Steven Cothalis remained in critical condition Wednesday at Eastern Maine Medical Center after tumbling almost 1,000 feet down Mount Katahdin on Monday.
Baxter State Park Director Irvin “Buzz” Caverly Jr. said Wednesday that he credits the 39-year-old climber’s survival to the actions of three fellow climbers and to the park’s requirements for winter hikers.
“As far as we can determine, the situation was entirely accidental,” Caverly said. “It’s like when you’re walking down an icy sidewalk and suddenly you lose your feet from beneath you.”
But according to one rescuer on the scene, the climbers did not have along helmets and rope that the park requires of anyone on a technical climb, which is defined as hiking anywhere above the treeline in the park. Cothalis sustained serious head injuries that might have been avoided had he been wearing a helmet.
Cothalis of Fairfax, Vt., along with his brother, Lou Cothalis of Bayside, N.Y., Don Bernier of Waterbury, Conn., and Jim Malumthy of New Milford, Conn., entered the park Sunday afternoon and camped about five miles in from the parking lot near Abol Bridge. Early the next morning they set out on the eight-mile round trip to the peak. But at the upper elevations conditions became icy, according to Lou Cothalis, and the group turned back at about 1,200 feet from the top.
It was on the hike back that Steven Cothalis lost his footing and fell about 1,000 feet. Malumthy and Bernier hiked for three hours to the nearest phone to get help.
Paul Smith, who is the coordinator of the high-angle Lincoln Search and Rescue Team, led four other rescuers to the scene.
Smith said that the injured man’s brother had done an excellent job in keeping the unconscious man warm, using a number of sleeping bags made for below-zero weather. “It’s hypothermia that will do you in up there,” said Smith, who is an experienced climber and has hiked to Katahdin’s peak about eight times during winter in the past 10 years.
“I think they were well-equipped and experienced, and they recognized that they had to turn back,” he said. Smith said that if there is a lesson in this incident to be learned by other climbers, it is that a climber should always have his ice pick tethered to his wrist. Cothalis reportedly attempted to stop his slide by rolling over on his belly and slamming his pick into the ice. But the pick hit a rock and flew out of his hand.
“I’ve been in that situation myself,” Smith said of a time he tripped on his clampons while on the mountainside and began a slide. “You should always have a nylon cord to connect the ax to your wrist.”
Smith said the climbers also didn’t have helmets or rope, which the park requires all technical climbers have in their possession. The use of that equipment is at the discretion of the climbers.
The park requires that technical climbers bring snowshoes or skis, winter mountain boots, a sleeping bag for subzero temperatures, sunglasses, a pack, matches in a waterproof container, food for the trip including a two-day emergency preserve, map and compass, ice ax, crampons, helmet, flashlight and one rope per two climbers. Solo climbing is not allowed. Each climbing party must have at least two persons on a team. Climbers must also submit an itinerary, certifications of physical fitness for all members and certifications of training and experience for both the group’s leader and the alternate leader.
Caverly said that after the rescue he admonished Bernier and Malumthy because the climbing group had changed its leader without notifying park officials. Terry Robbins of Waterbury, Vt., had been the scheduled leader of the group, but after he dropped out of the party, Malumthy took his place. In his report, Caverly described the change of personnel a “serious infraction” because the park had no verification of Malumthy’s leadership skills. Caverly said that change in leadership was in no way the cause of the accident, nor did it hamper the rescue. No disciplinary action will be taken, he said.
“The park will be watching for these scenarios in the future,” Caverly said of the last-minute personnel change.
Since 1993 the park has had a regulation that radios, televisions and cellular phones cannot be used in the park. Asked if it might behoove a climbing party to carry along a cell phone, Caverly said he did not want to promote the use of cell phones in the park, but added, “If there’s an emergency situation, we’re not going to be hard-nosed about it.” He said some climbers feel that to carry a cell phone would circumvent the element of risk in winter climbing — the very risk that climbers look for in the first place.
According to Caverly, who has worked at the park for 39 years, about 900 to 1,000 people visit the park for winter hiking. He said 80 percent of those coming to the park in winter participate in technical hiking and climbing.
The park has had relatively few fatalities during winters in the past 35 years. In 1963, a climber and a ranger — who was on his way to rescue the climber — were caught in a storm and died, according to Caverly. In 1974, Tom Keddy died after he and four other climbers were caught in a storm. The group had thought they could reach the mountain’s peak and return to camp before the storm reached them. One member of the party had both of his legs amputated because of frostbite.
In 1980, Victor Pavidis accidentally hanged himself with his climbing rope while making a vertical descent. And in 1984, an avalanche buried five climbers, killing Steve Hilt and Ken Lavenway. In 1985, a park visitor was killed in a snowmobile collision while riding in the park’s lowland.