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Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here.
Months after receiving a pacemaker, mother of five Stephanie Ingram was celebrating her newfound health with a solo trek of Washington’s Wonderland Trail. But no matter your fitness, Mother Nature can take as much as she gives. Hear her story in her own words below, or subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Host: [00:00:00] There is a common expression that you’ll never think about the same way again after our next story. The saying is “It came out of the blue.” It means unexpected, but with a twist. At first, everything’s going fine, nothing overhead but the blue sky, no reason to think that might change. Then, bang, or in this case, flash, something big happens, and nothing is ever the same.
Trailer: [00:00:38] I made a decision to survive. When you’re in that survival mode, the idea of dying wasn’t in my head. I knew immediately it was a worst-case scenario. I was in a fight-for-my-life situation. When you’re out on those trails, you’re in their house.
Host: 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.
Trailer: I saw the rope zip through the rappel ring, and I couldn’t do anything.
Host: Learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst case scenario happens to you.
Trailer: There is no way we would find anybody alive.
Host: [00:01:26] Stephanie Ingram, a mother of five from Indiana, spent her childhood moving around the west.
Stephanie: [00:01:34] My dad worked as a landscape architect for the forest service. He would design campsites, where to put a road, or where to put in scenic byways. I definitely gained this love of mountains and the forest from him.
I remember my first backpacking experience was into some [00:02:00] mountains near La Grande, Oregon, and I just kept thinking, “I want to do this for the rest of my life. This is amazing.” Pretty sure that’s where I started picking up on, “You can backpack around Mount Rainier?” Man did that come full circle later.
Host: [00:02:19] As the years passed, Stephanie’s affinity for the outdoors translated into a love of running. She drifted from the mountains when she settled into the Midwest to start a family but hit the trails as often as she could to feel the freedom of moving her body in the fresh air. Stephanie was young and active. No one expected her to fall ill.
Stephanie: [00:02:43] So my health issues really started back when I got pregnant with my first daughter back in 2003. I had hyperemesis, but I also started fainting along with that, which is not necessarily terribly uncommon when you have hyperemesis.
Host: [00:03:06] Hyperemesis is a pregnancy complication that would have explained Stephanie’s fainting. But when these episodes started occurring after she’d had her kids, things took a more serious turn.
Stephanie: [00:03:17] We ended up doing a couple of tests in the hospital to really check the rhythm of my heart. And that’s when they found out that I wasn’t just experiencing these fainting episodes; my heart was actually flat-lining. It was going into cardiac arrest for anywhere from about 15 seconds to about 55 seconds.
Stephanie’s Dad: [00:03:45] You know, Stephanie has a history of fainting a lot.
Host: [00:03:50] That’s Rick, Stephanie’s father.
Stephanie’s Dad: [00:03:53] She would faint at McDonald’s, and her kids, her little kids would tell people, “Oh, mommy does this all the time. It’s okay.”
Stephanie: [00:04:02] I’d be in my car with my five kids, and I would feel the symptoms coming on. So I hurry and pull over in a parking lot or on the side of the interstate. Or, I’d be out for these runs then I was just kind of fainting. It definitely became this debilitating thing. There were a lot of times where I was like, “God. All I want to do is take care of my family. And I feel like I can’t even do that.”
In April of 2017, I received a cardiac pacemaker. It just helped me in the best of ways, and my health improved. I had never dreamed that it could; I was able to get my heart rate back up and be active. And running, even through all these heart conditions, was really, really crucial [00:05:00] to my health.
So I received the pacemaker, and right off the bat, one of these bucket-list items that I just really had been anxious and so excited to attack was to hike the Wonderland Trail that circumvents Mount Rainier. So I made the plans. I worked really hard to train. I could run 20 miles at about a 9 minute per mile pace.
I would go to my gym and I would throw a pack on and just climb on this incline treadmill for about an hour to two hours each morning, just to try to get my body in shape and my heart and shape so that I could really attack this goal.
Host: [00:05:40] The Wonderland Trail circumnavigates Washington’s Mount Rainier over 93 miles of intense climbs and long descent over high alpine passes through low forests and wildflower-laden meadows.
While hundreds of hikers endeavor the bucket list trail every year, for an amateur backpacker like Stephanie, this is no joke. Throughout her training and diligent research on the hike, one disagreement kept persisting with her family: the fact that she wanted to do it alone.
Stephanie’s Husband: [00:06:21] She has this strange fascination with hiking doing this alone, which I was 100% against.
