The story you’re about to hear is part one of a two-part episode, but first, a word from our sponsor. Host:
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Please drink responsibly.
In every story we tell on this show, there is an element of the miraculous, someone who defies the odds and lives through a seemingly impossible situation in the wild, but we don’t all see miracles the same way. For some, a miracle is falling off a cliff and being lucky enough to get caught by the branches of a welcoming tree. Or, running from a raging forest fire when, just in time, a rainstorm saves the day. But for others, miracles aren’t about luck or random natural occurrences. They are acts of divine providence. According to a Pew research study, the vast majority of Americans, 8 in 10, believe in the occurrence of modern day spiritual miracles. For Mary Grimm, coming so close to death in the mountains and making it back was exactly that. Host:
I made a decision to survive. You’re in that survival mode, the idea of dying wasn’t in my head. I knew immediately it was the worst-case scenario. I was in a fight-for-my-life situation. Whenever you walk on these trails, you’re in their house. I’m Louisa Albanese, and you’re listening to Out Alive by Backpacker. In each episode of this podcast, we’ll bring you real stories of real people who survived the unsurvivable. Out Alive Trailer:
I saw the rope zip through the repel ring, and I couldn’t do anything. Learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst-case scenario happens to you. There is no way we would find anybody alive.
My name is Mary Grimm, formerly Mary Owen. And I grew up most of my life in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. I am an avid outdoors person. I love hiking and climbing. And just generally being outside and not wearing shoes. And currently I get to do that most of the time because I live in Papua New Guinea, and it’s awesome. Mary Grimm:
Mary, her husband, and three children have been living in Papua New Guinea on and off for six years, where they work for a missionary organization in the remote village of Baku. There’s no internet service there, so we spoke to Mary when she was in the coastal town of Wewak, where she comes regularly to purchase food and supplies. It’s a two-day journey from Baku. At times, you’ll hear some background noise. Host:
My story with the outdoors begins when I was a child, my parents, especially my mother were very much into helping us to see the beauty of the world around us. And when we were little, we would take trips out to Zion National Park and Yellowstone and Glacier, and a bunch of other very beautiful areas. My mom would insist on dragging us all out camping, and we loved it as kids. Mary Grimm:
All of our kids were raised outside. We had around 10 acres in Southern Oregon, and they were outdoor kids, climbing trees and rocks and everything. Bruce Owens:
This is Mary’s dad, Bruce. He and Mary’s mom, Shelli, say that Mary has always displayed a fearlessness. He remembers one incident in particular when she was just a little girl. Host:
Shelli was outside, and now all of a sudden she heard from above her, “Hey, Mom!” And she looked up, and Mary was about 60 to 70 feet up a hundred-foot sugar pine tree. And Shelli told her that she needed to come down to a safer height. So that was very early, but as she got older, and she started hiking in earnest, her and I started to have a conflict on what is reasonable safety precautions. Bruce Owens:
As an adult, when I was graduating high school, I had some serious wanderlust. And so I started looking around at some options. And one of those was the Pacific Crest Trail, which I then proceeded to hike as what we call a green horn. And that means I’d never done backpacking before, and I absolutely loved it. Mary Grimm:
She wanted to have the freedom just to be out on her own. And she thought my concern for her was overblown. Bruce Owens:
In her teenage years, when she felt that calling that she was going to be in missions—she felt that God has a call on my life and nothing’s going to happen to me until I’ve fulfilled that calling—and she would chastise me that you can’t live in fear. And we would have arguments about there being a big difference between living in fear and taking reasonable precautions under the situations.
As Mary spent more time outside, her ambitions grew. And so did her tolerance for risk. Host:
So I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2010. And that was also where I did my first real mountaineering up in the Sierra Nevada’s and over a number of the different mountains that the Pacific Crest Trail passes by or around. And one of those mountains is Mt. Hood. Mary Grimm:
The trail actually goes right around the skirt of the mountain. So you are on the mountain for a period of time. And when we were there, it was absolutely miserable, and I hated every minute of the time we were there. It was raining, and there was this heavy cloud just sitting down on top of us, and the next day, as we hiked out of that weather zone that the mountain creates, we looked back, and there it was just glowing in the sunlight in the morning and beckoning, and looking so beautiful.
And I was like, “I’m coming back for you.”
