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A Harrowing Ordeal: Remembering the 1963 Storm on Katahdin

Hurricane Ginny passed well offshore of New England in late October 1963 as a strong category two hurricane. The storm's top winds of 110 miles per hour are just one mile per hour shy of category three strength. The hurricane caused extremely rough seas offshore, with a forty-foot wave reported just off the coast of Portland, Maine.


This storm also brought heavy rains and high winds to coastal areas. On Nantucket, a wind gust of 76 mph was recorded. Up to four inches of rain fell in Maine, helping to bring an end to a drought. Many boats were damaged in New England, and a man was killed in Maine while attempting to rescue his boat. During this storm, three people died in Maine: one being the man on his boat and two others caught in the storm on Mt. Katahdin.


What happened in Baxter State Park may have been the greatest impact on New England during this storm. This storm-related incident is most likely what jump started the modern search and rescue system. On a warm, sunny day in October 1963, two hikers summited Baxter Peak and were returning to the Chimney Pond campground via the knife edge trail.



Margaret Ivusic, one of the hikers, chose to bypass the knife edge trail and take a more direct route to the camp. Helen Mower, her companion, refused to take the shortcut. At this point, the two had separated. Helen Mower, using the trail, made it back to Chimney Pond first, which concerned her, as Ivusic’s route should have been faster.


Mower called out for Ivusic. She was taken aback when she heard Ivusic respond. She said she was not hurt, but she was stuck where she was. The camp is less than a mile from the knife edge, but the terrain is difficult and dangerous to navigate . The sun was setting at this point, and it was getting dark outside.


Mount Katadhin from Chimney Pond

Mower went to the Chimney Pond ranger station to wait. Ralph Heath, a park ranger, eventually entered. Mower informed Heath of her stranded companion. The two left the cabin after relaying what had happened. Heath began climbing the mountain while calling out to Ivusic. It had now become completely dark.



The wind began to pick up at this point. Heath yelled out, telling Ivusic not to try to descend alone. Ivusic responded by saying she would stay put. Heath decided to wait until it was light out in the morning before attempting a rescue. Heath and Mower returned to the cabin. Heath radioed the park supervisor to report a stranded hiker. They all agreed that waiting until the morning was the best option.


Mower was getting antsy and upset as she thought about her stranded friend. Heath was unable to sleep or relax. He changed his mind and decided to immediately attempt a rescue. Heath began climbing the mountain with some supplies around eleven o'clock at night. Heath tracked down Ivusic but was unable to reach her without additional supplies and manpower. Ivusic expressed that she was distressed.


Heath asked her to stay put while he went to get more assistance. When Heath returned to Chimney Pond at four a.m., snow was falling. Heath radioed the supervisor, who dispatched a pair of rangers. Just after six a.m., the snow turned to icy rain.



Heath climbed the mountain to Ivusic once more. He intended to stabilize and rescue her if he could, or to wait for backup to arrive if he couldn't. Heath was able to reach Ivusic once more. Just as he did, the outer reaches of hurricane Ginny slammed the mountain.



Hurricane Ginny passed offshore of New England as a strong category two storm. The hurricane made landfall in Nova Scotia. This is the most powerful hurricane to ever make landfall in Canada. Hurricane Ginny is one of the few hurricanes that produced snow. On the mountain, Ginny created blizzard conditions. The pair of rangers that were on their way up the mountain reported that their clothes had frozen and cracked due to the storm. They reported gale force winds and zero visibility.


The two rangers arrived at Chimney Pond and attempted to locate Heath's trail up the mountain. They were unable to do so. The men tried again the next day, but were once again unsuccessful. It was now October 30th. The storm had dumped two feet of snow on Chimney Pond at this point. The Maine University climbing team joined the search on Halloween. The team searched the area strategically but were unable to locate Heath or Ivusic.



On the same day, an air force helicopter attempted to reach Chimney Pond but was forced to turn around due to the storm. State police in Maine contacted William Putnam, one of America's most experienced climbers at the time. The following day, November 1, Putnam was dropped off at Chimney Pond by plane. State police and climbing instructors were also deployed to the mountain that day.



Later that day, the Maine University team summited Pamola Peak but was unable to continue due to heavy snow and wind. Putnam launched the final formal rescue attempt on November 2. He led a group up the Abol trail and then west along the knife edge's headwall. The team was eventually forced to retreat due to the hurricane's high winds.


Putnam described the conditions as "ferocious," and said that further exploration of the mountain would have jeopardized the team's safety and would result in more people becoming stranded and in need of rescue. Putnam was now certain that Heath and Ivusic were no longer alive. In the incident report, Putnam stated:


“Those people were dead on [October 29]...nobody would have lived under the conditions of wind and temperatures that must have existed.”


On November 3, all out-of-state climbers left, and formal rescue efforts came to an end. Winter had come to the mountain. Heath's and Ivusic's bodies were discovered and recovered in the spring of 1964. Ivusic likely died from blood loss after injuring her leg at some point. Heath passed away from hypothermia. The doctor noted that he "simply sat down and gone to sleep." He was wearing only light clothes from a day intended only for trail work.


Ivusic, Mower, and Heath had no idea a hurricane was on its way to the mountain since they were in the middle of an isolated wilderness area. If Ivusic and Mower had completed the hike on time, they would have been off the mountain well before the storm. If the three had known about the impending storm, their decisions would have likely been very different. Because university climbers were eager to help with the search, this incident may have given birth to the volunteer search and rescue system.


Heath’s tombstone in his hometown reads: “Ralph Heath, Ranger. He gave his life to save that of another.” Helen Mower passed away in 2004 and was buried in the same cemetery as Margaret Ivusic.


Ranger Ralph Heath. Photo from Heath's Officer Down Memorial Page


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