Early on the morning of Dec. 12, 2016, Maddie Popolizio and Blake Alois watched a sunrise that very well could have been their last.
Stranded atop New York’s second-highest mountain, hallucinating and progressing through the stages of hypothermia, the couple glimpsed the rising sun as the clouds lifted briefly. Soon after, they heard the helicopter.
“That was the only sound we had heard for days, other than our own talking in the wind,” Popolizio recalled during an interview last week.
Search crews had set out that Tuesday morning, the second full day of a rescue mission that commenced Sunday night, after Alois’ mom reported the couple missing. With temperatures expected to plummet, forest rangers set out knowing Tuesday was their last chance to find the couple alive. Popolizio, 20, and Alois, 21, both Niskayuna High School graduates fresh off a recent ascent of Wright Peak, had taken a break from studying for finals to climb Algonquin Peak.
“That was going to be our last hike before we had finals,” Popolizio said.
But after reaching the summit, they were engulfed in fog and stumbled into “spruce traps,” as they searched for the trail. Spruce traps occur when evergreen boughs hide deep cavities in the snow. They’re difficult to escape.
Stranded a few hundred feet below the summit, the couple waited to be rescued. They spent the next 36 hours fighting hypothermia and hallucinations, together dreaming about a warm meal and a trip to Paris, as the search-and-rescue effort by state Forest Rangers kicked into high gear.
By 11 a.m., a forest ranger and experienced Adirondack climber had spotted the couple, and rangers had arrived, providing food, water and warmer gear. The couple were soon airlifted off the mountain and sent to a Saranac Lake hospital, where they were treated for hypothermia and frostbite.
Nearly a year later, Popolizio and Alois are both juniors at the University at Albany. She studies history; he studies Biology. Over the summer, they returned to hiking, though they haven’t tried any high peaks yet.
“It’s definitely made us really close,” she said. “We were close to begin with, but you can’t go through something like that and not be even closer.”
Alois endured a longer recovery than Popolizio, using a wheelchair for about a month after the rescue and spending months in physical therapy due to lasting damage from frostbite. While both Alois and Popolizio returned to the Schenectady area by the end of the day they were rescued, Alois spent the following week at Ellis Hospital.
Alois suffered nerve damage on the tips of his toes and still wears specialized socks to help him spread the toes on his right foot. But during the week after the rescue, it was unclear whether some of the toes could be salvaged at all.
“I didn’t care,” he said of potentially losing his toes, adding he was just happy to be alive.
“It’s a constant reminder of how special now is — and the moment you are living now is — and your family and the stuff that is close to you,” Alois said.
In an interview at Alois’ home, the couple acknowledged they weren’t fully prepared for the challenge they took on last December. They were ready for the hike they thought they were doing – a quick climb to the summit and back down to the trailhead before dark. But they weren’t prepared for two days and two nights stranded on the mountain.
“If we were prepared, we wouldn’t have been in that situation,” Alois said. “We should have made ourselves prepared for the unthinkable.”
They said they now have an unshakable understanding of the true danger of mountains that entice so many with their beauty and serenity. On any future hikes between September and May, Alois said, “a sleeping bag is coming with me.”
“It’s not just about what’s in your bag but also your ego,” Alois said. “You don’t have to make it to the top of the mountain just to get that picture for Instagram; you can come back another day.”
Popolizio agreed that the experience forever changed how she will think about the dangers of wilderness.
“It can happen to anyone,” she said. “Something will go wrong because it easily can.”
Blake Alois and Maddie Popolizio on Crane Mountain in the southern Adirondacks in October. (Courtesy Maddie Popolizio)
The couple were inundated with media requests after their rescue, and some media outlets have continued to reach out to them, they said. In recent weeks, a producer with the Weather Channel has been asking to interview them for a show on winter rescues. But they said the true story should focus on the forest rangers and volunteers who carried out the rescue mission.
“We weren’t even the ones who did anything – it was the rangers,” Popolizio said. “I feel like they’re the ones that should be on TV. They deserve so much more recognition than we do.”
Over the summer, they met with the rangers and helicopter pilots who saved them, celebrating Alois’ 21st birthday with the people who ensured he had one to celebrate.
By late-July, the couple were back on the trails, hiking Mt. Van Hoevenberg near Lake Placid. In October, they climbed Crane Mountain near Johnsburg, posing for a picture from the summit in heavy fog and bundled in winter jackets and hats. They took similar pictures on their way up Algonquin last year.
But they aren’t sure if they are ready to tackle a high peak, opting for a series of hikes to fire towers instead.
“I don’t know if we would make it,” Alois said of a high peak summit.
“Yes, we would,” Popolizio said.
Doris Alois, Blake’s mom, said the family would surely mark this week’s anniversary. She didn’t know what they would do to celebrate — only what they wouldn’t do.
“The 13th is the day I’ll never forget. We will definitely acknowledge it; I just don’t how. Definitely not a hike in the mountains.”