Mary Owen found herself injured and alone on Mt. Hood for six days before a mysterious set of tracks led rescuers right to her
By Sean Patterson
Even as her body pinballed between trees down a 40-foot canyon, Mary Owen refused to scream. The urge to do so would come later.
It was 4 a.m. and the temperature in the 20s when Owen’s free fall mercifully came to an end at the 4,500-foot-mark of Mt. Hood. With her leg gashed and peppered with splinters, her knee numb with nerve damage and her ankle severely sprained, Owen came to a somber realization: This is where people freeze to death.
The thought didn’t terrify her. Nor did she resign herself to believing her life of 23 years was over. But as an educated climber, she knew this was how many a mountaineer met their fate. Just hours before, the George Fox senior had embarked on a journey to summit the mountain – a quest that had eluded her for three years. Ever since a bad experience on Hood while hiking the 2,660-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2010, she wanted to return to “create a better memory.”
But numerous times, for one reason or another, her plans to climb Oregon’s tallest peak fell through. People canceled on her. She couldn’t find others to climb with. Frustration mounted.
Then, the final straw: Her guide for a weekend summit trip told her Friday he didn’t like the conditions and decided to postpone. Owen wasn’t having it. “I had already made up my mind I was going,” she says. Two days later, she was making her way up the mountain, alone.
Quest for the summit
All was glorious that afternoon of Sunday, March 24: A week before Easter, temperatures were in the 50s and not a cloud in sight. Owen elevated to 8,500 feet without a problem. Then came a warning: A snowboarder advised her a whiteout was coming and suggested she turn around.
It would be the last person she would talk to for six days. Undeterred, she pressed on. At 9,000 feet, Owen could barely see a few feet in front of her, lost in the thick of a cloud. “I figured the summit couldn’t be much further,” she says. “I kept going, thinking I could just will it to clear up.”
She was in trouble now. Everything was cold. It was time to turn around. One problem: She’d lost her bearings. Descending below the whiteout, Owen could see the distant lights of Portland – an indication she was on the wrong side of the mountain. The faint lights of a snow park offered hope. But, trudging through 5 feet of snow, Owen felt as though she was “swimming through mud.”
Ultimately, she decided to head for a line of trees and rocks going up the face of a canyon wall. The next thing she remembered, her body was careening down the mountain.
Lost and injured
Owen came to a somber realization: This is where people freeze to death.
Lost and injured, Owen hasn’t abandoned hope. But she takes precautions. In the event she doesn’t make it, she wants to tell her parents what happened – and apologize to her future summer employer for not reporting to work “because I’m dead.” She records a two-minute farewell on her camera.
It’s funny where your mind goes when you’re stranded. Outlandish dreams – including one in which a friend offers a dragon for transport off the mountain – taunt Owen. In another surreal encounter, the Jonas Brothers and U2 emerge from a celebrity spa and talk to her about hiking out. U2, however, doesn’t want to hike with the Jonases, so they part ways. Even more disconcerting, though, is the silence. Three days pass, and still nobody is looking for her. Owen hadn’t told anyone she was going alone, but she had filled out the paperwork to register for the hike. She would find out later that paperwork was misplaced, delaying any search efforts.
Even worse, God was nowhere to be found.
“I’m not afraid of much, and being outdoors isn’t fear-inducing at all, but I was wondering why God wasn’t talking to me,” she says. “Then it hit me. I realized everything he had given me – my family, friends, everything he’d given me to do at school and as a Bible translator (her career goal) – I had given up for what? To summit a peak? How ridiculous.”
Her faith in God remained strong, but the experience drove home a truth: Her life is not her own. “I don’t really believe in fear, and I don’t have a fear of death, but something I realized while I was out there was that, while you may not believe in the fear of death and may not hold onto life too tightly, your life means something to other people,” she says. “It’s not just you and God when you die. It’s you, God and the community that he’s placed you in.”
“To hold my life as carelessly as I did was tantamount to suicide. I had done something with only a thought of myself, thinking it was just between me and God. It wasn’t. As I lay there, I couldn’t help but think of how many loose ends I’d be leaving behind if I were to die out there. Death had never hit me like that. I’d been in places where I almost died, but I’d never really had a chance to fully contemplate what all that entails.”
The realization that her life was in the balance because of a bullheaded decision hit her hard. She recalled the promise to her dad, Bruce, that she wouldn’t climb Hood alone. She reflected on the Israelites of Exodus and their needless wandering because of stubbornness. She thought of the grief of her loved ones when her body was finally discovered. “Easter, for them, would be marked with pain for the rest of their lives,” she reasoned.
But Easter is all about miracles, and Owen was about to experience one firsthand.
An Easter miracle
Friday – Good Friday – felt different. Owen, sensing the prayers of thousands of people all over the world, was at peace. This was the day she would be found, she thought.
At sunset, two search planes circled above her. Both flew off. Still, Owen was hopeful, and early Saturday her prayers were answered. A National Guard helicopter hovered toward her. It had followed footprints from the summit, where a sleeping bag print was made.
Now was the time to scream. Her attention-getting antics paid off: She was spotted. Owen was safe. And, despite frostbite on her toes and a six-inch gash on her leg, she would be expected to make a full recovery.
The miracle? The sleeping bag print and footprints weren’t hers.
“My dad said he was praying that an angel would guide the rescuers,” she smiles. “I guess an angel made it to the summit.”
Upon reuniting with her father, her first words were, “I’m so sorry.” A long embrace followed.
There would indeed be a lot of crying in the Owen household this Easter. Only, in a miraculous twist, they would be tears of joy.