What follows is an excerpt from Desperate Steps: Life, Death, and Choices Made in the Mountains of the Northeast, available now from AMC Books.
The screen door on the ranger’s cabin slammed hard in the wind. Baxter State Park Ranger Ralph Heath rose stiffly from the supper table to secure the latch, uneasy over the news his guest was delivering. Helen Mower, 50, of Concord, Mass., was explaining how her hiking companion, Margaret Ivusic, sat stranded somewhere high up on the ridge, off the Knife Edge Trail.
Heath scribbled notes as the wind shrieked. Although it had been sunny and warm all day, he most likely sensed a nor’easter was on its way. It was Monday, October 28, 1963. Most years, snow would have arrived weeks earlier in Katahdin’s Great Basin.
Heath, 37, had spent the day working on the new Helon Taylor Trail, near Pamola Peak, with a younger fellow ranger, Rodney Sargent. Afterward, Heath had hiked back to camp by way of the Dudley Trail. Arriving at Chimney Pond at 8:15 p.m. in total darkness, he had looked forward to a hot supper and a good night’s rest. Instead, he found Mower waiting nervously.
One Bad Decision
Earlier in the day, Mower told Heath, she and Ivusic, 55, had climbed Baxter Peak by way of the Cathedral Trail. They were hiking back to Chimney Pond on the Knife Edge Trail when Ivusic elected to bushwhack directly down the headwall. The two had quarreled over the route.
Mower declined to join her friend, recognizing the plan as risky, but Ivusic, who had only three years of hiking experience, would not change her mind. Mower continued on the Knife Edge alone. If Ivusic’s route had indeed been a shortcut, she should have been back at the Chimney Pond lean-to by the time Mower descended the steep, rock-strewn Dudley Trail. But Ivusic wasn’t at Chimney Pond. With growing concern, Mower had walked near the headwall, calling loudly toward the mountain, and was surprised when Ivusic responded.
People at Chimney Pond and the Knife Edge sometimes can hear each other, with the Great Basin’s three high walls of glacial cirque acting as an auditorium for echoes. Although the distance between the pond and Knife Edge is less than a mile, the elevation drop is 2,200 feet—a treacherous lunar landscape of house-sized rubble, deep fissures, and thickets of impenetrable dwarf spruce.
As Ivusic ventured innocently into the headwall’s netherworld, she must have realized quickly that the route would be impossible for all but the most experienced technical climbers. Here Ivusic was stuck—alone, in the dark, unable to descend or ascend—when she called down to Mower to say she was not hurt.
When Mower finished relaying her tale, she and Heath went back outside, where Heath climbed partway up the mountain. Cupping his hands around his mouth and bellowing loudly and slowly over the wind, the ranger instructed Ivusic to stay right where she was. As she was uninjured and he was exhausted, Heath felt it would be best to attempt rescue at first light. Ivusic managed a faint response that Heath took for compliance. It was now 8:30 p.m. and had been dark for almost three hours. Although the situation was not yet perilous, Heath knew that, especially in the increasing wind, Ivusic’s circumstances could change quickly and drastically.
Back inside the ranger cabin, Heath radioed Park Supervisor Helon Taylor with the information that a hiker was stranded in the upper basin. Taylor recommended the ranger get some rest before attempting a rescue. But Heath was unable to sleep or relax. A hiker in his district was alone and frightened in an exposed location. It was still a mild evening, but the gust of wind that had slammed the screen door shut earlier suggested worse weather to come.
Heath was no stranger to trouble. Following service in World War II, he had lost everything in a house fire, including his discharge papers. He was redrafted and served in the Korean War before his prior service could be verified. He returned home to find that his wife had filed for divorce. Upon arriving at Baxter State Park, Heath sought out the solitude of the remote Chimney Pond outpost.
As Heath paced the cabin, chain-smoking on that windy October night, Mower fretted, disconsolate. She and Ivusic were best friends who worked together loading freight cars at Boston’s Railway Express Agency. “My mother was a bit of a risk taker,” Christopher Ivusic, Margaret’s son, recalls half a century later. But, “She was a physically fit, strong person. She and Mrs. Mower were experienced hikers.”
Heath changed his mind: He would attempt the rescue that night. He and Mower went to the lean-to and found Ivusic’s rucksack, into which they packed food, a parka, a sleeping bag, and extra clothing. Heath also took 80 feet of rope and a metal piton. At 11 p.m., the ranger ascended the ridge alone by way of the Dudley Trail.
He reported what happened next to Mower five hours later: He spoke with Ivusic again but could not reach her without more rope and helpers. But he knew where she was, near the waterfall, a landmark known today as Waterfall Gully that ice-climbers consider difficult. Ivusic called out to Heath that she was distressed and determined to extricate herself. Heath, fearing he might not easily relocate her, convinced her to remain where she was while he went for help. It was snowing when Heath returned to Chimney Pond at 4 a.m. Tuesday. He notified Taylor, who dispatched a pair of rangers, as well as the Maine Forest Service and a Maine Game Warden.
