Working as a ranger in the majestic, 8,000-acre Mohonk Preserve, there is no day like another. The rocks remain the same, the pitch pines always smell fragrant, wildlife circles and scampers and darts to and fro and the sun presumably always sets to the west, just behind the cliffs of Lost City. But the color is always different, the light sometimes dull, sometimes charged, like the work of the rangers who are there to maintain the integrity of the land and the safety of its visitors.
Hudson Valley One had the opportunity to spend some time with four of the Preserve’s rangers and ask them what types of challenges they face – particularly as one of the most popular activities at the Preserve is rock climbing along its multi-tiered and exposed vertical cliffs, made of white Shawangunk conglomerate rock.
“The thing that sets us apart from [other parks and preserves] is the access,” said Andrew Bajardi, a 13-year veteran ranger at the Preserve and now the director of Visitor Experience, as he sat on the Welcome Rock: a large boulder that greets people as they hike or bike up from the West Trapps Parking Lot, next to the galvanized steel bridge that traverses Route 44/55. “With our proximity to the City and how easily accessible the rocks are, we’re one of the most heavily visited rock-climbing areas in the country. That puts us under some pressure, because we often have to make quick decisions under pressure.”
“It’s a double-edged sword,” added Amanda Vaughn, who has been with the team for the past two years, “because it’s wonderful for the para-climbing community. They might not have use of their legs, but they can still climb and get to the cliffs here.”
“We have a big adaptive climbing community,” Bajardi agreed. “We have some people that can’t hike, or need some assistance getting to the cliffs, and we can shuttle them to the rocks and then back down when they’re done, which is a beautiful part of being so easy to access.”
Bajardi and Vaughn are joined by Mike Hale and Frank Tkac, who has been a ranger at the Preserve for more than three decades, having worked alongside former head ranger Thom Scheuer for ten years prior to Scheuer’s tragic passing. All of these rangers are experienced rock climbers and outdoor enthusiasts, professionally trained in mountain rescue, emergency medical treatment and various levels of medical training, from EMTs to medics.
“We run a lot of in-house workshops throughout the year and are accredited by the Mountain Rescue Association of North America,” said Bajardi. “Frank is our search and rescue specialist and has probably been through 15 80-hour workshops in mountain rescue training and equipment training. He knows this area better than anyone.”
As part of the Preserve’s mountain rescue team, these four are called upon to deal with broken ankles, legs, poisonous snakebites, head and back injuries, serious and sometimes fatal falls. But the difference is, they often have to climb up to treat the individual and then troubleshoot ways of getting them down off the rock ledge and into the hands of EMS staff who are waiting to take them to the nearest hospital or airlift them. “Almost all of our rescues are technical,” said Tkac. “We have to get to them on the cliff and then get them down to the road.”
“We’ve seen everything that you can imagine,” said Bajardi. “We’ve had fatalities and we’ve had people we thought were going to die but did not, and everything in between.” They recently had a dog fall into a crevice, 30 feet down, with its four legs up in the air and its body pinched between the rock wedges. Bajardi and Tkac had to get creative; they came up with a system where they fed ropes into the crevice, taped to 12-foot poles, to create a makeshift harness for the dog, who was a regular at the Gunks with his climbing owner. “We always believe that we’re going to be able to make the save,” said Bajardi. “But I honestly did not know if we were going to be able to save this dog, and we did.”
Hale reflected on one of the more extreme situations, where a climber was on a three-pitch climb and entered a section where the rock can be “soft” and break easily, which they refer to as Middle Earth. “He went to reach for a hold, thinking the rock was solid [which is the major draw of Shawangunk conglomerate], and it wasn’t. It came loose, all 500 pounds of it, and fell onto his foot, crushing it.” According to Hale, this climber somehow had the presence of mind to lower himself down on the rope safely. “Usually, we have to climb up to them, but this guy rappelled himself to the ground, and we were able to carry him out and get him onto an emergency vehicle, which then transported him by air to Westchester Medical.”
In this case, the man did lose his foot, but Vaughn recalled a rescue where she had to climb up to a woman who had been mid-climb when her foot slipped into a crevice and got stuck. “Her two ankle bones were fused against the rock,” said Vaughn. “It was this crazy puzzle. I was soaked in bar oil, sunscreen – anything to try and get her foot out. She was losing feeling; I was in the same position for hours, trying to maneuver her ankle out, and it was intense and exhausting and she was in excruciating pain. Every time I tried to push her foot out, she’d scream in pain. Finally, I had to just get it out, and I thought I’d have to break it. But that last push, it just popped out and she fell into my arms. It was emotional.”
Bajardi remembers one rescue in particular where the impossible happened. A man had been in Middle Earth and taken a bad fall. He was on a ledge, and they learned that he had fallen on his back and had no feeling in his legs. “Frank and I climbed up with the board, and it was a textbook rescue. We did everything so carefully and precise, and were so careful of this gentlemen’s back – even though, based on the fall and the loss of feeling, we thought there was a good chance he wouldn’t walk again. We got him down and transported him to the emergency vehicles waiting and hoped for the best. Many times, we don’t know how things turn out, but a few months later, I tapped Frank on the shoulder and said, ‘Look, there’s the guy we rescued,’ and he was walking down the carriage road. It was such a great feeling.”
