This is a story of what starts out to be a day hike my wife and I recently took. On the drive to the trail head, we actually discuss how pathetic it is that people go out for a short hike, aren't prepared, get lost, and need to be rescued. As our hike progresses, we gradually and reluctantly realize we've gotten ourselves into just that situation. This is a story about preparing (or not preparing) for the unlikely, about making decisions under pressure, about having a fallback plan, and about humility.
January 30th, 2011. Shortly before noon. Our teenage daughter says, "By the way, there's no school tomorrow - can I go to a sleepover at Katie's house?".
Hmmm. So, what are we gonna do? It's partly cloudy, no rain in the forecast - wanna go for a hike?! How about we go up Beacon Rock in the gorge?!
Silke says, been there, done that, like ten times. Something new!
So we get on the Internet and find Elevator Shaft to Couger Rock - a 6.7 mile loop with 1,860 feet of elevation gain, passing through privately owned Nesika Lodge. We print out the hike description, grab a couple more layers of clothing, some snacks, a couple water bottles, and we're out the door at about 12:30. "You realize we're wearing nothing but cotton, right?" "Yeah, but - day hike, perfect conditions... we're just in the gorge."
Topic of conversation on the drive out: How do people get lost on day hikes in the Columbia River Gorge and need search and rescue? I just don't get it. I mean, the geography is pretty clear - everything flows downhill to the Columbia. Most of the trails loop, and you can always go back the way you came. And they're usually crowded with people.
We park at Multnomah Falls, the lot between the two sides of the freeway. We're on the trail by about 1:15. Starting off along with all the tourists on the trail up Multnomah Falls, we cut off at the first switchback, and hike along the Gorge Trail for about a half mile. Elevator Shaft is really cool - a 1,000' ascent up a moss covered rock slide. Beautiful views. 61 switchbacks by my count. The trail isn't always easy to follow, but you never lose it for long. On the way up, we stop and have lunch - canned sardines in mustard sauce with crackers, and an apple.
At the top of Elevator Shaft, another couple passes by on their way down. These are the first people we've seen since we left the main trail, and the last we would see today.
We continue the climb up to the next ridge. Time check - it's 2:15. We want to be back to the car by 4:30, home by 5, Silke can shower and be out the door by 5:30 to get to Bettina's dinner in Hillsboro by 6. She always goes all out - this is going to be good. Worst case scenario, Silke comes a little late to the dinner.
Our route going up the hillside to the next ridge isn't much of a trail - but it is a trail. Once on the ridge, we follow occasional pink trail makers tied to branches, but at some point the trail becomes ambiguous. We follow one path that eventually peters out, and then come back and take the other option, which also disappears. We don't see any more pink markers.
So we keep close to the edge of the ridge, and continue East toward Couger Rock. The bushwacking isn't too bad - but eventually, the slope we're traversing becomes steeper, and we can tell it's turning into a cliff shortly ahead, so we backtrack a bit and make our way higher up on the ridge to a point where it's safe to continue East. Worst case scenario, I drive Silke all the way to Hillsboro on the way home and she doesn't get a shower.
From there, we eventually come to Couger Rock. It's below us, toward the river. The hike description says to descend down to the rock, but then come back up to continue East along the ridge and then turn South, away from the river, to pick up the Larch Mountain Trail and loop back to Multnomah Falls. Since bushwacking has taken so much time, we talk about trying to descend back down to the Gorge Trail on the other side of Couger Rock. Hard to tell from 1800' up, but it looks do-able. Unfortunately, there's no trail. We descend another 10 or 15 minutes, before the underbrush starts getting thicker, and we start to see scattered cliffs. What we don't know is if there's a safe route through them. The further down we go, the longer it's going to take if we have to come back up to the ridge. Do we want to take that gamble? No. Damn. We decide we have to turn around and climb back up the distance we just descended. Things aren't looking so good. Worst case scenario, Silke misses the dinner. That would be so sad.
We climb back up, panting, without stopping for rests. We've wasted half an hour. We're exhausted.