Mary would come back. But first, she still had hundreds of miles to go on the Pacific Crest Trail. She had become part of the vibrant community of thru-hikers where everyone gets a trail name. The one they gave Mary fit her perfectly. Host:
The people on the Pacific Crest Trail called her Daredevil. And she was a really super free spirit, and it became very common for her to disappear for a few days because she wanted to go out somewhere and just be by herself to hike some small trail or climb a mountain or do something. And so her friends came to not question that very much. And we were trying to walk the line of you’re an adult and you got every right to do with your life, what you want to do, and being those parents who were urging her to exercise at least reasonable caution in the things that she did. Bruce Owens:
After completing her thru-hike, Mary enrolled in George Fox University, a Christian school south of Portland, Oregon, where her father worked as an accountant, and views of Mt. Hood dominate the skyline. Host:
It was a constant reminder of her promise to one day summit the peak.
Numerous times throughout college, I tried to organize trips going up. I had a bunch of different friends from the Pacific Crest Trail who went and climbed it. And I tried to get on different groups, but the timing always ended up falling apart. Mary Grimm:
And finally that year, 2013, I had met a person who was an experienced mountaineer and mountain guide who had hiked Mt. Hood over a hundred times, who had guided tours on Denali. And he agreed to take me up with his next group when they were going up. And so spring break came around, I asked him if he would be interested, he agreed to take myself along with, I think, three other people, and I was over the moon.
Mary vaguely let her dad know her plans as a courtesy. Host:
And she says, “Don’t worry. I’ve got a guide with me, and he’s been up a hundred times. We got a group going, and we’re going to do it the right way and everything.” Bruce Owens:
My mother actually that weekend had written me an email saying, “Mary, we really care about you, and we love that you have this heart to go into missions and to follow the Lord, and we’re just really hoping that someday you’ll be content and fulfilled in what God’s called you to, and not feel this other compulsion to go and throw yourself at mountains.” Mary Grimm:
And I asked her to promise me out loud that she would not hike alone, which she did. Bruce Owens:
The fact that he had to make me promise that says a little something about myself and our relationship. And so the weekend approached that we were supposed to climb, and I got an email from that mountaineer saying that he didn’t like the snow conditions, and he was going to pull the climb, that he didn’t think it was a good idea to be climbing. Mary Grimm:
Mt. Hood is a volcano that stands almost 12,000 feet. With a short approach and easy access from Portland, it attracts around 10,000 climbers every year, but its proximity can lure climbers into a false sense of safety. The ascent to the summit is a technical climb with a range of hazards, including rock and ice fall, glacial crevasses, avalanches, and unpredictable weather. Host:
Mary had reached as high as 13,900 feet on the Pacific Crest Trail and taken a number of detours to climb peaks off the route. She felt confident in her skills and ability to assess hazards in the wilderness.
All my life, if I have set my mind to something and push hard enough, I’ve been able to make it happen. Mary Grimm:
And so I have, and had, a supreme amount of confidence in my own ability to make things work. And when we were climbing in the Sierras, when we were climbing along various portions of the Pacific Crest Trail that some of the hikers were uncomfortable with crossing because of the conditions, I and my team, we crossed them. And we didn’t let fear be a factor in how we approached the situation. And in a way, I think I’d attributed that to myself, that I could just will my way through life, and it would work. And so I was here with this mountain that I really wanted to climb, and I’d been trying for three years to pull people together to climb, and people had kept bailing on me, and I’ve finally gotten to the point where I was like, “You know what? I’m not going to rely on people to make this happen. I’ll make this happen.” So Friday night, I got that email and I didn’t tell anybody about it. I just proceeded as if I was still going to join that crew and hike early Saturday morning, I left my roommates in their beds, and I actually went up to Mt. St. Helens to test out my gear in a place where I knew there’d be lots of snow, but at the time being a poor college kid and scraping through, I didn’t have nearly the amount of gear that I probably should have had to seriously attempt Mt. Hood. And so I was going to see how under-equipped I really was, and if that was going to be a problem.
So I went up to Mt. St. Helens and I just monkeyed around on the slope. Most of that morning, Saturday morning, there was a whiteout there. And so I was just plotting around in the snow, not really attempting an ascent of the mountain. I got done with that sometime in the early morning and headed back into Oregon and down the highway to REI. I was very short on cash at the time, and so I was not necessarily grabbing what I really needed. So for example, I didn’t have a map or batteries to put in my GPS, and I didn’t have a good set of gloves. I had these really poor quality—I think they were actually biking gloves, so not even snow gloves. So I was severely under-equipped and yes, anybody who’s ever done mountaineering will say that I was absolutely stupid, and I agree with them and we’ll move on.
