Altamont man found dead on Helderberg trail

The Enterprise — Tim Tulloch

Emergency vehicles, including a trailer used to transport an all-terrain vehicle, amass at Township Road near the railroad tracks in Altamont Friday afternoon. The ATV was used to recover a body found on a private Helderberg trail.

ALTAMONT — For generations, Altamont kids have hiked the trails on the shoulder of the Helderberg escarpment that lead to Buttermilk and Star falls. Last Friday, two boys, 10 and 11 years old, discovered a dead man on one of the trails.

The man was identified by Guilderland Police as Ross Herzog, 30, of Altamont.

Altamont Police Officer Robert Traina was first on the scene. He described how events unfolded. The two who found the body rushed back to the Altamont home of one of the boys where his parent called 9-1-1.

“It’s always hard,” said Traina of dealing with a death. He said it would be especially hard on children to make such a discovery. “We talked to the parents and said, if they need help, we’re there for them,” said Traina.

Traina also said he felt especially bad for Herzog’s family. A martial arts instructor, Traina had years ago taught Herzog’s sister, Melissa. She was one of two teens killed in 2000 in a car crash on Hurst Road; a bronze angel statue in Altamont memorializes the deaths.

The call from dispatch came to the Altamont Police station on Friday afternoon; Traina was the only officer on duty. He learned from the boys where the body was and hiked the trail, part of an intricate system that laces terrain with steep ravines leading to a now nearly dry creek bed.

The Guilderland Police were called and Traina stayed in touch with investigators Thomas Funk and Brian Leach by cellphone. “I stayed there the whole time,” said Traina. “We closed off the area for investigation….We didn’t want to contaminate the scene with more people.”

Curtis Cox, the assistant chief at Guilderland, said, “We got the call at 1:09.” Because of the “difficult terrain,” he said the Guilderland Center Fire Department was tapped since it has all-terrain vehicles.

A “command center” was set up on Township Road (Route 146) where it crosses the railroad tracks, Cox said. “Everyone stayed at the staging facility on Township,” said Traina, except for the firefighters who drove up on the ATV to retrieve the body.

The body had been there “less than 24 hours,” said Traina. “He was covered up and brought down.”

“The coroner was at the scene and took possession of the body,” said Cox.

The body was taken to Albany Medical Center. An autopsy was conducted on Saturday, Aug. 27, which showed that Herzog died because of “medical issues,” said Cox.

Jeffrey Hubbard, a doctor who works for the Albany County Coroner’s Office, told The Enterprise on Monday, “Mr. Herzog’s death certificate says the manner in which he died was ‘natural.’”

“Anytime there’s something like this, we do a thorough investigation,” said Cox. “There were no signs of foul play.”

After the body was recovered, Traina said, “We went back and talked to the family of the kids and made notification to the Herzog family.”


The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Century-old trails, like this one near Buttermilk Falls, line the ravines on the shoulder of the Helderberg escarpment.



The stream on the shoulder of the escarpment has no name, say two property owners who border it.

“There are two big waterfalls — Buttermilk is about 100 feet tall, and further up is Star,” said Joseph Breitenbach, whose property borders the stream near Star waterfall. He described the trail along the edge of the ravine as “a bit dangerous.”

“We tend not to bother people who walk the trail,” Breitenbach said, noting the trail along the ravine crosses over to one on the other side above the Star falls.

He doesn’t plan on changing his open-trail policy because of last week’s death. “It’s absolutely beautiful; it’s part of nature,” Breitenbach said.

The only intruders Breitenbach objects to are snowmobilers. “They tear up the trails and make a racket,” he said, noting if people want to walk to the falls in the winter, they’ll see “it’s beautiful with ice.”

Further down the escarpment shoulder from the Breitenbachs, Bette Cowley owns land bordering the stream and Buttermilk falls. She said generations of Altamont youngsters had used the trails, and her husband, the late Ed Cowley, an artist, had enjoyed a special spot in the hemlocks there.

“The hemlocks make a dark forest there,” said their son, Edward Cowley III. “It’s pretty neat.”

Cowley III remembers, as a 12-year-old, being delighted when his parents had bought the property where they would build a home.

“When we were young, we lived in an old farmhouse on Maple Avenue Extension and we’d play on the creek all the time, and climb up the trails,” he said. “In the winter, we rode our sleds.”

He remembers no accidents or previous deaths occurring on the trails.

After the Cowleys moved into their new hillside home in the early1960s, “We learned to ski in the backyard on the hillside,” said Cowley.

Both Breitenbach and Cowley said the ravine serves as a “drainage ditch” for the escarpment, filling with spring snowmelt or heavy rains, and drying in summers like this one.

“It’s extraordinary when we get a thunderstorm,” said Cowley. “The water rages and we can hear it from the house.”

More Guilderland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.