OK - we need to re-evaluate the plan. We aren't lost - we know where we are. But we don't have a trail. We know going back the way we came means bushwacking almost an hour, and then descending the mossy rock slide as it's getting dark. Not a good option. We know ahead of us is Nesika Lodge and eventually the Larch Mountain Trail, a very well traveled route. But the route from here to there is one we've never taken.
Time to call Linda. She answers, with much background noise. "Hi! I'm vacuuming and rocking out to Van Morrison! What's up?!" We're running as I talk, heading East. "Linda. <pant> Here's the situation. <pant>" It's only a few seconds before the vacuum cleaner is off, the music is quiet, and Linda says, "OK - you're freaking me out. What do you want me to do?" We tell her where we're at, which direction we're headed, what our plan is, and ask if she can search for any maps showing the closest trails to where we are. Our connection gets lost. We turn off Silke's phone to save battery, leaving mine on, and keep running. We find a faint trail.
Linda calls back. We've drawn her in to our predicament, and she's probably as frantic as we are - but her focused energy is just what we need. None of her maps show any trail near Cougar Rock. But while we're talking on the phone, suddenly, right ahead of us, are three large buildings. It's Nesika Lodge. We check the doors - all locked, of course, and no one is around. There's a continuously running water spigot - we fill our bottles. There's a covered porch area. It's about 4:30. It'll be pretty dark in less than an hour. Worst case scenario, we have to descend the paved part of Multnomah Falls trail in the dark. That's do-able.
On the other side of Nesika Lodge, there's a trail, or maybe it's their access road. Linda learns the access road is Multnomah Basin Road, which leads many miles up near Larch Mountain - not a road we want to follow. There's a trail sign just East of the lodge: To the left, 4 miles to Oneonta Creek. (Huh - I wonder if that connects to Oneonta loop - we know that trail.) To the right, 4 miles to Multnomah Falls Lodge and our car. We go right. At this point we're still on the access road. There's a huge tree fallen over the road. My phone connection to Linda starts cutting out again. I'm able to tell her where we're at and which direction we're heading, and that our goal at this point is the described cut-off from the access road to Larch Mountain Trail, which is supposed to be within 1/2 mile. I ask her to research the people who own the lodge - worst case scenario at this point is we're spending the night there somehow. But our goal now is to find Larch Mountain Trail, and to get to the top of the paved descent before dark. Linda asks if she should call search and rescue. Oh, please, no! Then, we lose our connection. I turn off my phone to save battery. Did she hear me say no?
We find a cutoff trail to the right, like it's supposed to be. No signs. Christmas tree ornaments hang from tree branches, adding a beautiful but surreal twist to the scene. We're running. Hopes are high. After a few hundred yards, the trail hits the road again and our hopes crash back down. It must just cut off a loop of the road. So we turn right and continue.
Our printout describes a hairpin turn to the left, with a trail going off to the right which is a cutoff with switchbacks down to Larch Mountain Trail. We come to a 90 degree left turn in the road, with a trail going off to the right, and a sign with an arrow. We pause momentarily. OK - it's a left turn, but I'm not sure I'd call it a hairpin left turn. There's a trail right here like it says. And the sign says "Larch Mountain Trail" - but is it pointing to the trail, or pointing down the road? Gotta be the trail, right? Too much falls into place. So we take it - running again.
It's definitely getting darker. The trail continues on in this direction, and we run for maybe 5 minutes when we encounter some fallen branches. We climb over them. The trail hasn't been descending, no switchbacks like in the description. We cross some deteriorated planks over a marshy area. More fallen branches. The trail is starting to fizzle out - it looks like it hasn't been used in years. We stop. This isn't good. This isn't the trail. Do we go back and continue even further down the road? We're running out of light - if that doesn't pan out, we won't have time for a fall back plan. OK - this is it, then, time to go to the fall-back plan - we're heading back to Nesika Lodge. Silke's not convinced this is our reality. "No! Really? No! We can hike out in the dark - we've hiked in the dark before - we have our cell phones for light!" We're still jogging while we talk. "No way - there's *no* way - even if we do find the trail, you know how it is up here - even the well maintained trails cross creeks, have cliffs - lots of cliffs! There's no moon - it'll be pitch dark soon - that's even if we do find the trail!" It doesn't take long before we're on the same page, and we continue back to the lodge. Worst case scenario, now, is we can't get inside, and we spend the night under that covered area. But if we get back quickly, we may still have enough light to explore and find a way to get in one of the buildings. We run.
