By Ned Campbell
Maddie Popolizio and her boyfriend, Blake Alois, had just reached the top of Algonquin, the second-highest mountain in New York state, when what they had planned as a quick day hike went south.
It was around noon, and during the hike up, the weather was “fine; everything was fine … so we didn’t think we were going to have any trouble,” she said. The forecast had been “partly cloudy.”
“As soon as we got to the top, a massive fog came over the entire summit,” Popolizio, 19, of Niskayuna, recalled Tuesday night from a hospital bed at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. “It was so intense, I could not see my hand in front of my face, and if I wasn’t latching onto Blake, I would have completely lost him.”
Surrounded by her mother, three sisters and close friends and enjoying fries and a chocolate milkshake from McDonald’s, Popolizio related how the young couple survived two nights in the bitter cold and snow.
Her boyfriend, Alois, 20, was sleeping in the next hospital room over, joined by his brother and father. Both survivors were feeling healthy and were expected to leave the hospital and return home Tuesday night.
“The fact that neither of us had to lose any toes or fingers seems like a miracle,” Popolizio said.
“It was freezing; it was snowing the whole time,” she added. “Our clothes, it was just like dipping your outfit in a pool and then putting it on your body, and then having to brave the wind and the snow.”
When the snowstorm hit at the summit, the couple’s instinct was to climb back down the mountain immediately, but the whiteout prevented them from seeing the trail they followed up, she said. Arms linked, they walked toward a clearing they thought might lead to the trail, “and as soon as our feet left the rock that was at the top of the summit rock, we just started plummeting, like falling through an incredible amount of snow, like it was engulfing my entire body.”
Their friends later determined the fall, which brought them down the opposite side of the summit from the side they climbed up, to be about 100 feet. The pair was located about 265 feet southeast of the mountain summit by search crews on the ground at around 11 a.m. Tuesday.
“It was like swimming through snow,” Popolizio said. “I felt like it was eating me and him. I feel so lucky to have fallen right with him.”
They landed on snow-covered trees that were bent and, wearing snowshoes, they tried to climb back to the summit in order to climb down the other side.
“Even with snowshoes, we were just falling through mass amounts of snow,” she said.
With nowhere to go, they returned to the more secure spot on top of the trees, where they built a wall of snow to block the wind and tried to start a fire using a fire-starter kit. The wind and snow prevented that, Popolizio said. “We tried lighting my backpack on fire.”
Their phones had power but no service. They thought they’d be found the first day and spent much of it yelling and screaming in hopes a rescue squad would hear them. They spent the night, the next day and the following night in the same spot where they landed, keeping each other warm — and sane — until a team of forest rangers came to their rescue midday Tuesday.
“There were so many points when one of us would say to the other that we didn’t think we were going to make it any more than a few more hours,” she said. “We never seemed to get down at the same time, which was lucky. Whenever one of us got down, the other one would push the other person through and be like, ‘No, you’re not going to die here. We’re going to make it.’ And we talked about the things we were going to do when we got out, and how we were going to get married and be happy, and go live in Paris — and just trying to keep our spirits up.”
She added, “It was like a constant, every 10 minutes, of, ‘I love you,’ just to keep each other happy, and I think that really worked.”
She credits Alois with saving her life multiple times, like when she tried to stand up and fell through snow past her head, and he pulled her up.
“He took his gloves off trying to build a fire when it was absolutely freezing — he did the most he could to try to keep us alive,” she said.
On the first night, when she lost feeling in her toes, he dumped everything out of his backpack and wrapped it around her legs, zipping it up around her. After about 20 minutes, she could feel her toes again.
Once the backpack was empty, however, useful supplies like a knife, a rechargeable crank light, and “90 percent of our food” were forever lost in the snow, she said. The same thing happened when they took their wet gloves off in an attempt to warm their hands under their shirts.
Popolizio didn’t sleep much that first night, occasionally nodding off and dreaming about being rescued. Alois was much sleepier, she said, and she struggled to keep him awake.
“I didn’t want him to fall asleep because I didn’t know what that would do,” she said.
During the second night, Popolizio said she was so dehydrated that she began hallucinating. She thought she heard people answering their calls for help, yelling their names. Alois put one of their frozen water bottles under his shirt to melt the ice and provided her with a good amount of water, which helped, she said.
The next morning, they heard a helicopter, “which brightened our spirits so, so much, because we didn’t know if anybody was out there looking for us at the time,” she said. They started screaming again.
“And then eventually we heard somebody scream back,” she said, “and I truly thought it was me just hallucinating, hearing what I wanted to hear.”
But Alois had heard the screaming, too, she said.
It was around 11 a.m. Tuesday when the first state Department of Environmental Conservation forest ranger found them in the snow — nearly 40 hours after the search was launched at around 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
“He reassured us so much that help was coming for us, that we were going to get out of there, which was what we needed,” she said. “I started crying because I was so incredibly happy; I didn’t think they would ever find us, not in that amount of snow or those weather conditions or that far away from the summit.”
The ranger covered the pair in layers of clothes, replacing their wet coats and hats with warm ones, giving them gloves to wear and hot-packs, she said. Soon after, a few more rangers arrived with hot cocoa and tea, and “it was the best tea I’ve ever had in my life.”
Eventually, the helicopter arrived, and they were pulled up with a harness. The ride to the hospital was filled with tears and words of appreciation for the rescue team.
“We were so happy, just hugging each other,” she said, “and thanking the people around us.”
Popolizio said she learned from the experience to be “so much more grateful than I am.”
“I also learned how valuable it is to bring the necessary gear,” she said. “I mean, we were geared for the hike, but we weren’t geared for the unexpected.”
Daily Gazette reporter Zachary Matson contributed to this report