"Lost in the Gorge" - a cautionary tale

 

This story is an account of a lost person in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. It was originally printed in the November 2014 Mazamas bulletin.

It’s shared here with the permission of the author, who wants as many people as possible to learn from her experience and hopefully avoid a similar one.

Pam did many things right, and a few things not-so-right. As you read this, make a short list of what you think these things might be.

Probably the single most important thing she did right was to be able to determine her latitude longitude coordinates from her phone, and transmit that information to 911. This is a vital skill for any backcountry traveler, yet many people who carry a smartphone with complete GPS capabilities don't know how to do this. We cover various techniques in this tip here.


Lost in the Gorge

by Pam Monheimer

I admit it; I was the woman lost in the Columbia River Gorge on January 29, 2014. I had been trained in mountaineering, avalanche basics, CPR and Mountaineering First Aid (MFA). At first I was embarrassed and horrified that my friends and my Mazama acquaintances would learn of my debacle.

When I was finally located, rescued, been transported out and, at 11 pm, arrived at the Sheriff’s van to be debriefed, I was sick to see that the Angel’s Rest parking lot was packed to capacity with rescue teams, ambulances, police cars, and, of course, the four news channel crews. I caused a lot of people a lot of trouble and worry. I am sorry. I am grateful to those who helped rescue me, and to the Mazamas for providing me the mountaineering training that kept me alive. I want to tell my story as I think I can help fellow hikers and perhaps save a life, especially with colder, wetter weather and shorter days upon us. As I’ve been told more than once, “nobody plans on getting lost.” Not even on a short hike.

In the past 18 months I have hiked over 2800 miles, climbed atop and skied numerous mountain peaks in the Cascades and Olympics. I have hiked and climbed the entire Haute Route in France and Switzerland. Getting lost for me in the Gorge is like getting lost in my own backyard. I know it like the back of my hand. When I drive Highways 84 and 35, I can name all the mountains, hills, waterfalls and trails to myself. The Columbia River Gorge is in my DNA.

I frequently hike with friends and, as we travel at different paces, it is not unusual for us to split up with plans to meet at a designated place and time. I was hiking with my friend, William, a world-class runner and climber with whom I often hike both the Gorge and Mt Hood. It was 34 degrees with a light rain falling. We had a few hours to spend hiking in the Gorge. We started out together in the late morning in a remote area a few miles behind Angel’s Rest. We were in a place I’ve hiked a more than a dozen times before. William and my vizsla puppy, Tüz, went running ahead, and we planned to meet back at my car at 2:30 p.m. I was listening to a book on my iPhone and was so engrossed I didn’t realize how much time had passed. When I noted the time, I realized I needed to quickly head back. I cut through the woods, off trail with my compass in hand to get back to the main trail that would take me back to my car.

After 20 minutes I still hadn’t found any trail. I thought I was in a totally unfamiliar area, didn’t recognize any surroundings and was among fallen trees, deep brush, and on a very steep slope. The light rain had turned heavier and it was becoming quite breezy. I was worried, I knew I couldn’t be very far from a trail, but I was scared enough with the changing conditions that I called 911 then quickly lost the connection, as cell service was iffy at best in the area. I called twice more and finally made contact with the Multnomah County Sheriff, as my call had been answered by Clackamas County Emergency. I explained that I was in Multnomah County.

After describing my location, I emailed and texted my exact coordinates from my GPS at 2:39 p.m. The sheriff assured me help was nearby telling me, “they had found my car, William, and Tüz, and that the whole world was coming to help find me.”

The most important thing I did after that emergency call was to stay put, a very important Mazama lesson. Search and Rescue had my exact location. I paced and did jumping jacks to stay warm. In another text the sheriff asked me how much battery time was left on my phone now; 25 percent, yikes, it was over 50 percent just a few minutes earlier. Once my situation hit the news, friends and family called, texted and sent Facebook messages. By 3:15 p.m. my phone was dead.

The breeze had blown into the famous Gorge gusts. Luckily, I was wearing the correct clothing and boots for the day. I had a waterproof jacket, pants and Gore-Tex lined hiking boots. I was also wearing a down sweater underneath. All that was fine for the first few hours, but now it was 4:30 p.m. and I was soaked, shivering and darkness was settling in. How long could my rescue take? Rescue had had my coordinates for over two hours.