Soon, we're back to the road. It's getting dark. I turn my phone back on. Still no reception. But as we crest the ridge, suddenly my phone beeps to tell me I have a text message. It's from Linda: "George - lodge member - 503-572-8512, no key".
It's 4:58 as we arrive back at Nesika Lodge, and I call the number and George answers. Sounds maybe in his 60s. Very warm, friendly voice. He already knows our situation from talking to Linda.
"Beautiful place, George." "Thanks. You need to visit sometime under different circumstances! OK, now, I can talk you down to Multnomah Falls - you can do it in an hour." "We don't have an hour - the light's mostly gone already!" "Oh - right - you're up there. It's still pretty light here in the city. But you have flashlights, right?" "Uh - no." I describe our attempt at finding the trail - he recognizes which trail I'm talking about, and tells me we were heading out into nowhere. He'd drive out and get us, except in addition to all the fallen trees, one of the bridges recently washed out. "So, no hidden key?" "Right - so you should break a window and get yourself inside for the night." "Oh - no - really? First we're going to try the windows, hopefully we can get in without doing any damage." "Well, good luck with that. No chance on the lodge - it's practically bullet proof. Maybe on the women's dorm - that's the East-most building." "OK - I'll call you back."
It's starting to rain now. This wasn't in the forecast. Silke has a rain shell. I brought one, too - it's sitting in the back seat of the car. I am such an idiot.
We start trying windows on the women's dorm. They're all new, with screens. Silke's starting to shiver. We try 3 or 4, removing the screens and trying to lift and wiggle the glass. No luck - not even close. Silke comes back from around the corner, "Come here - there's an old window!" Sure enough. Wood frame, single pane - held in place with three bent nails! I use my Leatherman to bend the nails back, but the window is stuck tight. Silke appears again (how does she keep disappearing without me noticing?). She's carrying... an umbrella? The long, skinny, metal tip fits perfectly in the corner between the window frame and the molding. The window slowly pries out. Silke catches it, puts it on the ground, I boost her in, and she's got the door open a few seconds later! We start exploring, using our cell phones as flashlights.
OK - worst case scenario, we might be cold, but we've got shelter, and at first light we hike out toward Oneonta - it's got to hit that loop we hiked a few years ago - then we can hitchhike to the car.
I call George with the good news - he's genuinely happy. "OK, now, you'll find candles and matches on the shelf, you'll find sleeping bags downstairs in the locker, and there should be wood there by the wood stove. Make yourself a fire!"
Holy cow. Now, we're on vacation! The franticness of the last 90 minutes fades away. We find the candles, and 20 way-too-old strike-anywhere matches later we get one lit. We find the sleeping bags downstairs. The upstairs room is mostly filled with bunk beds, the mattresses all turned on edge. As we settle in and get the fire going, the rain starts coming down harder. It's pitch black outside - no light whatsoever - and the sound of the rain pounding on the roof drowns out the occasional sound of a truck passing on highway 84 1800' below. We hang the sleeping bags near the wood stove to warm them up and get rid of the damp musty smell. A pinhole roof leak lets an occasional drop of water through to land on top the wood stove with a splat and a hiss. We sit on a small bench in front of the wood stove, the two candles barely casting a shell of light just a few feet in any direction.
We call Linda. She's a nervous wreck. She really wants to call search and rescue - I assure her we're really very cozy now. She asks to talk to Silke. She knows from past experience I can be an unreliable witness - I've been known to downplay events which, coming from Silke's mouth, evoke an entirely different reaction. But she's able to convince Linda that we're really OK.
