April 06, 2020

Fallen hiker in coma > Icy Katahdin climb ends in tragedy

BAXTER STATE PARK — A Vermont man who tumbled between 800 and 1,000 feet while climbing Mount Katahdin on Monday remained in critical condition Tuesday at a Bangor hospital.

Steven Cothalis, 39, of Fairfax, Vt., survived 13 hours of subzero temperatures Monday as more than 100 people worked to rescue him and the three other members of the climbing party from Maine’s highest mountain.

Lou Cothalis, 44, of Bayside, N.Y., Steven’s older brother and a member of the hiking party, said his brother had no broken bones and remained unconscious Tuesday afternoon. He said hospital officials expect his brother, who is a respiratory therapist and avid hiker, could remain unconscious for seven to 10 days. Cothalis was not wearing a helmet when he fell.

Lou Cothalis said he would never forget watching his brother falling down the steep mountainside as his body hit a series of rocks and went out of his sight. And he won’t soon forget how relieved he was to find his brother’s limp body lying against a huge boulder about halfway down the steep Abol Slide.

“All of my worries were how I’d find him. Once I found him breathing and alive there was no panic and we just did what we had to do to make him comfortable,” Cothalis said. “I feel very positive he is going to recover from his head injury.”

Lou Cothalis said he believed his brother did not go into shock because he had consumed plenty of fluids and had put on warmer clothing before the fall. Cothalis said he was glad the hiking party had extra clothing and a sleeping bag, which helped to keep his injured brother warm until he could be rescued.

Baxter State Park Director Irvin “Buzz” Caverly Jr. credited the older Cothalis with saving his brother’s life. “I think this guy is still alive because of his brother,” Caverly said. Lou Cothalis, under extremely adverse conditions, was alone with his brother from the time of the accident at about 12:45 p.m. Monday until the first rescuers got there about 8:30 p.m., he said.

“On the side of that mountain on a cold windy night with subzero temperatures, to be alone with your brother who could be fatally wounded has got to be the scariest thing in the world,” Caverly said. “He handled that so well. He kept his cool. He kept his physical strength and he obviously did everything right because 13 hours later when his brother was taken into Eastern Maine Medical Center, he had a body temperature of 96 degrees,” Caverly said.

The Cothalis brothers and two other men, Dan Bernier of Woodbury, Conn., and Jim Malumthy of New Milford, Conn., who had planned the winter hike months ago, arrived at Baxter State Park late Sunday afternoon. The four men, carrying camping provisions in their backpacks and wearing snowshoes, hiked the five miles from the parking lot near Abol Bridge to Abol Campground in about two hours and set up tents to camp for the night. “We were the only people camping; it was Super Bowl Sunday,” said Lou Cothalis.

Wanting to get an early start for their hike up to Baxter Peak, the four men rose at 5:30 a.m. Monday and ate a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate. “This was about a 7- to 8-mile [round-trip] hike and we wanted to get an early start in case we had difficulties,” said Cothalis, a real estate broker.

“Not knowing what we were up against, we erred on getting up early to have the luxury of two extra hours of daylight,” said Cothalis. The four men agreed they would start down the mountain between 1:30 and 2 p.m. because the sun would go down by 5 p.m.

“We didn’t want to be on that mountain in the dark coming down with a flashlight. By starting at 7 a.m., we had seven solid hours to leisurely climb up and to leisurely come down,” said Cothalis.

The four men prepared bottles of hot chocolate and warmed two bottles of water they kept in insulated containers so they would not be frozen by afternoon. They packed up foods and snacks such as nuts, raisins and chocolate that would give them needed energy for the hike.

As the men climbed, Cothalis said the recent freezing rains that had kept the snow from blowing off the mountain made climbing conditions very smooth and icy.

Cothalis said members of the party came prepared with winter clothing such as Gortex nylon shells to break the wind and layers of fleece jackets for warmth as well as crampons, rectangular-shaped steel apparatus with 12 tapered points that attach to the bottom of climbing boots in order to provide traction on icy surfaces. Also, the party carried a sleeping bag and extra clothing.

“The equipment we had was technical enough to handle the amount of ice we found in the upper elevations,” said Cothalis. He said the party had planned the trip as a winter hike, not a technical climb with helmets and ropes.

