Beloved Newspaperman Dies of Injuries Sustained on Hiking Mount Katahdin in Maine

Donald MacGillis was a passionate hiker
Facebook: Alec MacGillis

Rescuers airlifted Donald MacGillis, 74, who was in critical condition. MacGillis an avid hiker wanted to share his passion for hiking with his 25-year-old nephew, who was a like a father to him.

Donald MacGillis, a revered newspaperman and a former long time Boston Globe editorial writer, died last week from injuries he sustained from a 50-foot fall while hiking at Mount Katahdin in Maine.

The 74-year-old MacGillis, described as an avid hiker, was on a hiking expedition with his 25-year-old nephew. The pair started up the Dudley Trail from Chimney Pond, then started across the Knife Edge trail, but lost the path around South Peak in the fog, rain and darkness, according to a release from Baxter State Park. 

The Knife Edge trail, according to park officials, is a narrow, serrated ridge-top trail, to reach the 5,240 foot South Peak on the way to Baxter Peak. The trail is difficult to hike under ideal conditions and becomes especially treacherous in poor weather and limited visibility, The Press Herald reported

Alec MacGillis, Donald MacGillis’ son, told The Berkshire Eagle that his father and cousin started their hike in good weather, but then hours later, they got lost in the fog as they struggled against fierce winds on the Knife’s Edge trail, that he described as so strong that they were “literally worried about being blown off the mountain.” 

As conditions began to deteriorate, they called 911 and were told by Baxter State Park Chief Ranger Dan Rinard to shelter in place until first light, when a rescue operation could safely get them. At that point, the pair were not injured. The hikers then sought shelter under a rock overhang as temperature dropped below freezing, the Eagle reported.

It was reported that at 3 a.m., when MacGillis stepped away, he fell down the rocks 50 feet, breaking his leg and injuring his chest. When MacGillis' nephew called the chief ranger about his uncle getting badly injured, the chief advised the younger MacGillis on how to stay warm and how to monitor the condition of his uncle, but as weather conditions became more grave during the night, both became hypothermic, the Press Herald reported.

A rescue team arrived around 9:30 a.m. and Chimney Pond Ranger Andy Borth learned at that point that the older MacGillis was in critical condition. Borth treated them for hypothermia and other injuries, until they were able to be airlifted from the scene, the newspaper reported.

During a break from the fog, between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., the Maine Army National Guard and a Blackhawk helicopter from Bangor arrived, and airlifted each of the men to a hospital. Several hours later, MacGillis died in the hospital from his injuries, The Press Herald reported.

Alec MacGillis, a journalist with ProPublica, posted the news about his father’s passing on Thursday on Twitter, describing his father as his “ultimate model.” 

“All, I am very sorry to report the death of my father, newspaper journalist Donald MacGillis, after a hiking accident on Mt Katahdin in Maine. He was the consummate local/metro newsman in his career as an editor at the Berkshire Eagle and Boston Globe, and he was my ultimate model.” 

Alec called his cousin, “extraordinary” and “heroic” as he stayed with his father and kept him conscious through the night until rescuers arrived, The Berkshire Eagle reported. 

MacGillis, described as a passionate hiker himself, told The Eagle that his father had climbed the mountain every year with a hiking group, and that he wanted his nephew, to whom he was very close, to experience the trail with him. He told the newspaper that his father was looking forward to the trip.

“You could hear the light in his voice,” he said. “There’s a beautiful photo of them beaming as they set out on the hike.”

MacGillis, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, had been a longtime editorial writer at The Boston Globe and for more than two decades, had served in a number of roles at The Berkshire Eagle. He was currently their Executive Editor, and chairman of their advisory board, and remembered by colleagues and his peers as a “newsman through and through.”

“MacGillis regarded journalism as the noblest of professions,” said Kevin Moran, The Berkshire Eagle’s executive editor. “He loved breaking news and demanded that journalists dig deep and investigate and report the sides of the story the public wasn’t getting.”

He added: “That we lost a vibrant man is a painful tragedy, and the entire Eagle family send the MacGillis famous our heartfelt condolences.” 

Former Berkshire Eagle Editorial Page Editor Bill Everhart said he was just over MacGillis' house three weeks ago having a few beers and enjoying their time together. He called his friend a "very smart guy who was very well informed, opinionated of course, but always well-grounded in the facts."

"He had a very dry Scottish sense of humor," Everhart said. "Loved the Red Sox. Loved the Patriots. Lived and died with both of them. ... Just an all around good guy."