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Mary O’Brien didn’t set out to hike Washington’s High Divide. But when a friend canceled their planned climb up Mt. Rainier, the Massachusetts PE teacher and former Seattle resident was already packed for an adventure. Besides, the 18.8-mile loop in Olympic National Park had been on her to-do list for years. Now, 30 hours into what would become a five-day survival epic, the fit 45-year-old was scratched, bleeding, and hallucinating. In the dark, with whitewater frothing beneath her, she fought to focus on her umpteenth log crossing of Cat Creek. “I kept telling myself, ‘You can’t get hurt! No one’s going to find you here,'” she says. O’Brien had left her tent and sleeping bag back in the Sol Duc Campground the previous morning, setting off at 11 a.m. on an impromptu trip with food, clothing, ice axe, crampons, headlamp, and space blanket. A strong hiker, by 4 p.m. she had already powered up 3,800 vertical feet to the top of Bogachiel Peak, the usual halfway point on the High Divide loop. “It was summer, so I knew it wouldn’t get dark until 10 p.m.,” says O’Brien. Deep snow obscured the trail, but she kept on hiking. “The descent trail was close,” she recalls. “And I figured by nighttime I’d be hiking good trail along the Sol Duc River, following my headlamp light.”
Fog, rain, and sleet moved in. Then darkness hit. O’Brien fell on steep snow, but self-arrested and climbed back to the ridge. Hiking by headlamp, she missed the left turn down to Sol Duc Park and shot east onto the Catwalk, a thready trail that eventually forks and dies. She realized her mistake and backtracked. Then backtracked again. At 1 a.m., she bivouacked briefly, then regained her route in Sol Duc Park, only to find the trail and route signs obscured by darkness and snowbanks. At dawn, she hoped to find the Appleton Pass Trail. Instead, she dropped into trailless Cat Creek.
“At first, it wasn’t bad,” she recalls. “Then it turned to vertical jungle.” Hanging off branches and using her ice axe as a hook, O’Brien descended 2,000 feet to the creek, and ran into thick nettles and devils club. She kept stumbling into pits hidden by fern. “It was a nightmare,” she says. “I had so many shin-whacks. My left hand went numb from nettle stings.”
O’Brien remembers the following two days as a combination of sleep-deprived hallucinations and suffering. She kept seeing people, hearing music, and spotting visitor centers. Thick vegetation and deep gorges forced her onto animal trails that traversed steep slopes. Crossing talus, she slid 25 feet. When she stopped to light a signal fire, she realized the hipbelt pouch containing her matches had been torn off.
From one high vantage, she dismissed distant houses along nearby Whiskey Bend Road as just more hallucinations. Thinking she was still in a remote location, she climbed 3,800 vertical feet up the north ridge of Mt. Fitzhenry.
Near the summit, O’Brien spent two days signaling with her compass mirror and headlamp. She’d been drinking frequently; now she finished the last of her food, some freeze-dried pasta she warmed up on her space blanket. From her perch, O’Brien could see Lake Mills and the lights on Elwha Dam. When no one responded to her signal, she took a compass bearing and plunged north.
Arriving at the lake, she was less than a kilometer from safety, but couldn’t cross the massive Elwha River, or, to the north, raging Boulder Creek. “I didn’t want to get killed trying to ford either,” O’Brien explains. “I’d come too far.” She walked to the lakeshore to signal. Within a couple of hours, O’Brien saw a motorboat and started waving frantically. The couple piloting the boat cut the engine, but they wouldn’t land at first. “I could tell they were thinking, ‘No way, she’s psycho,'” says O’Brien. “And believe me, I looked the part.”
Near-Fatal Flaw: “Mary wasn’t aware of current conditions,” says Kathy Steichen, information affairs officer on the search. “It had snowed, which is why she got off-route in the first place. Without a topo map, she didn’t know the lay of the land, so she couldn’t identify key landmarks that might have helped her stay on track.”
Voice of Experience: “I left Seattle without a topo, hoping I could buy one at the ranger station, but it hadn’t opened for the season,” says O’Brien. “And I should never have taken off without at least leaving a note in the car stating my plans.”
Tips From a Pro: BACKPACKER map editor Kris Wagner specializes in identifying the best route from point A to point B. Here’s his take:
- Plan your day wisely. Hikers typically walk about 2 mph–on flat ground. Mary’s route clocked out at 9.5 hours–but it also gained 3,800 feet, which would add even more time to her journey. By leaving the trailhead at 11 a.m., she guaranteed she’d be navigating for several hours by headlamp, a tricky thing even if she had stayed on the trail.
- If the trail disappears, backtrack to your last known location. Still can’t find the correct route? Locate a high point to get your bearings.
- Completely lost? Use a map or your memory to create an escape route (e.g., I know the main road goes through the south end of the park). Pick a corresponding compass bearing and stick with it.
- No map and compass? From a vantage point, use a mirror or signal fire to attract attention. Or, wait until night and look for the nearest lights or city glow. Draw your bearing in the dirt, then follow it the next day by picking off intermediate points (trees, lakes) along the way, using weather signals (the wind is blowing south) to keep on track.