Six Days Stranded in the Snow on Mount Hood
In 2013, writer Mary Grimm got lost amid whiteout conditions and had to fend for herself for nearly a week
There was nothing but 30 feet of air and rock below me when I slipped. The world spun by in slow motion. I did my best to tuck my arms and legs as I tumbled, pinballing against trees and boulders, but there was nothing I could do to slow my speed. Finally, I landed like a ragdoll in the snow.
This was my second day on Mount Hood. I was injured, soaked, and freezing. My feet had long gone numb, and no one knew where I was. That’s when it hit me: I was going to die here.
I’d been trying to climb this mountain ever since I first laid eyes on it. That was back in 2010, when I was thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I had turned to see the peak shining in the sunlight, beckoning. I looked at it and thought: I’m coming back for you.
But for the next three years, trip after trip fell through. So when I befriended a former mountaineering guide who agreed to take me up, I told everyone I knew that my time had finally come. Only my parents seemed concerned; my dad made me promise I wouldn’t climb alone.
The trip was planned for a Saturday in April. But as Friday night rolled around, I got an email: my friend didn’t like the look of the weather. When I read his decision to cancel the trip, I felt my gut wrench with disappointment. No matter, I thought, remembering how easy steep snow crossings had felt on the PCT and how my instincts had always gotten me through tricky situations before. I’m going out there anyway.
Early Saturday morning, I snuck out of my university apartment and drove two hours north to Mount St. Helens to test out my kit. After hiking near the base, I added leggings and trail runners to my checklist. Then I packed my ice ax, tarp, and snacks and drove to Mount Hood.
Before crawling into the back of the truck in the Timberline Lodge parking lot, I said a little prayer: God, please wake me up when it’s time to climb.
And he did; right at 2 A.M., I opened my eyes. But it was cold, so I rolled over. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d ignore God’s warnings in the days to come.
When I woke again, it was 10 A.M. Feeling rushed by my late start, I charged up the mountain. It was more than 5,000 vertical feet from my starting point at the lodge to the summit. As I gained elevation, the temperature dropped and clouds drifted in.
A lone splitboarder looked wary as I marched past. “Be safe,” he said. He was the last person I’d talk to for the next six days.
By now the clouds were swirling. Visibility wavered between 50 feet and five. All around me, crests of wind-carved rime ice rose out of the snow like alien creatures. I walked for hours, sure I was on the summit track and that the weather would let up any minute. Then a gust blew the fog aside, revealing a sheer rock wall, black with plated ice. The track was nowhere to be seen.
I stopped and took stock of the situation. My trail running shoes and gloves were soaked. I had no idea where I was. I need to get off this mountain, I thought. So I turned around. But the snow was falling heavily, erasing my tracks. I couldn’t tell which way was up.
I tossed a snowball against the hillside and followed its direction of roll, picking up my pace until I was almost running. Before long, I was moving in a controlled slide. Once, I skidded to a stop just as the fog gusted aside—revealing a four-foot-wide crevasse inches from my toes. My heart leaped. I need to slow down, I thought.
By now, it was dark, and I’d been hiking for nearly ten hours, but the thought of sitting and waiting for a search party left me feeling ashamed. So I kept walking, kicking myself for not bringing a map.
The next time I checked my phone, which was out of service and nearly dead, it was 2 A.M., and I was exhausted. I spread my tarp on the snow and wrapped my poncho around myself, figuring I’d sleep just for a bit.
I woke a few hours later, stiff with fatigue but desperate to keep moving. Downhill, the snow was too deep to navigate, so I made my way up to a treed ridge instead. As I climbed, the ridge grew steeper and rockier. I pulled out my ice ax for leverage. I lodged it in a rock, pulled myself up, and felt my grip slide off the end of the handle. Suddenly I was falling through rock and air.
It took a minute for the pain to set in. I had an eight-inch gash in my inner thigh, and one ankle was badly sprained. I couldn’t walk.
I took a deep breath, and for the first time in almost 48 hours, I prayed: God, please help me get off this mountain. And that’s when I realized God wasn’t there.
Since I was a child, I’d felt God as a very real and steady presence in my life. But now, for the first time, I was looking into the void. I was alone. Terror flooded in.
I dug a shallow cave, tamping down the snow with my one good foot, and curled up on my tarp. Then I set my camera to record.
First, I spoke to my parents. I told them I loved them, and that I was sorry. Through tears, I told them that I knew God was good even though he wasn’t answering my prayers. I wanted them to know that much. It hurt to think of all the loose ends I’d leave behind. I told my siblings and friends that I loved them. After a few minutes of recording, I was shivering so hard I could no longer talk.
I spent the next day in the cave, hoping against hope that someone would find me. I filled my bottle with snow and breathed into it to melt the crystals, and I dozed in and out of sleep.
On Tuesday morning, I woke to sluff avalanches pouring over the lip of my snow cave. I needed to get out.
Wrapping my hands in my tarp for protection, I started crawling across the snow toward the canyon. It took me hours to move only 100 feet. Exhausted, I dug another shallow depression and rested, trying to regain my strength. By now, I only had two granola bars and some chia seeds left.
Over the next two days, my hope dwindled. The hours passed as I shivered and waited, periodically calling out in case someone was looking for me. I thought about throwing myself over the canyon wall just to bring the inevitable end closer, but the thought of my family made me pause. Despite my misery, I still had a persistent will to live. It was like a horrible, burning ball of light that wouldn’t go out.
Then, on Friday morning, I woke to a voice: Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will drink or what you will wear tomorrow. Thousands of people are praying for you. I felt a jolt. It was like the world had burst from black-and-white to color: God was with me after all.
Shortly after that, I saw the first search plane. I waved, screaming, sure it had seen me. But as I waited, the minutes stretched into hours, and the plane didn’t come back. I spent the night on the ridge, feeling my spirits sink. Then the stars started to appear, winking one by one like old friends. Like sparks of hope.
The next morning, I packed my bag and waited as the sun rose behind Mount Hood, pushing its shadow out over Portland. And as I looked over the ridge, I saw what I’d been waiting for: a helicopter rose to meet my gaze, two pilots waving ecstatically through the windshield. I screamed and waved; when they landed, one of the rescuers ran to me. He offered to carry me to the waiting chopper, but I shook my head. I could do this.
I started crawling. The rescuer just nodded and got down on his hands and knees to crawl beside me. I smiled at his kind gesture: the darkness was over.