Thanks to the Blue Star Parks program, my husband Rob and I had the opportunity to explore the picturesque state of Washington this summer using the America the Beautiful pass. This pass is free for military families! It allows you to explore over 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks, national wildlife refuges, and national forests and grasslands. Learn more here: https://bluestarfam.org/blue-star-parks/ .
We really wanted to write a Blue Star Families blog about North Cascades National Park and Mt. Baker National Forest. We had our hearts set on climbing up Hidden Lake Trail, where we could get incredible pictures of a beautiful lake hidden between snow-capped peaks. We were going to describe our climb and the views in detail and get as many pictures as our new camera would hold.
Unfortunately, none of that happened. We spent the day saving a hiker’s life while risking our own. So, we won’t be sharing a boring blog with lots of incredible pictures; instead, we’re going to share our crazy story followed by the ranger station’s tips for hiking in the wilderness (because that’s just about the only picture we were able to get that day).
The 3-hour drive from Seattle to Marblemount was beautiful – winding roads with rolling hills covered in tall evergreens. We stopped at an off-the-beaten-path Ranger Station to fill up on water and grab a few maps.
From the station, we drove 45 minutes to the Hidden Lake Trailhead. There wasn’t much around – a couple of campgrounds and a few bikers taking pictures at an abandoned overlook. The road up was rough – a steep dirt road barely wide enough for one vehicle with crazy switchbacks and plenty of potholes. We were definitely thankful for our rental truck with 4-wheel drive and extra insurance! We joked on the way up that I had never driven off-road before – foreshadowing for what was to come, I guess. We finally made it to the top of the road and set out with our packs on the 4.5-mile trail up to Hidden Lake.
The first mile was great – difficult – but, the well-worn trail stayed in the trees so we had plenty of shade. We came to a huge clearing and started to see snow – a reminder that even though the forecast was 80 and sunny, the mountains were still shedding their winter layer.
I am not a fan of cold and snow, so I was less than pleased when we realized part of the trail was covered in snow and ice and we would have to scramble up. The sun was intense; it was rapidly melting the snow and creating rivers and waterfalls all around us (and under us). We quickly realized that we did not bring the right gear to get to the top of the peak like we had originally planned. I wanted to turn around then – my legs and lungs were already screaming, and the view where we were was good enough. But Rob convinced me that if we could get just a bit higher the view would be incredible. And the nature surrounding us really was beautiful – the green, the flowers, the birds, and yes, even the snow.
We kept hearing a strange bird-like whistle. At first, we were sure that the measured rhythm was birds calling to each other and echoing in the valley. After a while, Rob decided to yell out, just to see if anything would respond. His yell of “hello” was immediately met with “HELP MEEEEEE!” This is the part where our quest to get those incredible pictures abruptly ended.
Way off in the distance, next to a huge waterfall, we could see someone waving a bright-colored jacket. She continued screaming for help and it was clear that she was in serious trouble. We both knew that crossing the ice shelf to get to where she was would be incredibly dangerous, but there was no way we were both going to leave her to get help. Mission-mode kicked in – I gave Rob all of my water and warm-weather gear, and he jammed the truck keys into my bag. We exchanged a quick hug and “be careful,” and we set off in opposite directions – Rob toward the hiker in distress, and me to the truck to find someone who could help.
As I was sprinting down the mountain (powered by pure adrenaline and probably a guardian angel), I saw two other hikers moving quickly toward Rob and the hiker in distress. Relief flooded over me knowing that he wouldn’t have to do this alone. I met two more couples on the way down; no one had cell phone service (of course – we were in the middle of nowhere), so I continued my marathon down the trail. I finally made it to the parking lot, jumped in the truck, and began what became my first (terrifying) four-wheeling experience.
I knew where the Ranger Station was but I also knew that it would take me a really long time to get there, and the clock was ticking. Remember when I mentioned the campground driving in? Somehow in the chaos, I remembered that, and somehow there was someone standing outside when I pulled up. And they had a radio! We called for help at 3:20 pm – almost two hours after I left Rob.
The next three hours were hectic – conversations with Sheriffs, First Responders, Park Rangers, Search and Rescue. At one point I think they had the Navy on the phone, trying to figure out if they could fly a helicopter in from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island to assist. At the time, it felt like things were taking forever to be put into motion. Looking back now, and reflecting on how far out in the wilderness we were, it’s amazing that the rescue team was able to assemble so quickly. Finally, at about 6:00 pm, after I had given what little details I had to about 500 different people, I was told that Search and Rescue and a helicopter were on their way – it would just take time. I was instructed to drive back up to the trailhead and wait for Rob
As a military spouse, I have always found the best way to stay calm in any situation (especially dangerous missions or crazy deployments) is to stay busy. The busier you are, the faster the time goes by and the less time you have to worry. That 45-minute drive back up to the trailhead, when I took my first deep breath of the day and finally allowed my thoughts to wander, was agonizing. Was the hiker ok? Was this life or death? Was Rob ok? Did he make it to her, or did he fall down a waterfall himself? Was I right in insisting they bring in a helicopter? Maybe it wasn’t that serious? Or maybe they needed more than one? And why was it taking SO LONG?!
