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After an hour and a half of touching every rock, stick, and plant stem in the area, I sat down in disbelief. My glasses were gone and I was all but blind.
I knew my glasses were around here somewhere. They had to be. A branch flicked them off my face and into the snow. They must have fallen just 20 feet from where I’d stopped sliding. I thought I’d seen where they landed—sort of. I’m so nearsighted that my focus is only sharp 3 inches in front of my face. all I had to do was find them, then I could regain my bearings and finish this trip before it turned into a nightmare.
I had set out the night before to hike a 20-mile loop on the Skyline Ridge Trail in Washington’s Olympic Range. When I left, I was torn between trekking the whole loop or hiking a few miles for a sunset view and then turning back. I’m an experienced Southwest night hiker and was keen to try it in a new place.
After 3 miles of switchbacks I came to my first creek crossing. The bridge indicated by my guidebook was there, but the creek was a torrent of whitewater, high over its banks, cutting off access. I took several tenuous steps into the water and braced my body against my wooden staff to gain the bridge. It was doable, but I thought it would be too dangerous to do again in the dark. I had some warm layers with me, so I figured I’d just hike the entire circuit.
The trail shot upward after the creek crossing, and I gained a ridgeline broken by chunks of mossy rock that were luminous with alpenglow. I hit patches of lingering snow as darkness settled. The spring moon was so bright, I didn’t even need my headlamp to find the way.
At some point, after trekking over snow for most of the night, I realized I’d lost the trail. I postholed up a long, steep ridge so I could reorient myself. What I saw at the top took my breath away: the rising sun illuminating 7,979-foot Mt. Olympus.
I started downhill on my best-guess bearing. Within a mile, I realized I was boxed in at the confluence of two raging, snowmelt-swollen creeks. When I stepped down to scout a crossing, I lost my footing. My flailing arm caught a sapling, but it slid out of my grip and shot across my face, hooking my glasses and launching them skyward.
After an hour and a half of touching every rock, stick, and plant stem in the area, I sat down in disbelief. My glasses were gone and I was all but blind. It hadn’t even occurred to me to carry a spare pair. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
A kaleidoscope of greens, grays, and blues and detail-less globs shape-shifted before my eyes. I mentally retraced my route—rough and slippery terrain that tested me with all my senses intact. There was no way I could backtrack.
I opted to try and skirt a series of 40-foot cliffs I’d seen before I lost my glasses, then climb to the ridge where I hoped to figure out where I was. But I hadn’t noticed the terrain above the cliffs was scary-steep, too. I squinted down at my feet and hoped they’d stick to the inclining slope over the void. I ascended slowly, passing textured shades of green and brown, feeling around with my staff. Everything blended together into a puzzle of colors and sounds.
And then, suddenly, I could see perfectly. Standing right ahead of me, clad in a red flannel shirt and bearded like Paul Bunyan, was a giant. Chopping wood. I blinked, looked again, and he stood still, staring back at me. I hiked toward him until he vanished. I shook my head and stumbled on, farther into the forest. A half-mile later the trees cleared and I spied what looked like a meadow. I approached to find myself right on the edge of a steep drop into an avalanche chute. My brain was trying to make sense of the limited information it got from my eyes; vision had gone from my biggest asset to my biggest liability.
I hiked upward to what I thought was a safe spot to cross the chute, and kicked steps into the 40-degree slope. It began to wear me down—simply looking for good footing felt taxing. When I slipped, I gripped my staff and thought about how easily I could pinball to the bottom. But going on was the only option; the distant humming of helicopter rotors urged me to get somewhere more visible. I had told my girlfriend where I was headed, and she knew to call for help when I didn’t check in that morning.
When I crested the chute, I couldn’t believe my eyes: A grandiose Swiss chalet reflected the setting sun only a short ways off. But when I got there, I found another clump of trees mocking me. Exhausted and beaten, I sat down and layered up to endure the subfreezing night, shivering all the while.
The next morning, I ate my tiny ration of a granola bar and climbed beyond the trees, higher and higher until I realized I was stuck on another steep incline. My body felt wrecked from constant climbing and backtracking. I couldn’t see to navigate down, but the towering stone face above was unclimbable. Despair gripped me. I didn’t know where I was, where I was going, or how to get there. I wrote a goodbye note to my girlfriend. If this gets to you, know that I loved you, and I’m so sorry I screwed this up…
As I looked out over the featureless ridgelines, I thought I saw an enormous valley ahead of me—the type of place I could be seen for rescue. Was it real? I might die trying to find out. When I stood up, anger and fear rose in me and I ran like a madman, sidehilling the 40-degree slope until I came to rest just above the forest. I glanced at my blurry valley of hope, and picked my way down until nightfall. I spent the night curled up in a snowless spot in the forest.
The next morning, I filled my bottles and stumbled through the brush, exhausted, sleep-deprived, and intent on reaching the clearing. I came to another avalanche chute, this one tangled with vines and vegetation. I thought it flattened out about 30 feet down. I would attempt to rappel using the vines. Anything that made my route to salvation more direct was worth the risk.
I lowered myself hand-over-hand, and looked down after 30 feet only to realize I was just halfway. I grabbed another vine and I slid farther. With 10 feet to go I ran out of vine. I let go, falling the rest of the way into waist-deep snow. I dug myself out.
The sound of helicopters continued through the fourth night. Suddenly, I awoke to the sound of a chopper coming straight at me. I switched on my flashlight and waved to it. The chopper hovered overhead for several minutes, then took off.
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of voices. I squinted through the trees, and in a smear of orange, saw the jacket of a rescuer coming to save me. This time I wasn’t hallucinating.
Spend an Emergency Night Out
- Only move if you must. If your location is unsafe, move to the nearest safe location and reassess. By staying put you won’t mistakenly move into an area that rescuers have already searched.
- Make shelter. Keep it small; the less interior space you have to heat, the warmer you’ll be. Use pine branches for insulation and to block precipitation.
- Get creative with your gear. Extra socks make excellent gloves. You can also use your pack to insulate your body against the ground.