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Out Alive: Chased by Widowmakers

A violent storm ravages a stressed forest, threatening to crush two dayhikers.

The Victims Falling trees nearly splattered 22-year-old Joshua Prestin and his friend Ben Earwicker, 32, while they were hiking near Idaho’s Crooked River on June 4, 2012.

When a towering ponderosa pine crashed down less than 15 feet from us, my friend Ben Earwicker and I knew we had to find cover—or die trying. The first sign of danger had occurred less then 20 minutes earlier, when an old-growth giant toppled 30 yards away.

We were on the edge of the Crooked River in Idaho’s Boise National Forest, so we blamed the loose, soggy soil above the cut banks for the timber’s instability. But when we noticed that a moderate gust tipped a second, healthy-looking tree nearby, we looked around the forest—ravaged by pine beetles—and saw that we were about to be caught in a deadly game of pick-up-sticks.

We’d set out eight hours earlier on a 32-mile route we planned to cover alpine-style in just one day, and the wind picked up as late afternoon approached. Since we didn’t plan on camping, we weren’t on alert for clearings or looking for sites away from deadfall hazard zones. We’d checked local weather forecasts before we left that morning, but a 30-percent chance of thunderstorms didn’t raise any alarms.

As we hiked, we didn’t think much of the darkening gray-green clouds rolling into the valley, the increased humidity, or the relative closeness of deer and elk, which seemed skittish. We also mistook the increasing frequency of 10- to 15-mph gusts for anabatic breezes—common upslope currents caused by rising, sun-warmed air that we’d experienced many previous afternoons here.

Had we been more alert, we might have recognized the signs of an impending storm. But we didn’t. What finally made the danger painfully obvious was the violent gust that toppled the second tree and shot dart-like pine needles through the air. We were on the leading edge of a serious front. Firecracker-like snaps and booming crashes rang out as pines across the valley snapped mid-trunk and leveraged giant root balls from the earth.

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