We’ll be right back. Host:
At the start of the episode, we talked about Stillhouse. Maker of award-winning spirits that come in unbreakable stainless steel cans. Now my colleague Maren is going to tell us how to use Stillhouse black bourbon to make a drink that goes down just right when you come back to your campsite after a long day of mountain biking: filthy, exhausted, and psyched. Stillhouse Ad:
After a day like that, I love to do a beer cocktail. A little fancier than your average brewski, but still super duper easy. Step one is making sure you put your beers and your bourbon in the cooler at the beginning of the day. Very, very important. Absolutely, what’s next? Crack open a cold one. I like a stout for this. Take a few deeply refreshing sips, and then add some Stillhouse black bourbon to the top.
Just about a shot, and then put a finger over the beer can and give it a gentle shake, mix. And then you’re all set. It’s boozy and caramel-y and goes great with smores. Actually, speaking of smores, a few months ago, the Backpacker staff tried soaking marshmallows in booze for about 10 minutes before toasting them.
I feel like the black bourbon would work perfectly here. That is genius. I’ll have to try it. Right? I want to go camping with the Backpacker staff; sound like a riot. This summer, the Stillhouse team is embarking on an epic American road trip. Rolling in their sprinter van to bring good times and great memories to a campsite near you.
They’re calling it The Detour. Check stillhouse.com for dates, locations, and information. Stillhouse is the official spirit of adventure. Please drink responsibly.
I got to Mt. Hood on Saturday evening, rolled into the parking lot there, and set up the back of the truck. There is a bed, and I was pretty tired. I had bought a big old burrito. But I honestly didn’t have a whole lot of food besides that. I had some chia seed, and I had a bunch of Keebler cracker bars, and some Nutri-Grain bars. Mary Grimm:
And before I went to sleep, I said the only prayer that I pretty much said that entire week, which was “God, please wake me when it’s time to climb.” And I been avoiding talking to God because I knew He was going to tell me this was a dumb idea and not to do it.
Mary did wake up in time for what’s often called an “alpine start.” Serious climbers like to begin their ascent in the pre-dawn hours to give them more time before potential bad weather rolls in. Host:
But in her case, she decided she needed more rest.
I woke up probably a little before 2 o’clock that morning, and it was really cold, and I was uncomfortable, and I was tired, and I rolled over, went back to sleep. The next time I woke up, it was closer to 10 o’clock in the morning. I was feeling pretty punchy getting out of my car cause I knew that I was very under equipped. And I was walking around with a big challenge sign on my forehead, daring anybody to say anything about it, because I knew I was doing a dumb thing and I just had blindered myself. I wasn’t gonna take no for an answer. I was going to knock this thing out and I was going to climb the mountain one way or another. Mary Grimm:
So I went up to the lodge where you’re supposed to register, and they have their list of the things that you should have with you. And I didn’t fill that out honestly. I put in there that I did have an emergency beacon, but I didn’t. And that there was somebody informed about my whereabouts, but there wasn’t necessarily.
The risks Mary with taking were adding up dangerously. She ignored weather warnings. She was woefully under equipped, hiking in shorts, over running tights, and carrying not nearly enough other layers in her parent’s old school backpack. She was starting her ascent hours late and climbing alone having told no one of her plans. Host:
And then I was reading through some of the posted signage talking about what to expect in the climb, and how to recognize avalanche danger. Mary Grimm:
And there was a little notification about the fumaroles, not to stay near them because they can cause asphyxiation.
A fumarole is a vent in the earth’s surface where steam and volcanic gasses are emitted. They can create hidden cavities under the snow that climbers can fall into. The vents also emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide, which can all be lethal when inhaled. Mary read about the danger she was facing and then moved on. It was around 10:30 when she actually started climbing the mountain. Host:
I hadn’t been climbing for the entire winter semester, and I was not actually in great physical shape. So I wasn’t making great progress. I was hiking pretty slow, and there were some climbers on the mountain, but not very many, but they were all in the established climbing track, which I was avoiding because I didn’t want anybody to talk to me about my stupidity. There was this snowboarder who had been working his way up the mountain behind me. And he got up to where I was and sat there for a minute. He was also taking a breather and he asked if I was planning to attempt an ascent. And I said I was thinking about it. And he looked down the mountain, and at this point, the weather was actively changing, and there was very clear signs of a whiteout rolling up the mountain. And he goes, “You know, it looks like a whiteout’s rolling in.” I said, “Oh, it’ll probably clear over.” And then this other climbers starts coming down the mountain from farther up, and he shouts up, and he’s like, “Well, what’s the conditions like?” Mary Grimm:
And the guy goes, “Terrible. Icy and awful, I’m going down.” And he looks over at me, and I just shrugged and didn’t look at him. And the snowboarder guy clicked his snowboard back together, and he was like, “Okay, well, be safe.” And that was the last person I talked to for almost a week.