Silke calls her dinner host and leaves a message. How much to say? Too little and it sounds like she's just blown off the dinner. Too much and they'll be worried. She settles on something informative yet vague, but assuring them she was OK. We learned later that, after hearing the message, they spent the evening contemplating whether *they* should call search and rescue.
It's 7:00pm. We're exhausted. Hungry. "Bettina prepared an amazing meal with an unbelievable dessert - she always does." We have 40 almonds and 1/4 of a chocolate bar left, which will be good to save for the morning before the hike out. The sleeping bags are almost hot to the touch as we crawl inside them. It'll be at least an hour, stomachs growling, before we actually fall asleep, talking through everything that's happened, and everything that still needs to happen in the morning. It's pouring even harder. Worst case scenario, we have to hike out tomorrow morning in the rain.
I wake up. It's pitch dark, and cold. It's midnight and the fire is almost dead. Silke wakes up as I add more wood. It's still pouring. "No, I think that's wind." "It wasn't windy earlier - I think it's rain."
We wake up to an alarm going off on Silke's phone. I don't remember falling back asleep. "Oh - six o'clock - time for my morning walk with Lisa Ham. Oops - sorry, Lisa." It's still pitch black, but it should start getting light soon. It's so cold! We stay snuggled in our sleeping bags and talk. It still sounds the same outside, so I start resigning myself to hiking out in the rain. The windows are starting to glow with a faint light.
"Are we going to tell anyone about this? It's way too embarrassing." "I know. We're pathetic. How could we let this happen?" "OK - let's review the facts. First and foremost - we aren't lost! Pathetically unprepared for anything but a day hike in dry weather, but at no point were we lost." "Yeah, sure, but we don't how to get back." "Sure we do - we absolutely do! We head back West along the ridge, bushwhack for two hours until we get to elevator shaft, and then descend for an hour down moss covered wet rocks!" "Not a good option." "Yeah - OK - agreed."
We can see the silhouettes of trees outside through the windows. They're moving. "OK - I'm getting up." "Really? It's sooooo cold!" I get dressed - the phone says it's 6:50. I go outside to discover that Silke's right - the sound we've been listening to isn't rain, it's wind. And the reason it's not raining is because at some point in the night, it turned into snow. The grounds of Nesika Lodge are now white!
"I think if we'd have spent the night outside, we would have died." "No. No way. People spend the night lost in the woods and make it through just fine." "We would have frozen! Well, I would have." "We'd have kept each other warm. We probably wouldn't have slept, and it would have been absolutely miserable, but we would have found an overhang somewhere to keep out of the rain, maybe a blanket of leaves, gotten up and jumped around now and then to keep the circulation going. But that didn't happen."
We put things back the way they were, eat 20 almonds and 1/8th of a chocolate bar each, and pull the door locked behind us. I call George.
"No, no problem, I'm up - I'm at work." I tell him our dilemma about which trail to take. He describes the route we tried yesterday to a tee, up to the point where we took the wrong trail. Continue on the road another quarter mile and you come to the unmistakable hairpin left turn. "If you come to the bridge, you've gone too far - turn back." With this we decide to give Larch Mountain Trail another shot.
Sure enough, it's an unmistakable hairpin left turn - we're talking 180 degrees - with a trail going off to the right, which immediately starts heading downhill into Multnomah Basin, and then we hit the switchbacks and hear the sound of Multnomah Creek. It's hard to decide whether this is the happiest we've been in the last 15 hours, or the second happiest.
It's a beautiful morning for a hike. The trace of snow quickly disappears as we descend into the basin. It's not raining, but everything is wet from last night.
"OK - new worst case scenario." "What?!" "Well, our car has been parked in a day use area overnight. What if someone got worried and there's a search and rescue happening after all? Worst case scenario, we get to the trail head and we're met with news cameras." "OK - if that happens, we just walk right past and ignore them, right? 'No, not us - just on a day hike', right?"
We get to the parking lot an hour and a half later. The car is sitting just like we left it. No news crews. That scenario, we would soon learn, eagerly tuning in to hourly news updates, would happen tomorrow, to two 50-something women who, at that very moment, were preparing to leave for their day hike in the gorge.