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Coroner: Hiker died of accidental drowning

Couple says Skip Baker was hiking very slowly earlier Sunday

August 2, 2017
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer (aolivero@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

KEENE VALLEY - An Essex County coroner has determined that accidental drowning killed a man who was found in a ravine in the East Branch of the AuSable River on Tuesday.

Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw made the announcement regarding Ralph W. "Skip" Baker, 50, of Webster, near Rochester, after Dr. C. Francis Varga completed Baker's autopsy this afternoon.

Whitelaw said it is possible Baker drowned after he became disoriented on the trail due to a medical event. That conclusion is based on Baker's medical information, shared with police, and descriptions from other hikers who encountered him on the trails Sunday.

Article Photos

Skip Baker holds his first and only granddaughter, Isabella Baker, after she was born in May 2016.
(Photos provided by Christie DeMaria)

Whitelaw said evidence at the scene where Baker was found, such as personal articles scattered along the river, indicated he walked rather than fell to where he was found, beneath Armstrong and Lower and Upper Wolfjaw mountains in the Great Range near Lake Road. Investigators initially thought Baker may have fallen 350 feet down a rock face to where his body was located, but evidence at the scene disproved this, Whitelaw added.

"There was no trauma to the body that would have prevented him from extricating himself," Whitelaw said. Rather, there were "superficial bruises and scrapes not consistent with a very long fall," he said.

"The information I've received from state police is that particular area has a pretty calm, gradual slope into a pool - maybe 8 to 10 feet deep," Whitelaw added. "If he was concious and alert and able, there should have been no reason why he couldn't have extricated himself. So a medical event that precipitated the drowning is what makes sense. But we can't confirm that absolutely because when you do an autopsy, there are some things that can't be answered. If it's a witnessed event, that's one thing. But in this case, it's not witnessed. Only Skip knows what happened."

The coroner also said hikers told police and the state Department of Environmental Conservation that Baker needed to lie down on the trail at one point while hiking Sunday.

"That tells us something could have been going on at that time," Whitelaw said.

It's not possible to confirm the time of the incident that led to Baker's death, the coroner added.

A preliminary toxicology screen was negative for anything suspicious, Whitelaw said, though specimens will be sent out to an independent lab for official results.

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Encounter on trail

Two aspiring Adirondack 46ers from Saranac Lake, Micheal Pratt and his fiancee Beth Devaney, encountered Baker twice between the hours of 1 and 2 p.m. Sunday, while Baker was hiking in the col between Gothics and Armstrong mountains. It's a relatively flat stretch of trail on the ridgeline high above where rescue personnel eventually found Baker, in the valley east of this stretch of the Great Range.

Pratt described the encounters as normal aside from the slow pace at which Baker was proceeding, and that Baker was initially confused as to which mountain he was approaching on what's known as the State Range Trail, which proceeds along this ridge connecting Gothics and Armstrong mountains.

Pratt said the first encounter was several hundred yards southwest of the junction where the State Range Trail meets up with the Beaver Meadows Falls trail, at the bottom of that col.

"He definitely came from Gothics," Pratt said, "but he was talking like he was hiking toward Gothics when he was hiking toward Armstrong. We kind of cleared up that confusion, and he asked if he could tag along with us on the way to Armstrong, and we said, 'Yeah.'

Pratt said Baker was playing country music on large headphones that hung around his neck. He said Baker hiked with them for several minutes before the couple continued on ahead of him to the summit of Armstrong. They saw him again while returning down the State Range Trail.

"He had made it not very far," Pratt said. "It had been maybe a half-hour since we'd seen him last. He had only made it up the trail a few hundred yards from the junction there. He was moving really, really slow, but he seemed normal. I think he looked at us and said, 'You already made it up and back?' and we told him, 'You only have a few more minutes to the top.' And we said our goodbyes.

"The pace he was moving at," Pratt added, "I couldn't imagine him doing the entire range over all the Wolfjaws and back down to his car before dark. He just seemed slow. He wasn't slurring his words or anything; I just figured he was a slow hiker. He seemed motivated to get up there.

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Funeral fundraising

An online fundraising page has been set up to help Baker's family pay for his final arrangements: www.gofundme.com/skips-final-arrangements. In just two hours Tuesday night, nearly $1,000 of the $5,000 crowdfunding goal had been raised through 16 contributions on the website GoFundMe.com. As of 5 p.m. today, 75 people had raised $4,341 in 20 hours. The online fundraiser was organized by Terri Maxymillian and David Gomlak of Lake Placid, friends of Baker and the owners of TMax-n-Topo's Hostel, where Baker stayed Saturday night.

"Skip Baker, a kind and gentle soul passed away this week in his beloved Adirondack mountains," the GoFundMe page reads. "Skip was working on climbing the 46ers and on his state highpoints as well. Skip was retired Air Force and did more than his share to help the rest of us at home while he was out in dangerous territory."

The organizers of the page subsequently on Wednesday shared a thank-you to those who had contributed to the fundraiser and/or wished their condolences to Baker's family and friends.

"I am humbled and impressed (but not surprised!) by the outpouring of love and support for Skip," the note reads. "Thank you, everyone. Whether your support has been financial or emotional, it has all been gratefully received."

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Two-day search

Baker was found after a large-scale search for him spanned Monday into Tuesday morning in the vicinity of the state-owned High Peaks Wilderness and the private Adirondack Mountain Reserve property.

The search followed a call placed early Monday morning to the DEC's central dispatch that reported Baker had not returned to his truck, parked at the entry to the AMR at the AuSable Club. The caller said he believed Baker had set out to hike Gothics, the state's 10th highest mountain, southwest of Armstrong and the Wolfjaws at the core of the Great Range, according to DEC spokesman David Winchell.

Search efforts Tuesday consisted of 17 forest rangers, an assistant forest ranger and a state police helicopter. No sign of Baker was found Monday, when four forest rangers, an assistant forest ranger and AMR staff searched along with a state police helicopter.

 
 

 

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