at this point. Around this same time, his hiking party was alerting an assistant forest ranger that Steve was missing.
What Steve didn't realize at first was that helicopters wouldn't be able to fly overhead and spot him. The winds were too fierce for them to fly.
"There was no way anyone was going to see me down there unless they flew by," he said. "I kept yelling."
DEC forest rangers did climb the mountain and searched for him, but they didn't arrive until after dark because of the long hike.
After a few hours passed and no one showed up to rescue him, Steve realized he may have to spend the night on Marcy. He began to hand-dig a snow cave, punching through the ice with his fist.
Around this same time, he also tried to light a fire. He didn't think it would keep him warm, but he hoped someone would spot the flames.
Hoping to start a fire, he grabbed tissues, candy wrappers and whatever sticks he could find in the immediate vicinity. He found enough material to build 1-by-1-foot pile.
Then he attempted to light the debris. Once again, the wind was his enemy.
"I went through probably 100 matches," Steve said. "I kept throwing them in the pile."
Resigned to sleeping on Marcy for the night, Steve burrowed himself in the snow cave. He would remain there for about 12 hours. The temperature would hover around zero that night with a wind chill factor of negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Inside the cave, he put his hands between his legs to try to keep them warm. He kicked his feet. He slammed his back into the wall. Still, he shivered despite wearing several layers of clothing.
"I didn't stop moving," he said. "I didn't want to fall asleep. I was afraid to fall asleep. I would doze, and when I did I would startle myself back awake. I didn't know how long I would doze, so I would scream every time I woke up. I would yell help just in case someone was out there."
In fact, there was a small group of forest rangers searching the dark for him.
"I heard they were 150 yards from me at 11 o'clock at night," he said.
But they couldn't see him because of the darkness or hear him because of the wind.
Shortly after that, the rangers headed back down the hill, only to head back up to Marcy at 4 a.m.
In his snow cave, Steve thought about his family and how he didn't want to die. He imagined what it was like for other people who had survived tough wilderness situations. One person he thought about was Beck Weathers, who survived severe frostbite and hypothermia on Mount Everest in 1996, during the tragic trip that claimed eight lives and was recounted by author Jon Krakauer in his book, "Into Thin Air."
Lying there, thinking about his life, Steve looked to the sky.
"All night I could look up and I could see this perfectly clear, bright, starry sky," he said. "The stars were amazingly bright."
After sunrise, Steve crawled out from his cave. He again made attempts in vain to draw attention to himself. He yelled. He screamed.
After about an hour, he decided he wasn't going to be found on this little ledge. So he decided to climb back up the steep hill, hoping to get to an area where he could be seen.
"I just wanted not to die in this way. It seemed a silly way to die. I thought, 'This can't be. I can't die this way,'" he said. "So I fought."
To get out would be tricky. Steve, who has competed in three Lake Placid Ironman competitions, had lost all but half of a trekking pole. To make his way up the steep hill, he grabbed some nearby branches, pulling himself up.
Despite wearing snowshoes, the snow was so deep that Steve would sink waist- to chest-high as he walked. So he packed down the snow around his footsteps, then continued onward. It took him about and hour-and-a-half to go about 200 yards, he said.
Then as he got close to a rocky area where he thought he could stand on a firm base, he heard voices coming from forest rangers who were searching for him. It was about 8:30 a.m.
"I looked to my left. I could see two guys, maybe three. I yelled. I said, 'I need some help here.'
"The guy turned around. He said, 'Are you Steve? We're looking for you.'"
Steve said he was soon joined by about half a dozen forest rangers, who began taking care of him right away. They gave him new warm mittens, snow goggles and wrapped him in a sleeping bag to keep him warm. He was shivering uncontrollably at this point.
"They were so upbeat. They were so positive," he said. "They were trying to laugh with me and joke with me and talk about something else."
They also helped him get to a landing place so he could be hoisted up to a helicopter and eventually be taken to the hospital.
On Thursday, Steve said he wanted to tell his story so he could thank the forest rangers, who he said saved his life.
Steve also hoped his story would prevent others from getting into a similar situation. Asked if he had any advice for others, he said, "No. 1: Don't separate from your party. The group was smart enough that typically it would have never done that.
"It happened so quick. There was no one around me."