As the men climbed higher and higher, Cothalis said the icy hard snow crust got harder and it became more difficult to punch through it. “The ice was getting worse and worse,” he said.

About 200 feet below the plateau of Katahdin, Cothalis said he and his brother stopped to adjust their clothing and equipment. Lou Cothalis’ left crampon came loose, but because it was secured to his ankle he did not lose it. His brother, Steven, helped him get to a spot where he could put the crampon back on. At the same time, Steven Cothalis put on heavier clothing.

“Once you stop climbing you want to put on heavier clothing,” Lou Cothalis said. The men wanted to put on heavier clothing because they knew once they reached the ridge they would be exposed to the cold blowing winds.

Bernier and Malumthy, who had climbed on ahead, came back. “Don [Bernier] wanted to stop the climb because of extreme ice conditions ahead,” said Cothalis. The climbers were about 1,200 feet from the top of Mount Katahdin.

“It’s just good climbing policy, if you climb together you come down together. You don’t break the crew up,” said Cothalis.

The four men had started to hike back down when Steven Cothalis lost his grip and started sliding down the mountain.

Lou Cothalis said he watched his brother get into what he called a self-arrest, or an attempt to stop the fall, by rolling onto his belly, lifting his boots off the side of the mountain so the crampons wouldn’t catch and cause him to flip.

“He jammed his ice axe down into the ice to stop sliding. But, he caught a rock instead of ice. The ice axe went flying and he continued to slide, picking up more and more momentum. He continued to slide and bounce and at one point he hit a series of rocks and went out of sight,” said Cothalis.

Immediately, the three men scrambled down the mountain to find Steven Cothalis. The party found his limp body resting against a huge boulder, located about one-third the way down Abol Slide, a steep rocky slide.

“We stomped down the snow on the downward side of the rock, creating a little ledge where we placed a backpack and some clothing. We placed the sleeping bag on top of that and put Steven in the bag and placed the remaining extra clothing on top of him in an attempt to keep him warm,” said Cothalis.

“We didn’t know how injured he was so we didn’t put him in the [sleeping] bag completely. We just stabilized him on the ledge,” said Cothalis.

Cothalis said his younger brother fell about 12:45 p.m. and he and the other hikers reached him in about 15 minutes. After Steven was stabilized, Bernier and Malumthy went for help on foot, hiking three hours down the mountain to the nearest telephone.

By 4 p.m., the two reached the Abol Bridge store and telephoned the Millinocket Fire Department, which in turn contacted rangers at Baxter State Park headquarters in Millinocket about the fallen hiker who they said had suffered serious head injures.

Within 45 minutes, a crew of five people traveling by snowmobile were on their way to rescue the Cothalis brothers. In the meantime, Baxter State Park Director Caverly called in an Army National Guard helicopter from Bangor and volunteer rescue crews from around the state.

The five-member rescue party was able to travel about one mile up the Abol Trail above the campground, but could not take their snow machines the rest of the distance, estimated to be more than a mile to the injured hiker, because of the steep, rocky terrain and icy conditions.

By 8:25 p.m. the five-member rescue party, now on foot, reached the Cothalis brothers, who were at an elevation of about 3,000 feet. Ranger Stewart Guay reported that Steven Cothalis was breathing and his pulse was steady.

As darkness set in, the National Guard helicopter from Bangor arrived in Millinocket and made three trips to the mountain to locate the injured hiker. From the air, the helicopter crew located Cothalis and his injured brother, but the helicopter was forced back because of high winds and the need to refuel. There was no aviation fuel available at the Millinocket Municipal Airport, so Caverly said the National Guard sent a fuel truck from Bangor to Millinocket.

Once it had refueled, the helicopter airlifted Lou Cothalis at about 11 p.m. Cothalis had to walk down to a landing zone about 1,000 feet below the ledge where his brother remained to be picked up. More than an hour later, rescue crews had carefully lowered Steven Cothalis in a sled down the 45-degree snow slope to the landing area where he could be airlifted safely. By 12:53 a.m. Tuesday, the injured hiker was on board the helicopter heading to Eastern Maine Medical Center.

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