They recalled having two snakebite rescues in one day last year, where climbers had reached up to a ledge above them, only to find out that they’d placed their palm on top of a copperhead who had been basking in the sun. “It’s a time-sensitive thing,” said Bajardi. “We need to get to them, keep them calm, get them to an ambulance so that they can be flown to a hospital in the Bronx where they keep antivenin. But the big thing is to keep them calm, because anxiety and increased heartrate only move the venom around faster.”
Statistically, these incidents are few and far between, when you look at the volume of climbing that takes place throughout the spring/summer/fall season. The biggest risk, according to Hale and Bajardi is not rock climbing itself, but “complacency. Half of our rescues are for beginners, but the other half are for people with 20 or 30 years of experience,” mused Hale. “We all have to remember to remain humble. Even if you’ve done something 1,000 times, if you’re complacent, mistakes happen. It’s never like a rope or harness suddenly breaks; it’s user error. Even though we drive every day, we still need to remember to buckle our seatbelt. Often, it’s something that simple and small.”
Respect for the cliffs
With this enormous responsibility comes a sense of connectedness to the land and the people who use it. “It’s like having an overwhelming feeling of purpose when you have to respond to a rescue call,” said Hale. “You have someone who is completely in your care, and that creates a very special bond. It’s a temporary one, but in that moment, there is no doubt in my mind as to what my purpose is.”
“When we respond to a situation and take control, it’s relieving to people. They’re in our hands and they know we’re here to take care of them. You can see the relief on their faces, and it’s rewarding to be able to help them through something so difficult.”
“If I’m able to help comfort someone or have them crack a smile during one of the worst days of their life, provide them with a little bit of cushioning, that means a lot in my world,” said Vaughn.
People can get turned around, a bit lost, and need to get assistance to get back to the trailhead. “We’re not deep in the wilderness,” said Bajardi, gesturing to the passing traffic along the hairpin turn. “We’re located on either side of a steep cliff, so if you just head down, you’re going to get to a road. But a lot of times, people will go off-trail or get confused and it’s getting dark, and they get scared and call us and we help them get back to where they need to go.”
While these are some of the grisly tales and cautionary reminders, they are easily eclipsed by these rangers’ reverence for the landscape, respect for the cliffs, the rewarding wildlife sightings and the day-to-day joy they get from helping people, giving directions, suggesting a great route or hike, being part of someone’s adventure.
“Right there,” said Bajardi, pointing to a couple who were looking at a map of the Preserve, tracing the routes with their fingers. “They could be here for the first time, and they’re trying to decide what hike to go on; and each day we get to help people enjoy the land. We’ll meet people who climb here and end up getting married, and then we’ll see them come up with a baby, and over time that baby becomes a young adult who starts to learn how to climb. And we know that we have this role in these stories and that we have a role in our community providing these services, and that feels great.”
More about the rangers
Asked what they enjoy about their job, the rangers didn’t stop talking. “Getting to work in a place that you love!” said Hale. “I moved here to climb and then went to college here, and even when I’m off work, I’m still up here hiking, climbing, so it’s a real labor of love. I take tremendous pride in what I do.”
“I love the intimate moments with the land because we’re here almost every day,” said Vaughn. “You get to know the intricacies of the landscape and the wildlife and the people. I feel so connected to the land and the community.”
Hale recalled a time when he was on a date in a local restaurant, and someone whom he had assisted during a climbing rescue recognized him and bought him and his date dinner. “It wasn’t about having dinner paid for; it was about that feeling of being part of the community. I’ve worked other places and never felt that connection.”
Tkac, who is humble and quiet except when talking about fun bear stories, said simply, “It always feels good to help people.”
“He won’t tell you that he’s a phenomenal climber and has done more technical mountaineering than almost anyone here. He rope-soloed El Capitán in the winter!” said Hale. “He won’t talk about it, so we will. He’s unbelievable!”
Tkac brushed them off and instead talked about a difficult hawk rescue he had to do after a peregrine falcon attacked the hawk and send it sprawling onto a cliff ledge. “He was fighting me and I was trying to help him, and eventually I got him and drove him to an animal hospital in Kingston,” said Tkac.
The rangers do work with their peers at the neighboring Minnewaska State Park Preserve, a 27,000-acre park that borders the Mohonk Preserve to the south and west. “We’ll help them with fires and with searches and rescues,” said Bajardi. “We work together very well.”
But the thing that separates this team from most mountain rescue teams in the country, if not the world, is the connection from the rangers to the trailhead attendants to the executive director and the Board of Trustees of this not-for-profit land preservation organization. “We call ourselves the Unicorn of the Land, because we’re so connected, from the very top of the organization to the people on the ground. If you work for the DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation], for example, or the National Parks, the person on the frontline does not talk to the person who is making the policy decisions. It’s a little more difficult to communicate if you’re on the ground at a State Park and need to get an answer from Albany. We all work in the same place and recreate in the same place. It’s so unique, and I think what makes it so special.”
While there are other rangers who support the mission of the Preserve, this particular rescue crew is its own Fab Four. They have a team dynamic that is palpable. “We have our ups and downs, almost like siblings or a family, but we come together like a force when there is an incident. It’s this bond that we share. We even have our own language when we’re working. It’s invigorating.”
These rangers need to be invigorated and to trust one another and to have a passion for what they do. It takes a special kind of person to climb up the side of a mountain, dangling from a rope, to help save someone’s life.