The region’s gorges and waterfalls can be risky for hikers and others enjoying the outdoors

Not all rescues have a happy ending. But the odds of living through a free fall into a gorge or surviving a night lost in the woods of High Tor Wildlife Management Area unscathed are higher, due largely to a team of firefighters who comprise the Ontario County Rope Rescue Team.

This is the busiest time of year for the team of mostly volunteer firefighters who have additional training to manage and maneuver the most dicey situations. The team of 15 averages about seven rescues a year, said Naples Fire Chief Patrick Elwell, who heads the rope team with Bristol firefighter Steve Kepner. Responses may range from helping an exhausted hiker to bringing the victim of a treacherous fall to safety.

This is the busiest time of year, running right through the fall. The team this year has already done several rescues.


Without a hitch

On April 29, when Jacob Peck of Macedon went hiking in Onanda Park with friends, he didn’t expect to come out in a stretcher.

“The ground gave way under my feet,” said Peck, 19, an experienced hiker who was climbing up the side of a waterfall in the park in Canandaigua when it happened. “I slid about five feet and grabbed a tree,” he said. Then he slid and fell another roughly 25 feet.

“I was going really fast,” recalled Peck, describing how he hit the wet shale and landed hard in a stream. At first he thought he was OK. But his friends knew better and called 911. His memory of being pulled out is a blur, mostly of lights shining on him and people working all around. When he saw what they had to do to get him out, he was scared.

“A guy scaled the waterfalls to get me out,” said Peck. It went without a hitch. He was in the hospital for about two hours for a dislocated shoulder. Later, his mom treated him to a garbage plate at Fairport Hots.


'Going down is harder'

Forest Ranger Patrick Dormer was called with the rope team on June 6 when a woman stranded in Clark’s Gully needed help. As a ranger with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Dormer responds to search and rescue incidents statewide. The Naples resident has as his primary area Ontario and Yates counties. He often works with the team because many of their rescues take place on DEC land, such as the High Tor areas where DEC rangers are called in.

That was the case on the evening of June 6 when a call came in for a 32-year-old woman who had climbed a popular waterfall and could not descend the steep, slippery shale terrain.

“She was having a nice time until it was time to go down the falls,” Dormer said. “Going down is harder than going up.”

Elwell recalled the woman had been taking photos and became exhausted.

Dormer and the rope team responded to her location, about a half-mile from the Sunnyside Road trailhead shortly after 6:30 p.m. Dormer helped coordinate access and logistics of the rescue. Rope team personnel were able to get a rope and harness to the woman to guide her, using a special safety technique, to the bottom of the gully. She was not hurt and all personnel were clear of the scene by about 8:30 p.m., according to the DEC.

It's not always the case, but Dormer on this rescue was able to take a photo of the team at work. He was glad, he said, adding he admires the rope team members for their skills, dedication and teamwork.


No rescue too big or small

As with all emergency response, despite best efforts, sometimes outcomes are tragic. That was the case in August 2014 after a Farmington man lost his footing while hiking in the Grimes Glen gorge in Naples. According to Ontario County sheriff’s deputies, Philip J. DeFranco, 46, was hiking with friends about 4 p.m. on Aug. 6, when he accidentally slipped and fell about 40 feet onto a stone ledge, landing on his head and chest. Mr. DeFranco fell into a pool of water about 3 feet deep at the base of the fourth waterfall and drifted downstream, where he was removed from the water by members of his hiking party.

Ontario County’s Rope Rescue Team gathered at a property near 8179 Gulick Road and from there, the team descended about 300 yards into a clearing where they could stage the rescue and reach Mr. DeFranco, who was about another 300 feet down into the gorge.

Naples Fire Department and Canandaigua Ambulance responded and helped with recovery and transport. Mr. DeFranco was flown to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester by LifeNet medical helicopter and listed that night in critical/guarded condition. On Aug. 22, Mr. DeFranco died of his injuries at Strong.

In other cases involving seriously injured victims, rescuers witnessed surprisingly wonderful outcomes. Elwell recalled the rescue of Brian Krawczyk of Greece in March 2008. The ice climber from Monroe County was climbing in the Conklin Gully/Parish Hill area of Yates County. Krawczyk clipped onto the wrong rope and did a free fall about 150 feet, Elwell recalled.

An Ontario County Sheriff’s report said Krawczyk was removed from the ice shelf and had to be hoisted back to the top of the frozen waterfalls before being taken by Mercy Flight to Strong Memorial Hospital. Responders included Naples Police, Fire and Ambulance, Ontario County Rope Rescue Team, DEC Forest Rangers and Ontario County Advanced Life Services.

About a year later Krawczyk met with the rope team to thank them, Elwell said, adding that not long after that he won a tree climbing contest.

“They thought he would never walk again,” Elwell said. “He surprised everyone.”