SEATTLE -- Hiker Mary Owen was still 2,000 feet from the summit of Oregon’s Mt. Hood when a whiteout turned the mountain into a frozen, impenetrable blur. Determined to reach the top, she kept climbing.
“I’d be walking, and these big crags would come looming out of the mist. It was eerie, kind of weirdly surreal, almost like walking through a dream,” Owen said Monday. She spent six days awaiting rescue from the snowy peak after she became disoriented and took a crippling fall.
An Oregon National Guard helicopter crew spotted her Saturday morning on a ridge on Sandy Glacier, where she had built a snow shelter and started a small fire with pine needles and snack bar wrappers, confident even after a week that help would arrive.
“It’s just been one miracle after another,” Owen, a 23-year-old college student from Newberg, Ore., said in a telephone interview from her hospital bed.
Owen, an experienced hiker, had dreamed for three years of climbing Mt. Hood, the 11,249-foot peak that looms over Portland. She and friends scheduled a climb over last week’s spring break, and when her friends had to change plans, Owen decided to go alone.
“I was being very headstrong,” she said.
She left her main backpack in her car Sunday morning, March 24, and set off with a day pack, food and water in what was to be about a 13-hour trip. After filing a climbing plan that said she’d return by 5 a.m. Monday, she set off for what should have been an uneventful climb -- until the whiteout at about 9,000 feet.
“Sometimes you could see 30 feet in front of you, sometimes you could see 2 feet. I knew I was pretty close to the summit,” she said. “I kept going.”
Eventually realizing how disoriented she was, Owen turned back just short of the final ridge. She was trying to follow her own tracks down when she lost them. She ended up nearly all the way on the other side of the mountain, descending into a steep canyon.
“As I got lower and lower, it got to the point where it was like swimming, trying to get through [the snow], so I was pretty much letting it push me downhill,” she said. Having spied the lights of a nearby ski run on the top of the canyon ridge, she attempted to climb it with her ice ax, but slipped.
“I fell 40 feet and tumbled, and ended up in the snow again,” she said. She badly gouged her thigh on a tree and sprained her ankle.
At 4 a.m. on March 25, she managed to dig a small cave in the snow and sleep for a few hours. She stayed there all the next day, melting snow in her water bottle to drink. When small drifts of snow began washing over her -- a warning that an avalanche could be next -- she dug a new cave in a slightly safer location.
Owen knew her surroundings well enough to know that a town lay at the end of the canyon, about eight miles away. “I’m thinking in my mind, I can crawl eight miles. But I’d get up and crawl across the snow slope for awhile, and it turned out it was a lot tougher than I thought. And my fingers were starting to get frozen.”
As it turned out, rescuers didn’t set out right away. Although she said she signed in for the climb, her registration wasn't found. It wasn’t until her parents reported her missing on Thursday that Clackamas County sheriff’s officials started trying to figure out what had happened.
Owen’s car was spotted in the parking lot Thursday night. By Friday, when friends confirmed she had hoped to climb the mountain, officials assembled search and rescue crews.
“We found a backpack in the vehicle, which obviously gave us cause for a lot of concern right off the bat -- because if she’s up there hiking with no supplies, that’s obviously not good,” Sheriff’s Deputy Bryon O’Neil said.
By late Friday, rescue crews began combing the known trouble spots around Mt. Hood where climbers often founder. Owen said she saw the first search planes Friday, and believed they’d seen her -- but no one came.
Still, she said, she felt oddly at peace.
“That whole week I’d been there, God hadn’t said anything and nobody was praying for me, and I felt totally abandoned,” she said. “And Friday morning I woke up with a scripture verse in my head about Christ telling the disciples not to worry about what you eat or drink or wear, because God takes care of the lilies of the field,” she said. “I was just so sure that they were going to find me.”
The National Guard helicopter spotted Owen on its first run Saturday morning after she had moved to a prominent spot on the ridgetop. A medic swung down and raised her on a hoist.
At Portland’s Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, doctors at first warned Owen she might lose her toes. Since then, however, they have said she will likely make a full recovery.
“I knew that I would live. I knew that I could live for a long time. Because there’s just a lot of life in people,” Owen said. “But there were times when I was really, really discouraged, and times when I was sort of wishing I could freeze up or something. All of the nights were hard. But during the daytime, I was sane and at peace. The canyon was actually beautiful.”