A Mountaintop Rescue Came Together with God's Help

She'd reached her goal of 46 Adirondack peaks in four months, but her husband broke his leg in the descent. How could she get him safely down the mountain?

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Posted in , Jul 29, 2021

Rebecca Benjamin and her husband, Mike; photo by Shannon Thompson

I did it! Last November, I stood at the top of my forty-sixth Ad­irondack peak in less than four months, the breathtaking beau­ty of New York State’s Keene Valley spread before me. I raised my arms in triumph and took a deep breath of crisp mountain air. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Over the years, I’d summitted every peak taller than 4,000 feet in the Ad­irondacks, joining a group known as the 46ers. What made today special was that I’d set a goal to do all 46 again in less than a year. Then nailed it with­in just a few months. A personal best!

I’m big on focus and commitment. I’m a full-time literacy teacher, a Ph.D. student in education and a church or­ganist. In my free time, I tackle hiking challenges. I like to push myself, to accomplish things. It’s how I feed my­self, physically, mentally, spiritually.

I looked over at my husband, Mike, and friends Emily and Katie-Jean, who’d joined me on this climb to the top of Dial and Nippletop Mountains. They were all fit, experienced hikers, though not as gung-ho about it as me, Mike especially. He’s more of a tech guy.

We’d set off in the morning, dressed in layers to ward off the chill. It took us just less than five hours to cover the five miles to the 4,620-foot summit of Nippletop, with more snow and ice on the rocky trail the closer we got to the top. It was almost 1:30 p.m. now. We’d have to head down soon, while it was still light out.

A friendly young hiker waved to us. “Hey, want me to take your picture?”

“Absolutely!” I said. I put my arm around Mike. Emily and Katie-Jean squeezed in next to us.

“Thanks for doing this for me,” I whispered to Mike.

“I’m so proud of you,” he said.

I gazed out over the sweeping vista. The purple mountains in the distance. The crystal blue sky that seemed to stretch on forever. This was the best part. I felt such gratitude for being able to experience the beauty of God’s creation, a blessing for all the work I’d put into this. Thank you, Lord, for being with me in this challenge.

Mike gave the hiker his phone, which had a better camera than mine. The other guy snapped a few pics.

“Okay, let’s get going,” I said. “I want to take a different trail so we can get down before dark. It’s steeper but shorter.” It would still be a good four hours before we got to our car, which was in a parking lot three miles from the base of the mountain.

We spaced ourselves apart so we wouldn’t fall on each other if one of us stumbled. I led the way, setting a fast pace. I wanted to scout out the terrain.

The descent grew steeper. I’d caught a glimpse of this trail on the way up, but what had appeared to be snow was more like a river of ice.

I stopped to attach microspikes—steel teeth that clamp onto my boots for extra traction. I’d reminded Mike to pack his microspikes. I hoped he’d remembered. Had I told our friends to bring theirs?

Carefully I sidestepped down the slope. A quarter mile down, I stopped and looked up the trail for the others. I couldn’t see them.

Then an anguished scream pierced the quiet. Mike! In the 10 years we’d been married, I’d never heard him cry out like that. He must have fallen.

I scrambled up the frozen slope. Why hadn’t I hung back to guide him?

Finally I saw him, maybe 100 feet ahead of me. Sprawled on a steep, narrow, wooded part of the trail. Ice everywhere. His hands were clutching his right leg. It felt as if I flew the rest of the way to him. My eyes went to his foot. It hung gro­tesquely, pointing the wrong way. I gasped. “What happened?”

“I slipped on the ice,” he said. “Then I heard this crack. It hurts bad!”

“Don’t worry,” I said, my heart rac­ing. “I’ve got this.” I dug through my daypack—map, blanket, water bottle, headlamp, snacks, space blanket, hy­dration pack, first aid kit. All this stuff but nothing for a broken bone. Out in nature, I always felt on top of things. Now there was nothing I could do for my husband. Poor Mike! What had I gotten him into?