Host: [00:06:29] Here’s Greg, Stephanie’s husband.
Stephanie’s Husband: [00:06:32] Rule No. 1 of backpacking and hiking in the mountains: Don’t do it alone. Right?
Stephanie: [00:06:38] I felt so strongly that I needed to go. If it’s even just, I need to have this awesome experience to prove to myself that I can do it, to have a nonstop five days of clarity and peace. That was a huge, huge motivation for me.
Stephanie’s Husband: [00:07:00] And then we finally kind of figured out that her dad could come up and be a support person to at least have somebody in the general vicinity.
Stephanie’s Dad: [00:07:12] I didn’t want to also force someone else to go the pace that I wanted to go. I knew that I could push myself physically, but I couldn’t push someone else. I kept quizzing my, my dad, my father-in-law and my husband, “Okay, give me another dangerous situation I could be in on my own. What should I do?” And I thought I had prepared so well that no tragedy could possibly be harder than what I had already worked through. So I put in my permit, I bought my plane ticket, and I was off.
Host: [00:07:49] The other part of their deal was that her family would be able to track Stephanie at all times.
Stephanie: [00:07:56] Before I left, I rented a Spot GPS tracker where my husband could follow me around the mountain. If I was going slower than normal, we have pre-programmed a little sentence that just said, “I’m going slower than normal, but I’m feeling fine.” And then there was this SOS button and my husband and we came to this agreement that I was never going to push that button. And I, especially, wasn’t going to push that button for anything trivial. It was going to be dramatic life or death.
So I start hiking, and those first three miles are just so difficult and so hard. It was hard to wrap my head around why did I sign myself up for this? There’s no way I can go another 90 miles.
Host: [00:08:50] Although Rick was planning to meet Stephanie at campsites, most nights, he wouldn’t be able to communicate with her at any other time.
Stephanie’s Dad: [00:08:59] Mount Rainier National Park. There is no cell coverage that you can find within the park. So literally once I saw her disappear on the trail that Wednesday night, I would have no communication with her until the next night.
Stephanie: [00:09:21] I wrap my head around how uncomfortable it was going to be. I really settled in and started to love this hike, the stunning beauty, the ability to be out there on my own, and just mostly proving to myself that I had this healthy body. I was strong, and I could do this thing. That very first day, I hiked 13 miles. The next day, I believe was 24. And then the evening I met up with my dad, and I was feeling awesome.
Stephanie’s Dad: [00:09:57] I got her a hot meal, [00:10:00] and she wasn’t sore at all. I knew she was okay.
Stephanie: [00:10:04] And then the next morning is my fourth day. It’s Saturday and I have about 24, 25 miles again to tap out the previous three days. Just stunning. Blue sky. I was able to see a mama bear and her two Cubs. I met this amazing man from South Africa, and we hiked for a few hours together. There were these marmots I saw that I’d heard about and stopped to take pictures of them. I’m accomplishing this amazing bucket list item for myself when all of a sudden I kind of feel this drop of hail hit my arm.
Host: [00:10:46] During such a pristine day, the abrupt change in weather with no warning took Stephanie by surprise.
Stephanie: [00:10:56] I pause for just a second and then I kind of get [00:11:00] this nudge I should pick up my pace. I really start moving now, and I’m running. And all of a sudden, I hear the loudest boom I have ever heard in my life. At the same exact trillionth of a second, it’s just this flash of bright light right in front of my eyes. That’s the last thing that I remember.
The next thing that I know, I am leaning back, and it takes me some time to kind of get my bearings. [00:12:00] Now, both the blessing and the curse is that I’ve had a lot of experience with passing out. My very first thought I had was that I was so disappointed that I had somehow passed out again.
My thoughts were like, “Here I am. I’m healthy again. How did I pass out? What happened to my heart or my pacemaker?” But then things kind of pick up speed at that point. I had this intense ringing in my ears, a high pitched ringing, and I realized that my nose is bleeding. I look up above me and I’m trying to make out what I’m seeing.
The view above me is these tall trees. There’s bright red, bright orange, [00:13:00] even some black, and kind of this grayish white kind of falling down. And again, I know it just took me some time to kind of figure out. I realized, “Oh my gosh, that sound and that light, that was lightning. And these trees above me are on fire.”
Host: [00:13:22] Lightning had struck a tree mere feet in front of Stephanie. Not being sure how much time had passed since she had gone unconscious, Stephanie’s gut reaction was to get up and run.
