CAUGHT IN A WHITE­OUT

OUT ALIVE

Backpacker - - Contents - As told to Mary Beth Skylis

Two PCT thru-hik­ers sur­vived more than 60 hours trapped in a snow pit dur­ing a 2017 bliz­zard.

IT SEEMED LIKE ev­ery­where we wanted to go, wild­fires beat us to it. My hik­ing part­ner Rook and I hit the north­ern half of the Pa­cific Crest Trail at the peak of fire sea­son, which in 2017 left large swaths of Cal­i­for­nia and Ore­gon charred and im­pass­able. It was al­most as com­i­cal as it was frus­trat­ing to have our hike de­layed by four weeks be­cause we had to road walk 400 miles. As the days passed, Rook and I be­came con­vinced that we were the last north-bound thru-hik­ers of the sea­son.

Still, by mid-Oc­to­ber we were only 150 miles from the Cana­dian border, and the lower el­e­va­tions were sunny and dry. We fig­ured we could make it in six days, but the forecast showed the po­ten­tial for snow up high. We packed snow­shoes and 10 days of food in case our weather win­dow closed on us, and re­luc­tantly added a SPOT de­vice at the re­quest of Rook’s mom. Maybe we’ll have a stroke of luck for a change, I thought.

We man­aged 17 miles the first day and 21 the sec­ond, but when we crossed 4,985-foot In­dian Pass, near Seat­tle, the trail van­ished un­der a blan­ket of white. A pass­ing hiker de­liv­ered the news: A mas­sive storm was ap­proach­ing fast.

Rook and I weighed our op­tions. We could hike 90 miles for­ward in un­cer­tain con­di­tions or 44 miles back to the last road. We felt we had the right gear, and as long as we moved ef­fi­ciently, we thought we might be able to out­run the storm. It wasn’t un­til we set up camp and pulled out our phones that we re­al­ized we had an­other fac­tor to worry about: Rook’s smart­phone was soak­ing wet, and the map files on mine were cor­rupted— We’d lost our only means of nav­i­ga­tion.

I wanted to tag that border, but not at the ex­pense of our lives; we weren’t ex­pe­ri­enced win­ter hik­ers, and with­out a GPS, we didn’t trust our­selves to stick to the snow-cov­ered trail. We de­cided to play it safe and re­trace our foot­steps over the pass in the morn­ing.

But when we woke up, we found our­selves pack­ing up in a storm. The weather tog­gled be­tween rain and nuk­ing snow, and the wind slowed our pace to a half-mile per hour. Soon, the snow was up to 2 feet deep, and we were posthol­ing even in snow­shoes. On the pass, we dropped into drifts as high as our chests. Vis­i­bil­ity shrank down to just a few feet.

We’d planned to hike 20 miles, but by the 11-mile mark, the sun was set­ting. We were soaked and ex­hausted, so we de­cided to hun­ker down just below the pass and wait out the worst. Yelling to each other over the wind, we fought to dig out a pit for our flimsy ul­tra­light tents, dig­ging with our trekking poles and cook pots. We pitched our tents wall-to-wall and packed the edges of the flys with snow to keep out the blow­ing flakes.

We woke up to col­lapsed tent ceil­ings and a still-rag­ing storm. The slopes around us were loaded and we didn’t have any avalanche train­ing or gear, but we were keep­ing warm just fine and had more than enough food. We agreed to stay put. If the sun reap­peared soon, we could wait a few days for the snow­pack to set­tle and then move on. To pass the time, we told sto­ries through our tent walls. By this point, Rook prob­a­bly knew me bet­ter than any­one else in the world.

He spent most of his time melt­ing snow, and I chain-rolled cig­a­rettes to the tunes we played out of my still-func­tion­ing phone. We os­cil­lated be­tween try­ing to stay pos­i­tive and star­ing gloomily at the ceil­ings of our re­spec­tive cells.

We also de­bated us­ing our SPOT de­vice, un­sure if we should call for res­cue or not. In our minds, any step could trig­ger a slide. But our com­mu­ni­ca­tion op­tions were lim­ited. We could call for a res­cue, but we couldn’t give any de­tail. The mes­sage would ping our GPS co­or­di­nates from the satel­lite to a dis­tant res­cue co­or­di­na­tion cen­ter, and from there to a lo­cal SAR team, who would pre-

sum­ably launch into ac­tion to find us. But af­ter the S.O.S call, the rest of the world would hear only si­lence from our end. Ev­ery­one was go­ing to think the worst.

It took more than a day of sit­ting in our tents, watch­ing the re­lent­less snow­fall make travel more and more dan­ger­ous, to con­vince us to hit the but­ton.

We waited, ex­pect­ing a chop­per to stir its way through the froth of clouds any minute. But it didn’t. About 24 hours af­ter send­ing the S.O.S, we started to re­al­ize what we’d done: We tied our­selves to this spot by hit­ting that but­ton. If we moved on, we could get lost or buried in a slide, and res­cuers might never find us. But what if we stayed put and help wasn’t com­ing? The snow was still pil­ing up out­side and showed no signs of quit­ting. How long could we last be­fore we ran out of food to eat and fuel to melt snow? A few days?

Quit­ting the PCT no longer seemed like the worst thing that could hap­pen. I’d promised my girl­friend that I’d make it back. Now, even that seemed ques­tion­able.

Af­ter two days tent-bound, we thought we heard a he­li­copter. But the sound faded al­most as soon as it ar­rived. We’d been in the pit so long we were imag­in­ing things.

About 48 hours af­ter press­ing the but­ton, we de­cided to push on re­gard­less of the weather; we didn’t know how long it would take to hike the 10 miles to the near­est road in deep snow, and we needed to go be­fore we ran too low on food and fuel to make it there. As day­light broke through the wall of white around us, we stood in si­lence next to the flames of our cook­stove.

Around 7 a.m., the snow stopped. We looked at each other and nod­ded. We knew we were in a mine­field of avalanche trig­gers, but con­di­tions were just as likely to get worse as they were to get bet­ter, and we couldn’t last out there for­ever. It was time to go.

As we started pack­ing up, we heard buzzing. Over­head, a chop­per emerged from the clouds. Our luck had fi­nally changed.

Dy­lan Zitawi (left) and Colton Lulfs right be­fore the storm hit

Zi­towi and Lulfs fought through waist-deep snow near In­dian Pass.

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