Moments later, Emily and Katie-Jean came cautiously down the slope. Katie-Jean was a physical therapist. “What should we do?” I asked.

Katie-Jean checked Mike’s ankle. “We need to splint it,” she said.

“Here, try this,” I said, handing over my hiking poles. I peeled off one of my shirts. Katie-Jean fixed a pole to Mike’s leg, using my shirt and several bandanas. What now? There was no way the three of us could carry him down this mountain.

I pulled out my cell phone and punched 911. Nothing. No signal.

“Can I help?” It was the guy who’d taken our picture at the summit.

“My husband fell. He’s hurt, and I don’t have service here.” The words came out in a rush.

“Take mine,” he said. “I got service near the top.”

I’d have to leave Mike and climb higher to get service.

“We’ve got him,” Emily said. I nod­ded and squeezed Mike’s arm. “Hang on, hon,” I said. I wished I’d never organized this hike. Mike was only here—and hurt—because of me.

I hurried up the slope. He’s depend­ing on you, I told myself. I kept trying 911, hitting redial even as I picked up speed, breaking into a jog.

Just above the tree line, the call fi­nally went through. “We’re hiking Nippletop, and my husband fell,” I told the 911 dispatcher. “I think he broke his leg.”

“Is he conscious?” he asked.

“Yes, but his leg is bent sideways at the ankle. He’s in a lot of pain. We won’t be able to get out by ourselves. We need help.”

“A forest ranger will hike up,” the dispatcher said. “We’re trying to get your location from your phone. Can you describe where you are?”

I did my best to explain, then rushed back to Mike. “Help’s coming,” I said. He nodded, grimacing.

I returned the phone to its owner, but he stayed in case he could help. I tucked my space blanket around Mike. We talked and joked around to keep his spirits up. The rest of us kept mov­ing to stay warm.

An hour went by. Then another. The sun was sinking in the sky. What if Mike went into shock? But there was nothing I could do except wait and pray. Lord, my husband is so much more important than some personal milestone. I’d trade all those summits just so Mike could be okay.

At last, a ranger in a navy jacket appeared, shouldering a bulky green backpack. She took charge immedi­ately. “We’re going to airlift him out,” she said. “We have to hurry. It can’t happen after dark.”

The ranger pulled a saw from her backpack. “You need to cut down trees so your husband doesn’t hit them as he’s being raised,” she said. “Be care­ful—the saw is sharp.”

Was she serious? The trees around us were 20-foot-tall birches, not spin­dly little saplings. Still, we worked frantically and managed to fell six trees in a half hour.

By now, the chopper was overhead, its propellers whipping up a fierce wind. The ranger radioed the pilot, and he dropped a rope. The ranger fashioned a half harness and slipped it around Mike. He rose slowly in the air.

Soon Mike would be at the hospi­tal, getting the care he needed. An extraordinary rescue, made possible only through the efforts of an entire team. Our friends Emily and Katie-Jean, the hiker who’d lent me his phone, the ranger, the helicopter crew, the dispatcher and other rangers who had been in constant communication with everyone. And God, who’d coor­dinated it all.

Relief and gratitude washed over me as the crew lifted Mike into the helicopter. I waved and watched until the helicopter was barely a speck in the sky.

It would be a long hike back down for the rest of us. I strapped on Mike’s backpack in addition to my own. I felt myself sag under the weight.

Katie-Jean put her hand on my shoulder. “How are you doing?” she asked. “I’d be freaking out.”

“I’m okay,” I said. Exhausted and a little shaky but okay. And that was because of everyone around me. Reaching the mountaintop, even my forty-sixth of the highest peaks in the Adirondacks, wasn’t how I felt closest to God. It was knowing that he’d sup­ported me when I really needed him, bringing the people who were able to help, every step of the way.

I couldn’t wait to reunite with Mike at the hospital. I started down the mountain with my friends, the packs I carried already feeling lighter.

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