It was starting to snow lightly, and the temperature was dropping quickly. And that should have been my cue to get off the mountain now. And I did not. I was in this really weird headspace where I just wasn’t taking any kind of input. I wasn’t accepting any other option other than I’m going to climb this mountain and be done with it. It’s an interesting thing because I actually have a picture on my camera that I took looking up at the mountain before I started climbing, and you can see the clouds would have been around the top of there that are warning that the weather is going to change quickly. And in my mind’s eye, I saw blue sky.
As Mary continued up the mountain, the wind was picking up. She was wearing only microspikes on her boots to grip the ice, and had an ice axe for stability. And she was struggling. Host:
I was getting colder and my hands were not doing well. My gloves were already soaked, and my fingers were cold. The one hand would be holding the ice axe as a prop as I was moving up the snow. So I’d use it to prod ahead of me and also to use it as an anchor in case my feet were to slip. And then the other hand I had tucked inside my jacket, trying to warm it up. And then I’d swap out hands to keep both my hands from getting frozen. I was in the middle of this whiteout where I had really, really low visibility. Mary Grimm:
And then all of a sudden, it cleared, and about 15, 20 feet in front of me, there was just this sheer black wall of ice-covered rock. So that was where I finally was like, okay, I can’t do this. I need to turn around. And that was where reality really closed in on me, where I took a hard assessment of my situation.
I was very under-equipped for where I was. I didn’t have very good gear and I was wet through, and I was cold, and it was starting to grow dark. So my thought was “Ok, I just had to get off the mountain as fast as possible.”
There have been close to 130 recorded deaths on Mt. Hood. And each year around 15 climbers require rescue. Host:
Although Mary hadn’t reached the top, the real danger of any summit bid begins on the descent when climbers are tired, cold, and the weather is usually getting worse. Mary found herself in conditions so bad that she couldn’t tell if she was traveling up or down the mountain.
And at one point I remember making a little snowball and rolling it in front of me just to see which way it would go to find out if I was actually going downhill. Mary Grimm:
And then I started getting concerned about my situation. And so I started going down faster once I was actually on a slope that I knew where the downhill was. And so I started doing controlled slides, which is not a great idea. So I would slide using my ice acts as an anchor to be able to stop myself when I needed to.
So I’d slide, and then I’d stop. And then I get another good start and slide for a while and stop. I was doing that and I suddenly realized it was dark. I pulled out my headlamp and turned it on and right in front of me, like a foot in front of me, there was a dropoff, a crevasse that I had just not slidden into.
And I was like, “Oh, thank you God, for not letting me die. And I’ve got to take this a little slower at this point.” And I kept going down. And shortly after that, I suddenly came out from under the cloud that was sitting on the mountain and I could see the lights of Portland in front of me, which meant that I was on the west side of the mountain, not the south side. I wasn’t where I should be.
And I was trudging through thigh, deep snow, trying to work my way over to the edge of this glacier. And just figured if I can get off the snow, I can get to trail, and I can hike my way out.
As Mary pushed on, she stumbled onto the track of a backcountry snowboarder, following it because it was much easier than breaking trail and fresh snow, but the zigzagging path was hard to follow. Host:
She became confused and worried, so she abandoned it. Soon, she found herself downclimbing boulders and ice blocks over a stream into a snowfilled canyon. Then climbing back out of it onto a ridgeline where most of the snow had blown and melted off. The going was grueling, and at this point she was forced to rest.
I finally had to stop cause I was so exhausted and I was like, “You know what, I’m going to just rest for a minute, and I’ll sleep, and I’ll try to warm up. And I’ll recollect myself and keep pushing.” And so I sat down and I pulled out my tarp and made myself a little platform to sit on so I wasn’t on the snow, and I built a fire using those Nutri-Grain wrapper bars as a starter, which I learned is pretty handy. So I built myself a little fire and I rested for, I don’t know how long, probably only about 40 minutes or so. I checked the time. I turned on my phone very briefly and there was no signal, and the phone was wet. But it said that it was about 2 o’clock in the morning. Mary Grimm:
Mary slept for what she estimated was 40 minutes before waking up still disoriented and completely exhausted. She wanted to get moving, so she set off across the snowfield, but the snow was chest-deep, and she was barely getting anywhere. In the distance, she spotted a line of trees on the slope and made that her goal, believing that the snow would be shallower there. Host:
She was right.
