College Couple Survives Three Days in Blizzard While Hiking Algonquin Peak: 'Death Wasn't an Option'
"We held each other to keep warm and talked about what we'd do when we were rescued," Blake Alois tells PEOPLE
The thought of giving up never occurred to Blake Alois and his girlfriend, Maddie Popolizio — not even when they couldn’t feel their fingers and toes and had lost most of their food to a blizzard that had trapped them for three days last week near the top of Algonquin Peak, New York’s second-highest mountain.
“We just kept telling each other, ‘We’re not going to let each other die — we’re going to get through this together,” Alois, 20, tells PEOPLE exclusively in his first interview since he was released from the hospital on Dec. 17. “We held each other to keep warm and talked about what we’d do when we were rescued.” Popolizio wanted chicken nuggets and crepes, “but more than anything, I wanted a hot shower.”
As of Sunday, Alois still hadn’t taken that shower because his feet are bandaged while he recovers from frostbite.
“He doesn’t smell that great right now, but I don’t mind,” Popolizio, 19, tells PEOPLE. “I’ll still hug and kiss him because I’m so glad he’s here. Without Blake, I wouldn’t have made it.”
December 11 looked like a “bluebird” day for Popolizio and Alois as they set out from their hometown of Niskayuna, New York, on a clear morning for a three-hour hike to Algonquin’s 5,115-foot summit in the Adirondacks.
Friends since high school who started dating 18 months ago in college (she’s a history major while his interest is biology), the couple set out with winter hiking gear and snowshoes, their backpacks loaded with granola bars, pizza, fried chicken and plenty of water.
After reaching the summit around noon, they noticed heavy white fog moving in, so they snapped a few quick pictures then started their descent.
Within minutes, they were stuck in a whiteout and couldn’t see their footprints to find a way down.
“We were terrified — we didn’t know which direction to go and we couldn’t find the trail,” Popolizio tells PEOPLE. “Visibility was close to nothing.”
“It was like a white abyss,” says Alois. “And then it started snowing and became extremely cold and windy.”
Linking arms, the pair slowly walked toward what they thought was a clearing, but instead, walked off the edge of the mountain and tumbled 100 feet through deep snow, landing on top of a cluster of snow-covered trees.
“We realized there was no way back up for us,” says Popolizio, “so we padded down the snow with our snowshoes to make it stable and made a little area to sit on with some of the tree branches. Then we built a wall of snow to try and help block the wind.”
Using a fire starter kit, they attempted to light Popolizio’s backpack on fire, but the wind kept blowing out the flames. As darkness descended, they cried for help and blew a whistle that Alois had brought along. “But we heard nothing except the wind,” says Popolizio, “and saw nothing but snow.”
With no cell phone service available, the couple knew that they would have to wait for family members to become concerned and call for help.
Alois’ mother did just that, but weather conditions were too fierce for anyone to go up the mountain that night.
“We talked to keep our spirits up, but it was so cold that we could barely feel our hands and feet,” says Alois, who took everything out of his backpack so that he could zip it around Popolizio’s feet and lower legs in an attempt to keep her warm.
“Maddie got on top of me a few times to help warm me up,” he tells PEOPLE, “and we kept pulling our arms into our jackets and putting our hands under our armpits to try and keep warm. Just having someone I loved next to me was huge. When I fell asleep, Maddie woke me up. We kept screaming for help together and reassuring each other. That’s how we made it through the first night.”
With 90 percent of their food lost in the snow after Alois had removed it from his backpack, the couple gnawed on frozen chicken and granola bars and unthawed enough water to drink by holding their frozen water bottles against their skin.
One bright spot, says Popolizio, is that Alois had managed to salvage some Christmas cookies baked by his mother. “Frozen M&Ms and coconut macaroons never tasted so good,” she says.
During their second cold night on the mountain, Popolizio was so dehydrated that she began hallucinating. “I thought I heard voices and people yelling our names,” she says. “I began to wonder if we would ever get out alive, but Blake kept reassuring me. ‘I love you — we’re going to make it, you can do this,’ he said.”
The next morning, when she heard a helicopter, she wondered for a moment whether it was real.
“And when we realized that it was, we started screaming, hoping they would hear us,” she says. “Finally, we heard somebody scream back. A rescuer, on his way to help us. I cried with relief, knowing we were going to make it.”
Ranger Scott Van Laer gave them warm coats and a thermos of hot tea, and was soon joined by other rescuers, who attached Popolizio and Alois to harnesses so they could be hoisted aboard a helicopter and airlifted to the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake.
Although they were released the next day, Alois had to return for further treatment on his frostbitten toes and will now need minor surgery to remove dead tissue.
It’s a small price to pay, he says, for being alive.
“We had our moments of panic,” he tells PEOPLE, “but for the most part, we handled it very well, I think. It’s a miracle that we’re both alive, and I’m unbelievably grateful. Through this, I learned that Maddie is a lot tougher than I give her credit for. But I don’t think I’ll go hiking with her in the winter any time soon. Maybe just bird watching.”
Adds Popolizio, “We’re so thankful to everyone who worked together to save our lives. And I’m especially thankful to Blake for getting me through it.
“Death wasn’t an option. We were already inseparable, but now I know that I could spend the rest of my life with him, no question. After what we endured, I love him more than ever.”