It was a tough week when the snow and ice hit us earlier this month. A lot of folks spent a few days and nights in the dark, some getting pretty cold by the end of it. But, we had it easy compared to at least seven people who got trapped by the blizzard at Mount Rainier. So far, only three of them have made it out alive.
Josephine Johnson, 53, and her boyfriend Jim Dickman had been climbing mountains for years before they decided to take that fateful snowshoe trek at Mount Rainier National Park.
They checked in with the park staff that morning, and decided to make it a quick trip since there was a storm moving in. At first it really didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary.
“It was just normal, kind of overcast. There was a bit of snow. Visibility wasn’t awesome, but it never is usually this time of year up there,” Johnson says.
But it took just a few hours for things to get so thick they could hardly see ten feet in front of them. They were thinking of turning back when they saw another group of snowshoers wandering toward the other side of the ridge.
Johnson says, “We basically wanted to go warn them that it probably would be a good idea to turn around.”
That’s the group that saw one of their members slide down a hill. He told the others to go back, and he ended up missing for several days.
Pretty soon, midday turned into afternoon and the couple knew they needed to get out of the cold. It took a few hours for them to get a snow cave built. They covered the entrance with their packs and, as the snow continued to fall, used their poles to create breathing holes.
“We shivered and we shook. It’s very cold sitting on the floor of a snow cave,” Johnson says. “Any part of your body that came in contact with the ice, after three or four minutes it was very painful, and so we moved all night. We had to roll from side to side, sit down, lie up, just try to get comfortable. And we didn’t sleep.”
Fifteen hours later they saw the first light of day coming through one of their air holes and dug themselves out. They were hoping to see a landmark that might lead them back to civilization, but Johnson says they couldn’t see anything but white.
“There was no definition in the snow, so you don’t know if the next step you’re going to fall ten feet down into a trough of snow or off the edge of a cliff. It was very, very scary.”
Johnson and Dickman spent Sunday morning slowly, carefully making their way down into a ravine they hoped would lead them out. In the middle of it, Josephine lost one of her snowshoes, something that would make the next 24 hours even more formidable.
Once they got to the bottom, they realized there was no way out, and they would have to climb all the way back up.
“I counted my steps. Every hundred steps I would stop and look up at the ridge. I would look back and go ‘Oh, look how far I’ve come. Maybe, just maybe, I can do this,'” Johnson says.
They’d nearly made it back up when the sun, once again, began to sink behind the storm and they knew they’d have to spend another night out on their own. They again built another snow cave and hunkered down for another sleepless night.
Johnson says, “It was kind of a do or die day on Monday. I personally just knew that if we didn’t get out that day we probably would never get out.”
So, they pushed on. This time staying on top of the ridge and hoping to spot any sign they were going in the right direction. The blizzard began to let up early that morning. It wasn’t long before Dickman spotted a group of skiers in the distance.
“It was the first, human life that we’d seen in three days and I was so relieved. I just knew then that we were saved,” Johnson says.
The rescue team was actually out searching for a Korean snowshoer who had gone missing two days earlier. As for the two other teams who still have not been seen since that weekend, Johnson says her heart is with their families.
“I don’t know what it was, our preparedness, our strength, our stamina, hope, I don’t know. I don’t know what saves people. Why some people perish while others do not. I just am very happy that I’m here, obviously, but my heart goes out to those still captured on the mountain.
She says if she could have done one thing differently it would’ve been to put their plans in writing. Their family and friends never sent rescuers out for them, because they didn’t know the couple was trapped in the storm. Josephine says telling their friends they were heading out for a hike wasn’t enough because their friends didn’t know at what point they were overdue.
As for her future, Johnson says she already has plans to summit Mount Rainier this summer.