Stephanie: [00:13:36] I just get up to kind of the staggering kind of run-walk, the ringing is still there. I’m really disoriented, but I start moving and I get to where I’m going probably about a quarter mile away. And I stopped myself and I take three deliberate, really big breaths just to calm myself down, trying to convince myself [00:14:00] that this isn’t as big of a deal as my brain just made it. “You need to go back and just assess the situation and see if you can go back down the mountain toward Dad.” So I go back to this fire spot, and before I can get too close, where I had just been laying down was now completely on fire.
I realized I just went from surviving a near lightning strike to now I’ve got a forest fire that is rapidly picking up speed. So I bolt again and I flip around and I go back the way that I had just been hiking and I run for an entire mile straight. And the entire time I’m running I’m thinking, “I don’t know that much about fires. Do I get off the trail and go around this [00:15:00] fire? Who knows what is on the other side? Or if I get off trail, am I going to get lost? Am I going to be in another kind of search and rescue situation? If I keep running, do I run all the way? To where I can get to the closest source of water? Can I actually outrun a forest fire?” I really, really contemplated this and thought about it. And for me, the answer was no. Running all the way to this source of water was dangerous for me because that blood pressure of mine, the more I’m active, the more that’s going to be drained. And then I stood there and I thought.
Am I really willing to get caught in a forest fire when I actually have a call for help, right with this Spot GPS I had. And I really had to think hard about this. If I [00:16:00] push this button, Greg at home, my husband is just going to be completely worried sick. And I really had to ask myself, “Am I in a life or death situation here?”
And do I actually push this button, and overwhelmingly, it was yes. I pulled back the black flap that is on the Spot GPS, and I just held down that button.
Stephanie’s Husband: [00:16:29] I was outside with the kids, and I had my cell phone with me and I see that there was a call coming in from Texas.
Host: [00:16:37] That’s Greg, again, Stephanie’s husband.
Stephanie’s Husband: [00:16:40] They said: “This is Spot GPS. We have you listed as the emergency contact. Is this Greg?” Immediately, my heart sank because I was like, “What happened? What’s going on?”
They just knew that it had been activated. So I’ll [00:17:00] admit that I was in a little bit of denial. Because the agreement was you’re only going to hit that if you’re severely injured. Was it a broken leg? Had she passed out? Was it her pacemaker, her heart, a bear, there’s really a lot of options that I had.
The fire was not definitely not one of them. Lightning strike, that wasn’t one of the options. So, I ran back inside and looked at the online map and it showed where she’d hit the spot GPS. By looking at that, I was able to determine that her dad really wasn’t very far away.
Host: [00:17:40] Greg reasoned that if he could get in contact with Stephanie’s dad, Rick, that he would be able to get to Stephanie much quicker than search and rescue.
Stephanie’s Husband: [00:17:48] If anybody can get there fast, it’s going to be him. So. I started calling my father-in-law, but what I found out was there was [00:18:00] no service. So I called and called and called and called and texted, texted, no service. I called my mother-in-law, who was in southern Utah at the time. And asked her, “Have you talked to Rick?”
Host: [00:18:13] Meanwhile Stephanie’s father had been waiting for her at their agreed upon campsite.
Stephanie’s Dad: [00:18:19] Out of the blue, I had this impression that I needed to go out and check in to see how Stephanie was. I start up the truck and I have to go out of the park about seven miles north to find some cell coverage. I get outside the park and my phone starts dinging off that I have all these messages.
So I just call Melanie, my wife, and she says, “Stephanie has pushed her SOS button. You’ve got to get up there.”
So [00:19:00] I’m racing back into the park because I’m going to be the hero here. I’m going to run up the mountain and see where Stephanie is. I have no idea what the situation is as far as her reasoning for pushing SOS, but it probably takes me 20 minutes to get back to the trailhead. I load up my little backpack, and I start up the trail.
Host: [00:19:31] Meanwhile, Stephanie had found a clearing where she thought a helicopter would be able to land and anxiously awaited rescue.
Stephanie: [00:19:39] It was probably about a 25 minute stand of me trying to keep myself from going completely crazy. I thought for sure, I was going to die because of my heart. I never thought that I would burn in a fire, and I think for me, just visualizing, [00:20:00] seeing that trail that I had been on, just kind of going through the middle of this forest fire was terrifying and realizing I had gotten myself out of that little spot just in time. I just wanted one adventure out in the wild. And I wanted to live through it, and in a way, yes, prove it to my husband or whoever naysayers, but to myself that I could do kind of this thing that felt really, really big.