By 6:10 a.m., the wind had increased, bringing with it an icy rain. After a quick breakfast, Heath told Mower he would ascend the ravine from Chimney Pond, climbing straight up the headwall to the waterfall. He would attempt to reach Ivusic and stabilize her, to console her until help arrived, or, if possible, to rescue her himself.
Heath’s plan might have been feasible, had it not been for his fatigue. A capable hiker, he often completed arduous climbs. But Heath had hiked the strenuous Dudley Trail four times in a 24-hour period, with a cumulative 8,000-foot-plus elevation change. And he was about to undertake an even more strenuous ascent: a trailless climb. Heath must have told himself the task ahead would require a superhuman effort and a healthy dose of good luck.
As Heath reached the base of the headwall, Mower heard a crackling voice on the radio, announcing that Ranger Sargent was on his way to Chimney Pond. She ran and hollered the news to Heath, who turned and said only, “Fine. Thank you,” before vanishing into the rocks.
The Perfect Storm
Heath reached Ivusic just as a storm—the evolution of the previous evening’s foreboding wind—slammed the mountain. Hurricane Ginny, the latest-season North American hurricane on record, had arrived. The two hunkered down in a tight crevice while Heath formulated a plan.
In the meantime, Sargent set out on foot toward Chimney Pond. “By the time I got to the basin, conditions were a gale-force whiteout with a foot of snow,” he recalls. “By noon, 18 inches of snow had fallen on the Roaring Brook Road, and not even Jeeps could make it to the trailhead. The wind in the basin was blowing straight up the mountain. If you opened your mouth, it would suck the air right out of your lungs.” Sargent started up the Saddle Trail, the easiest approach to the ridge, intending to search Knife Edge. Halfway up, his clothing froze solid and cracked at the elbows. The limited visibility and merciless winds forced him back. “I knew by then that Ralph and Mrs. Ivusic were in very, very serious trouble,” he says.
At 11:15 a.m., Game Warden Elmer Knowlton of Millinocket arrived at Roaring Brook amid heavy snow, hoping to assist Sargent. From the base of the Chimney, neither he nor Sargent could identify any trace of Heath’s trail. The two men repeated the process the following morning, Wednesday, October 30, with the same results. By then, 2 feet of snow covered the ground at Chimney Pond, with more accumulation possible on the ridge.
Warden Supervisor David Priest and several others joined the search in a vehicle equipped with tire chains. “Visibility was zero, and that’s putting it mildly,” he said later. Recognizing nothing could be done at Chimney Pond, Priest returned to Roaring Brook and established what today would be regarded as an incident command center, with about 35 people working at any given time.
On Thursday morning, the University of Maine climbing team joined the effort: one team reaching as far as Baxter Peak, another searching the headwall with binoculars from the Cathedral Trail, and a third ascending the Helon Taylor Trail. Meanwhile, extreme turbulence forced back an Air Force search helicopter.
On Thursday, the Maine State Police contacted William Lowell Putnam III, of Springfield, Mass. Putnam, 41, was among the most experienced mountaineers in the country and a protégé of Royal Robbins, Yvon Choinard, and other Europeans who had introduced advanced tools and techniques. He had pioneered many first ascents in the Selkirks of western Canada, and he later became president of the American Alpine Club.
On Friday, November 1, a state airplane dropped Putnam and a fellow climber at Chimney Pond, while a National Guard C-47 flew in Vermont State Police Troopers and climbing instructors from Norwich University. By 1 p.m., the University of Maine climbers had summited Pamola Peak, but wind and snow forced their retreat.
On Saturday, Putnam took over all climbing operations, leading the team up the Abol Trail, to the rock formation called the Needle’s Eye. Belaying from above, they explored the rock face below the Knife Edge. After hours of searching west along the headwall, about 300 feet below ridgeline, brutal wind and cold turned them back. Putnam, who later described the conditions as “ferocious,” felt any further exploration would put the teams at risk. They belayed down and returned to Chimney Pond, advising those in charge that the situation was futile.
At this point, Putnam had no doubt Heath and Ivusic were dead. He commented in the incident report: “Those people were dead on Tuesday, there is no question in my mind. Nobody would have lived under the conditions of wind and temperature that must have existed to pack the snow in such a way…. It’s the wind that kills you.” Putnam was referring to hypothermic death by exposure.
One Search Ends, Another Begins
On Sunday, November 3, the out-of-state climbers left for home. Governor John Reed and Maine Forest Commissioner Austin H. Wilkins called off the search. When the weather cleared slightly on Tuesday, Warden Supervisor Priest searched the basin walls for two hours but saw no signs of life. Winter settled over Katahdin.
Nearly six months later, on April 27, 1964, Game Wardens Elmer Knowlton and Charles Merrill began searching for the bodies. After three hours of scanning the basin walls from Pamola Peak, they spotted a rope suspended from a rock face. A search team arrived at Chimney Pond the following evening, with Ranger Sargent leading the detail. Directing the search from Pamola by radio, Knowlton led Sargent’s team to the site.
