One wrong turn, one forgotten piece of gear or one miscommunication — that’s all it takes for an exhilarating outdoor adventure to turn into a nightmare in the mountains of the Northeast. This stark reality is brought to life in a new book called “Desperate Steps: Life, Death, and Choices Made in the Mountains of the Northeast,” written by Peter W. Kick of Tenants Harbor and released by Appalachian Mountain Club Books in December.

The book contains 20 true stories of incidents that have occurred in the mountains of New York, New Hampshire and Maine. Most of these incidents are recent, occurring after 2000.

“There’s a whole fascination humans have with accidents and disasters,” Kick said in a recent interview. “I think it’s because we all just kind of think, ‘Wow, this could happen to me.’

“The purpose of the book is to educate and to incite people to take a more serious approach to their relationship with nature,” he added.

An avid hiker and paddler, Kick was raised in the Catskill Mountains of New York and has a wide range experience in the outdoors. In Maine, people may know him as the former assistant park ranger for the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. He also was the second person to paddle the entire 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which threads through rivers, streams, lakes and ponds from New York to northern Maine.

Now living in Tenants Harbor, he works as a licensed Maine arborist and is a freelance writer for outdoor magazines, including Backpacker and Sailing. He also has written three mountain guides for the Appalachian Mountain Club, one of the largest and most influential nonprofit organizations supporting conservation and recreation in the Northeast.

About two years ago, the editors of AMC Books approached Kick about writing “Desperate Steps,” which is modeled after the renowned “Accidents” section of AMC’s biannual Appalachia journal. Published continuously since 1876, Appalachia is America’s oldest mountaineering and conservation journal.

Intrigued by the subject matter and the overall mission of the proposed book, Kick agreed to take on the project.

“One of the difficulties I faced in this book was the contemporary nature of these stories,” Kick said. “Most of these events took place in my lifetime. … Most of the people that are affected by these stories are still living, and they’re going to read this book and be affected by it one way or the other.”

The first incident featured in the 269-page book is the oldest, and it’s of particular interest to the people of Maine. The story is of Baxter State Park Ranger Ralph W. Heath, who was stationed at Chimney Pond in October 1963, when a hiker became stranded in the high elevations of Katahdin. Seeing that the weather was taking a turn for the worse, Heath decided to climb the mountain solo to rescue her. Both ultimately perished, becoming Katahdin’s first known fatalities since the park opened in 1931.

While Maine is home to the oldest incident in the book, it also is home to the most recent story, that of long-distance hiker Geraldine Largay, who disappeared in 2013 while hiking along the Appalachian Trail in western Maine. Her body was found in October 2015, while “Desperate Steps” was going to press. This information was added to the book via editor’s note.

To recount each story with accuracy and with as much detail as possible, Kick did a lot of digging.

Research into an event usually began with him submitting a Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to incident reports from various government agencies involved in the rescue efforts. Then, with the framework of the story in hand, Kick sought out first-hand accounts of the event from people involved, including survivors, the family and friends of those who died in incidents, search-and-rescue personnel and park rangers. While interviewing these people, he often was faced with a spectrum of strong emotions and opinions.

The stories include avalanche victims who were skiing in the Adirondacks, a young hiker who perished because of exposure in the White Mountains and hikers who decided to leave the established trail to bushwhack and became hopelessly lost.

“Some people were reluctant to share any information with me, and that included people from government agencies all the way down to aunts and uncles and children,” Kick said. “Others were effusive and very happy to have these stories explored and publicized. They felt if anything good could come from an incident or fatality, then sharing that would help make sense out of these events.”

Kick talked to people in whatever way they felt comfortable, from phone and email to visiting their homes and having dinner with them as they poured over old photo albums.

“In many ways, a lot of these stories, this is the final epitaph,” he added. “In many cases, nothing more will be written about these people. … There’s a great responsibility in that, and that was difficult.”

Kick and editors at AMC Books drafted a letter explaining the seriousness of the endeavor, which he gave to each person he interviewed. The book’s purpose is to educate, Kick said, to help others understand the risks involved in outdoor mountain sports. He hopes the book will encourage people to put in a little extra thought into planning their outdoor adventures.

“People were very wary about having anything to do with sensationalism or the kind of book written to shock and entertain,” Kick said. “I think, if the book actually does what it’s supposed to, people will say to themselves, ‘gee, maybe I just ought to think a little bit more about preparation.’”

While writing, Kick consciously avoided any sensationalism, he said. He tells each story chronologically and in detail, including different perspectives from people directly involved in the event. Furthermore, he tells the story with the compassion and unique understanding of a person who has spent a great deal of time in the Northeast mountains and has taken his own fair share of risks.

In the book’s introduction Kick starts off by recalling a time when he had a close call while skiing in the Adirondacks. He was crossing a frozen pond and broke through the ice. At that moment, he thought, “this is it.”

Clearly, that wasn’t the case. He survived. But the scary experience sticks with him today.

“Everybody is susceptible to calamity or errors or misjudgment,” Kick said. “I didn’t want to appear to be didactic or condescending or judgmental.

“One of the things that is especially apparent in these stories is that most of the people involved were experienced outdoors people,” he continued. “They weren’t beginners aimlessly wandering into something they had no idea about.”

At the end of each story, Kick wrote an “Aftermath” piece in which he attempts to analyze each incident objectively to point out where things went wrong or could have been done differently. Typically in this section, he quotes the opinions of outdoor professionals and others involved in the event to show different perspectives.

“We’re all prone, as human beings, to lay blame and fault and point out errors,” Kick said. “I think ultimately, in the end, you can’t do that. You can’t judge. You don’t know what’s going on in these people’s minds when they got into trouble.”

Also in the “Aftermath” section, Kick looks at the big picture, how the incident affected communities, policies and attitudes about mountain sports.

The book ends with a section on safety, which includes several lists that would be helpful in preparing for an outdoor adventure, no matter how big or small.

“I want people to know that it can happen to anybody,” Kick said. “That’s really the theme here. We don’t know when or how this sort of thing will occur or to whom. None of us are immune. … Imagine what could happen and plan for that.”

“Desperate Steps: Life, Death, and Choices Made in the Mountains of the Northeast,” is available for purchase at the AMC website,

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...