Finally, at 7:30 pm, SIX HOURS after we said goodbye, Rob emerged from the woods with two other hikers who I recognized as the ones who also heard the calls for help and ran to the rescue. After I squeezed Rob as hard as my tired arms could, he quickly explained what they had gone through…
The three of them made it safely to the base of the waterfall. The rushing water made it almost impossible to communicate with the injured hiker, but they were able to hear her say that her name was Sara, she had fallen from the top of the mountain, she was stuck on a ledge with nowhere to go, all of her gear was gone, she was cold and wet, and she probably had a broken hand and broken foot. Rob and his new friends tried desperately to get to her, but the dangerous conditions and her precarious location made it impossible; there was no way she was getting out of there without a helicopter. Luckily, two more hikers with more gear and more climbing experience showed up and the five of them were able to get a bag of supplies to Sara to keep her warm and hydrated. And then, they waited. And waited. And waited. At about 6:00 pm, Rob started to get nervous. The hikers who arrived later knew that I had made it to the parking lot, but no one knew what happened after that. Was I lost? Was Search and Rescue lost? Did I crash the truck? Did the Park Rangers understand the severity of the situation? All of that worry aside, three out of five of them (Rob included) were not prepared for extreme weather conditions, and they were losing daylight. So, they promised Sara and the other two hikers that they would find someone to help no matter what, and they made their way down the mountain.
After exchanging pictures and contact information with the Park Rangers and Search and Rescue, we finally headed home. And as soon as we left the trailhead, we heard the helicopter! We knew Sara was going to be ok. A few days later, we received an update that Sara was, in fact, and very thankful for everyone who helped her that day.
Hiking Safety Tips
Our trip to Hidden Lake Trail was unforgettable – just not in the way that we had expected. We came away with many lessons learned, especially about being prepared in the wilderness. With that in mind, here are some hiking tips for your next adventure to a National Park.
Unless you are hiking on a paved trail less than 1 mile (think: able to run to the parking lot quickly if something goes wrong), here are must-have items (in no particular order):
- Navigation: Make sure you have at least a map and a compass. If you’re going somewhere very remote, or to an area where snow might be covering the trail, bring a GPS. While I had the presence of mind to take a picture of where the injured hiker was, GPS coordinates would have made it much easier for the helicopter to find her.
- Sun protection: Even if it’s cold and snowy, or if you think you won’t end up out of the trees in a sunny spot, pack sunblock, a hat, and sunglasses. Sun reflecting off of white snow is no joke – Rob had the sunburn that day to prove it.
- Insulation: At a minimum, pack a rain layer, a long-sleeve shirt, and a dry pair of socks. You never know what you (or another hiker) might need in an emergency.
- First-aid supplies: Band-aids, antiseptic spray, and an ace bandage are sufficient. Don’t bring more than you know how to use.
- Illumination: A small headlamp or flashlight AND spare batteries are a must.
- Fire: Always have at least two ways to make fire. Waterproof matches and a lighter are good options; we also carry a flint. Again, don’t bring anything you don’t know how to use.
- Tools: Our go-to tools are cord (or rope), a multi-tool, and duct tape. Military life taught us that you can fix anything with 550 cord and duct tape.
- Nutrition: High protein and high carb snacks are perfect for hiking – granola bars, beef jerky, trail mix. We bring tuna lunch packs – they make a great picnic lunch at the top of a mountain.
- Hydration: Bring as much as you can carry comfortably; you can never have too much water. We also carry a small water filter and iodine tabs (you can find these at military surplus stores or any camping supply store). Again, you never know when you may come across a hiker in an emergency; we have given water to other hikers more times than we can count.
- Emergency shelter: No need to pack a tent; a tarp or mylar blanket can easily be used in an emergency, and a mylar blanket can also be used for an extra layer in cold weather.
Kate and Rob’s Add-Ons:
- Insect repellant: We always douse ourselves in bug spray before hikes – you never know what kinds of bugs you’ll find, even in snow.
- Communication: Carry multiple signaling devices – whistle, flashing light beacon, cell phone with battery pack (just in case you have service), a VS-17 panel (a bright-colored signaling tarp), a handheld VHF radio (you can find the channels park rangers use online or at a ranger station). The whistle was vital in our recent emergency situation – if Sara didn’t have a whistle attached to her jacket when she fell, we may never have heard her calling for help.
- Emergency Mode: One important thing we learned on this trip was how to put a cell phone in Emergency Mode. Doing this turns off all background apps and maximizes battery. When you hit the “Make Emergency Call” button it turns your phone into a beacon, which means it will keep searching for signal and continuously try to dial 911. Even if you never actually hear a person pick up, it will let emergency dispatchers know there’s a problem and will help to pinpoint your location.
Our experience was a great reminder that we are stronger than we sometimes think, but there will always be things that are beyond our control.
Remember to do what you can, where you are, with what you have. Try to make yourself safe and whatever you do, don’t make the situation worse. Rob and the other hikers made “Don’t Make it Worse” their mantra that day; even though they felt helpless because they couldn’t physically get to Sara, they knew that putting themselves in danger would make the bad situation worse.
In any situation, good or bad, staying calm and maintaining a positive attitude is key. I feel like military families have a lot of practice at this! I’m convinced that my experience as a military spouse prepared me for what I had to do that day – stay calm, push through it, and believe that everything will be ok in the end. Rob had no hesitations sending me for help – he knew that I would get the job done no matter what it took, just like I always have as a military spouse. (I guess I am stronger than I give myself credit for!)
Most importantly, remember that the mountain (or waterfall, scenic vista, whatever your destination) isn’t going anywhere. If it takes extra time for you to be safe, that’s ok. If you don’t make it to the top, that’s ok, too. In the wilderness, Mother Nature has control; respect that, and enjoy the adventure.
Written by: Kate Oyer