At the end of the rope, searchers discovered a body lying supine, encased in thick, clear, blue ice. Unable to identify the victim, the men began to chop at the ice, hampered by the crevice they found themselves in. After three days, the team determined they needed chemical salts to melt the ice without damaging the corpse. A ranger was dispatched to Millinocket, where he purchased 35 pounds of calcium chloride before carrying the salt up to the Knife Edge on his back.
The body was carefully exhumed. It was Margaret Ivusic. Her gloves and boots were found beneath her; alongside her were a daypack and an open canteen. The rope was tied around her body. According to the autopsy, Ivusic could not have survived her injuries for more than a few hours. She had split an artery in her thigh and perished by exsanguination, or severe blood loss.
Two weeks passed. On May 15, searchers discovered Heath’s body, 400 feet above where Ivusic had lain. His hat and gloves were nearby. He was wearing only the light clothing from his day of trail work: cotton trousers and shirt, a timber cruiser’s jacket. Heath’s body was airlifted to Millinocket. The autopsy showed no injuries, no broken bones or bruises, no heart trouble. The doctor remarked that it looked as if Heath had simply “sat down and gone to sleep.”
Heath was buried in his hometown of Sherman Mills, Maine. Percival Baxter, a former governor of Maine and a foundational influence on the creation of Baxter State Park, paid for his tombstone. When Ivusic’s son, Christopher, met Heath’s ex-wife at the Mt. Katahdin Tragedy Board of Review on November 12, 1963, she charitably allowed, “If anyone was going to go up there to try to save your mother, it would have been Ralph Heath.” On Heath’s tombstone are inscribed the words: “Ralph Heath, Ranger. He gave his life to save that of another.”
Ivusic was survived by two daughters, a son, and three grandchildren. When Helen Mower died in 2004, at the age of 90, she was buried in the same plot as Ivusic, in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in Concord, Mass.
Ralph Heath and Margaret Ivusic were Katahdin’s first known fatalities following Baxter State Park’s official opening, in 1931, although people had died in the area before, and many have perished since—22 deaths total since 1926.
In hindsight, Ivusic and Mower had set out with the best intentions. Both had been properly attired and were fully capable of their original route. When Ivusic left the trail, Mower stuck to it and sought help as soon as it was clear Ivusic was in trouble. Knowing every minute was vital, Heath acted hastily and, perhaps as a result, was unprepared to attempt a rescue. His clothes were grossly inadequate, and his condition was compromised by his lack of sleep and physical exhaustion. Although he typically would have been among the best candidates for performing a rescue, under the circumstances, he was among the poorest. But his thoughts were not for his own safety.
And then there was the storm. The rescue team simply had no idea the hurricane was coming. Although aircraft reconnaissance allowed for accurate estimates of a hurricane’s position and intensity by 1940, statistical and dynamic tracking models were not available until the early 1970s, and accurate track forecasting wasn’t available until the 1990s.
Communications were equally problematic. Radios had recently replaced telephone lines, but neither method was reliable. “We fought with the moose and the blowdown to keep the phone lines up, but they had to be replaced every season,” Sargent says, while radio units had to be within effective range of each other or a relay tower to function properly.
Although the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Game was the designated agency for search and rescue (SAR) at the time of the incident, no organized volunteer SAR organizations existed, such as the nonprofit Dirigo Search and Rescue or other active units of the Maine Association for Search and Rescue (MASAR) that service the area today. The infancy of such efforts, however, can be seen in the university climbing clubs that eagerly came to assist. Members of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine Chapter also offered help. The club had been hiking the trails and peaks, producing guidebook material for the area, since 1917.
The summoning of the world-class mountaineer Putnam shows how determined the team was to enlist the best resources—resources that could not be put to maximum use due to the severe weather. As the most knowledgeable mountaineer, Putnam was the dominant factor in the state’s decision to suspend the search. Had the effort continued without him, additional lives could have been risked.
Putnam also suggested several changes anticipating the development of modern SAR. He recommended that Baxter State Park place caches of emergency supplies—tarpaulins, food, climbing gear—throughout the park. He stressed the importance of identifying a search coordinator, now called an incident commander, early in an event and of keeping a log of all events, now known as an incident command timeline, to track procedures and reduce redundancy. He also pointed out the need for more detailed topographic maps of the area.
As a result of the tragedy, Baxter State Park took immediate measures to improve SAR and to reduce the potential for casualties. It trained a team of wardens in alpine mountaineering; it added first-aid and rescue equipment at key locations; and it took up the idea of creating gatehouses at the two park entrances.
This was a case of two bad decisions followed by the worst luck. Ivusic made a blunder in leaving the trail, and Heath elected to help her without adequate gear. Barring a hurricane or with better preparation, they might have survived these mistakes. Heartbreaking as they were, their deaths brought about improvements in park safety, SAR coordination and training, and hiker safety guidelines—resources we can’t imagine doing without today.
Peter W. Kick is a seasoned outdoorsman who lives in Tenants Harbor, Maine. His many books include AMC’s Catskill Mountain Guide.