And I think when you’re so terrified, it’s hard to not feel like you should have prepared more. I should have read more. I found out I don’t do a great job of handling emergency situations when I can’t be active or do something about it. Just staying in that clearing and hopefully that the other end of what was happening with the [00:21:00] Spot GPS needing the help that I needed.
Host: [00:21:07] At that very moment, it would have been easy for Stephanie to give up hope, but it wasn’t going to be a person who saved her life that day. It was going to be nature itself.
Stephanie: [00:21:24] All of a sudden I feel a raindrop one by one, just kind of start falling. I was so dead set on rescue, and I was so dead set on the only kind of rescue that would work would be a helicopter that I never thought about nature’s way of providing a solution. And I found myself on the side of this mountain. In a [00:22:00] complete downpour of rain, basically everything that had been on fire was now just this black burnt area.
There was a lot of ash and smoke, and these little spitfires were popping up the entire time. There was zero wind, which is phenomenal and it turned out that my little personal miracle that day was rain.
Host: [00:22:33] Shortly after the rainstorm diminished the fire, a man who had been out for a day hike suddenly appeared on the trail.
Stephanie: [00:22:43] So as we’re walking by, I hear his phone ding and I’m like, “Oh my goodness, you’re you have service.” I tried to call Greg, and he couldn’t hear me very well, but basically the only thing I was able to get out to him was I am safe. I am alive.
Stephanie’s Husband: [00:22:59] I looked at my phone rings and I looked down and it’s her. And I could hardly make it out. It was really, really fuzzy and kind of scratchy. And I remember, she’s like, “Hello?” “Hello.” I was like, “Are you okay?” “Yes I’m okay.”
Stephanie: [00:23:17] So he and I were able to walk out the three and a half-ish, four miles from the divide area to Knox Canyon.
Stephanie’s Dad: [00:23:28] And around the corner comes Stephanie and this guy. For her to be three feet away from a lightning strike and her pacemaker to be perfectly fine is an absolute miracle.
Host: [00:23:55] Stephanie was finally safe. Lightning had struck within an [00:24:00] arm’s length of her, but it wasn’t until much later that Stephanie would come to realize just how close to death she came.
Stephanie: [00:24:09] So after we got home, I actually met with my electrophysiologist who put in my pacemaker and told him this whole story.
He said, “If a lightning strike would have actually gone through your body with a pacemaker—you have this metal piece device in your heart with wires plugged into your heart to make it beat—you would not have survived. It would have been a fried circuit board.
Host: [00:24:40] She had planned so much, but in the end it all came down to chance.
Stephanie: [00:24:46] You realize, “Oh my goodness, all these seconds were adding up to create just enough distance for me away from this tree that got struck by lightning.” I could have stopped [00:25:00] and not taken that one picture or I could have ran even faster through this portion. Or I could have not looked at how cute those marmots were or stood there for an hour with my jaw on the ground, staring at a mama bear and her cubs. The seconds mattered on that day.
And I’m so grateful. There are things out there that you can’t prepare for. The surprise elements to life that just pop up. We have seconds and minutes of trying to make the best decision that we can make in those moments.
Host: [00:25:49] Instead of just packing up and going home, Stephanie decided to return to the Wonderland Trail a few days later to finish out what she had started.
Stephanie: [00:26:00] I knew I would be disappointed in myself. It was 10 miles. I could have gotten off the mountain. It’s fine; I got almost struck by lightning.
And so I finished my hike, maybe that’s when you need to finish it the most. You go through something difficult, and you just finish it, unconquerable soul, just do it. That day was just this quiet, peaceful, completely calm, another sunshine day, blue skies. I was just grateful that I was able to walk out on my own two feet and finish all of the miles that I had set out to do.
And I’m just in complete awe and gratitude because our time’s not guaranteed. We don’t know what’s down the path. And just knowing that you are going to be able to pull through and come out better on the other side because of it, you can’t put a price on that. You [00:27:00] can’t, you can’t quantify that. It’s just so profound to feel hope.
Host: [00:27:13] This episode was produced by me, Louisa Albanese, along with Zoe Gates and Sammy Potter. Our story editor and sound designer was Andrew Mairs. Our assistant story editor with Tim Mossa. Our script writing was by Casey Lyons and Sammy Potter with help from Zoe Gates. This episode was mixed by Jason McDaniel from Electric Audio, Inc.
Thank you to Stephanie Ingram, Greg Ingram, and Stephanie’s dad, Rick, for sharing your stories and experiences. If you enjoyed this episode of Out Alive, please subscribe and leave us a review.