Thirty-four days was how long I was lost in the Cascade Mountains back in 1995. When balloon adventurer Steve Fossett's plane took off in Nevada and was never seen again, I had some hope for a while the searchers might find him alive. The wreckage of his light plane and his remains were eventually discovered close to a mountain summit at Monmouth Lake, California. I can relate to Fossett in some ways, and when he first disappeared I wrote five articles about it, hoping they would find him alive. I felt a kinship with him, since we both did one thing that got us into trouble. We failed to tell anyone exactly where we were going. I told people I was heading up near Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State to camp out for a week. That means 'almost anywhere'.
Because I couldn't leave a vehicle at the trailhead, I had a friend drive me to the drop-off point for the hike. I hardly paid attention when he said he was going down to Phoenix for a few weeks. After I got stuck up in the mountains, no one knew who had taken me up the trailhead, or even where I went, exactly.
It was April, and some hard rains had melted most of the snow. The weather was warming up and I felt good. My friend had dropped me off on a 'dead' exit about six miles west of Snoqualmie Summit. On the south side of the exit is a trail up to a small mountain. On the north side the forest begins. I particularly liked the north side because it contained a lot of old growth trees and it was like hiking inside a great cathedral.
I saddled up my pack and headed north from the highway.
After a couple of miles I emerged onto a Forest Service road and followed it until it ended at a trailhead. Instead of following the trail, I struck out cross-country through the heavy growth. I knew I was near the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, but I wasn't worried. The weather was good, and I kept marking the trail every 50-100 yards so I could find my way back later.
I was determined to see how far I could penetrate into this forest, and I fought my way through it for two full days. Theoretically, you could wander through it all the way to Canada and only cross a couple of highways along the way. On the third day I came to a small rushing creek and decided to set up camp for the night. I was tired and wet from the cold rain that had been pounding down all day. I crawled into my little backpacking tent and slept.
The next morning I awoke because something was pressing against my face. It was my tent. I shoved it away and heard about fifty pounds of snow thump to the ground. I unzipped the door and saw to my horror that almost two feet of snow had fallen during the night, and it was still coming down thick. I chopped a few sticks from a nearby tree and propped up the tent roof.
And it snowed. 'All Day and All of the Night,' as the Kinks said.
By the next morning, I knew I was in trouble. I realized that boonie-crashing back through twenty miles of alder-choked, second-growth forest in deep snow would be impossible. I took stock and tried not to panic. I accepted the fact I was staying put for a while.
I got into some dry clothes and spent the rest of the day building a fireplace out of stone. Once I had the fire going, I chopped down some small poles and built a lean-to shelter over the tent. After dumping my pack, I took stock and found I had enough food for perhaps three days, plus the emergency kit I always carried. It contained bouillon cubes (50) hot chocolate packs (20) and a bag of hard candy.
The snow continued to dump heavily. After the first week passed, I fell into a routine of getting out of bed, gathering wood for the fire to last through the following night, and drying out any wet clothes. I rationed my food and kept waiting for a good rain to beat down the snow. At first, I thought about trying to hike out in the deep snow, but as the days went by I got weaker from lack of food, and it seemed easier to stay put. All my energy was going into getting heat and keeping dry.
Two weeks later, I had accepted the idea of camping in the same spot, and except for the lack of food, I didn't mind too much. It was May now and the rain finally started falling and softening the snow. I had a radio, and I rewarded myself with an hour's listening each day, and no more, to try and save the batteries. I always tuned in the news, but there was nothing about a search. I found out later that because I occasionally had gone off for weeks at a time, no one was worried, and I was never reported missing. I always showed up - sooner or later - perhaps a bit bedraggled, but I always came back.
Once, I took a trip to the Canadian Rockies and was out of contact for six weeks. No one worried about me then, either. People just figured I was at it again.
The snow had been replaced by a steady rain that put out my fires and soaked everything outside the tent. Ideas of trying to walk out, even though most of the snow had melted, were replaced with thoughts of spending more time in my sleeping bag instead. The days passed and I did the minimum I needed to stay dry and warm. I set up a strict cycle and stretched out my hot chocolates and bouillon cubes to their ultimate limit, playing little games about how little of each I could use. Fortunately, I had water nearby and I drank a lot of boiled water slightly flavored with chocolate or beef cubes.
I was shocked to realize one morning that I had been out there for thirty days. I started thinking about everyone I knew who might be going crazy wondering if I was still alive. The incessant rain had finally stopped and I decided it was time to try and get out. I stuffed my last two chocolate packs into my pocket, ditched almost all my gear except my tent and sleeping bag, and cut myself a hiking stick.
It took me another four days to work my way out of the woods, but I finally crashed through onto the Interstate 90 freeway a couple of miles east of my original starting point. It was dark. I found enough energy to start walking down the shoulder of the highway. A guy picked me up and took me to a fast-food restaurant in North Bend, where I made a phone call - and then ate almost everything on the menu. When I weighed myself later, I had dropped from 185 pounds down to 140.
My friends were seriously angry with me when they found out what had happened. But a couple of weeks later I was back out again, to their chagrin. I go better prepared these days, though. And I always tell people exactly where I'm going.
Author Note: I just remembered my mother reads this column...and I never told her about this incident. I'll probably have to tell her about the Ozette Island thing, too...