I went into survival mode. I dug a hole for shelter next to a large downed tree with my gloved hands, filling it with leaves, small branches, pine needles and anything else my filthy, frozen hands could carry. I then attempted to build a cover made from larger branches to try to shield myself from the rain and wind until rescue arrived. For a few desperate brief moments I considered making a run for the trail in the remaining daylight. Had I done so, I fear there might have been a less fortunate ending to my adventure. It was odd to be alone in the ebony forest with only the sound of the wind and rain. I had no fear of being alone, I had passed survival training.

As I lay in my dugout in the pitch black, no moon powerful enough to shine through the awful inky, rainy, gloom, I realized I did not have my “10 Essentials” that should be taken on every hike. BCEP and the Mazamas had drilled into my head over the past year that those essentials should always be in my pack. Just a week earlier I was sitting on the summit of Mount St Helens with my larger backpack filled with these 10 Essentials. I didn’t think that it was necessary to repack my smaller pack for a few short hours of hiking, but then again, I hadn’t planned on getting lost either. Thus I had no headlamp, no extra clothing or waterproof matches, or any other useful tool that might help me remain safer and warmer until help arrived. All I had was my small daypack with a slowly decreasing amount of water and a lone protein bar.

Eventually I had to stop the jumping jacks and pacing, which had kept my muscles moving. The darkness and uneven terrain could prove treacherous. I lay down in fetal position in my wet, muddy hole to try and stay warm. I hugged the earth for warmth. My teeth were chattering so hard I had to put a cloth between my teeth and by now I also had a raging headache. After a while I realized I couldn’t move my curled legs or arms, they were both totally cramped. My mind was playing games, I didn’t know if I was awake or asleep. So this was hypothermia, I thought.

It had been five hours since I realized I had become lost and placed my 911 calls. Where was the cavalry? I thought something had gone wrong, perhaps the GPS coordinates had been incorrect, there had been a landslide, or worse a change in plan with daytime rescue. I needed to stay alive until morning so I could get myself out in the daylight. Then I had the realization that I might not make it. I was too cold to cry. I thought about my family and my friends. All the small stuff I wasted time and worry on. All the things I never did or said. I truly thought this would be where I died. By 7:40 p.m. I was so darn miserable but something inside me refused to give up. It took all my strength, balance and my huge pain threshold to stand up, as I knew I had to move if I were to stay alive. I jumped in place and screamed “I am not going to die here!”

In the distance I saw faint light. I remembered my GPS watch had a backlight. I flashed it as I jumped. I was screaming help and hello to no avail, as the storm was too loud, and flashing my light. A few minutes later the faint light came closer. I waved my light frantically and the rescuers waved theirs back. It took over 30 minutes for the five-man search and rescue team to reach me. I learned there were four teams that had started out at different points looking for me as well as a sheriff’s “quick response team” comprised of two runners who were out looking for me. It was the quick response team that found William and Tüz. They ran nearly 15 miles looking for me and as I later learned, they came within 1.5 city blocks of where I was calling for help.

My rescuers went into action, following the same protocols I had learned in Mountaineering First Aid. I was so relieved and grateful to this group who saved me. They carried the largest packs I’d ever seen. They offered me blankets, dry clothes, water, food, etc. I was too cold and shivering so hard I couldn’t fathom changing clothes; they persisted and then wrapped me in the blankets. They then had to study maps to figure the safest way out. We went through thick brush, fallen trees and down a steep slope and we still had to walk a few miles to one of the two vans that had made it to the fallen tree a mile from the start of the trail. One of the vans then got stuck in the mud, which added more than an additional hour to my evening.

I used the time to get to know this quality group of volunteers who had braved the elements to find me. Some were still in high school. I learned that they had to pay for their own gear and have made it a personal goal to support Portland Mountain Rescue with an annual donation.

William and I went back a few days later with the sun shining, a layer of fresh snow dusting the trail, and a GPS unit with my coordinates plugged in to see where I had gone wrong and “get back up on that horse right away.” I was fearful of going off trail again and didn’t want one scary incident to ruin my love of exploring.

It was bizarre to see the shelter I had built myself, and understand that I had done the right thing by staying put, as the terrain was steep with lots of fallen trees. I’ve learned to carry orange trail tape for when I want to explore new areas and mark turns, and I always bring my 10 Essentials. I have a set of those important, potentially life-saving items in every backpack I own. I never leave home without them.