I started just climbing. I was just sort of monkeying from one tree trunk to another tree trunk climbing my way up through this icy rock and trees. It got steeper and steeper as I went up, but it was still so much easier going than being on the snow that I was like “I’ll keep going. I can do this.” Mary Grimm:
And I got to a point where the trees started to thin out, and so I started using my ice axe more as a hold, so I’d jam it into the rock and ice and hang onto it to get to my next tree or my next hole. So I jammed my ice axe in and I had all my weight on it to push myself up, to be able to reach for my next hold, and the ice axe slipped out.
Everything went into slow motion for a minute. I remember all these thoughts running through my head really quickly; turn around so I can see where I’m going, tuck my arms in so that I don’t break anything going down, toss the ice axe, because I don’t know that I can do a self-arrest here without killing myself, and don’t scream.
All of that took probably less than a second to process through my head, and I was just dropping back down through the ice and trees that I had worked my way up through. So my body was pinballing between those tree trunks that I had used to climb up, and I didn’t really make any attempt at trying to grab onto any of them.
I was more focused on not breaking any limbs, but keeping my arms in close to my body, and dropping until I got to that snowfield that I knew was below the trees. And so there were a couple of times when I hit pretty hard on various tree trunks, there was one time when I hit so hard and I made this noise, and I remember thinking that I sounded like a gorilla. And then I was going to bounce out onto the snow on the field below. And that’s where I self-arrested because there was a drop-off after that snow field. It had a sheer drop down into the river canyon again. And so I spread out my arms and legs, punched my hands, and punched my legs in, and stopped my fall. And sat there for a minute breathing, I was like, okay, “Well, I’m not dead, and that’s good. And as far as I know, nothing is broken, like I could move all my limbs, so I stood up and stumbled and realized that there was something wrong with my left leg. And so I was like, okay, I need to stop and assess my situation. I need to wait till the morning. So I used my other foot like a club.
And whacked down this portion of snow to create a shelf in a very shallow cave for myself to sit in. So I scooped that out, tamped it down with my other foot, using it like a club, and then pulled out my climbing harness, which I had in my backpack and sat that down. Put my tarp on top of it, and curled myself up into a ball on top of that.
And zipped myself inside of my jacket, and put my poncho over the top of me. So I was maintaining as much body heat as I could, and having as little contact with the snow as I could. That was where I kinda—the thought finally came to me that it was very likely that I was going to die out there.
So I pulled out my camera, and I made a short video and I was crying, but I was trying not to cry. So my voice sounded weird and wavery.
Mom and dad, I love you. And I’m really sorry that I went alone solo like you guys always told me not to do. I love you, Elijah. Love you, Ruthie. Love you, Jessica. Love you, Rachel and Josh and Jacksy. I’m not really scared to die. I guess I’m a little upset for being so stupid, but I love you all. So I’m not really sure how much longer I’m out here for? It’d be cool not to die right now, but I think I’m ready for it. Love you all. Tell the lady out in Nantucket that I won’t be able to work for her for the summer.
Tell my friends I love them.
That’s about it.
God is good, even though he hasn’t answered very many of my prayers recently. At least not on this trip. That’s what I get from being stubborn.
Bye. Love you.
Next time on Out Alive. Host:
So I made the video and turned it off, and I was like, “Okay, well, this is where people die.” Mary Grimm:
I said, we have to file a missing persons report, but nobody knows where she is. I also didn’t think that she had climbed Mt. Hood because she had promised me she wouldn’t do it alone. Bruce Owens:
I had a call from my boss saying that there was a lost hiker. They believed out on Hood somewhere, and so honestly we weren’t real optimistic at the details that we received. Nathaniel Edgecombe:
This episode of Out Alive was written and produced by me, Louisa Albanese, along with Zoe Gates and Corey Buhay. Editing was by Michael Roberts scoring and sound design was by Jason Patton. Thank you to Mary Grim and Bruce Owens for sharing your stories. Mary, her mother, Shelli, and her father Bruce co-wrote a book about their experience called Mountain Rescue, which you can check out online at mountainrescue.online. Host:
This season of Out Alive is brought to you by Stillhouse. Maker of award-winning spirits that come in unbreakable steel cans, check out all their delicious offerings at
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