Footprints in the Snow
She was an experienced hiker. She knew that the tracks ahead meant someone was in trouble. But she had no idea they would lead to a rescue mission that has become legendary.
Pam Bales knew that the tracks meant someone was in trouble. But she had no idea they would lead to a rescue mission that has become legendary.
PAM BALES left the firm pavement of Base Road and stepped onto snow-covered Jewell Trail. She planned a six-hour loop hike through New Hampshire’s Mount Washington State Park. She had packed for almost every contingency and intended to walk alone.
A piece of paper on the dashboard of her Nissan Xterra detailed her itinerary: start up Jewell Trail, traverse the ridge south along Gulfside Trail, summit Mount Washington, follow Crawford Path down to Lakes of the Clouds Hut, descend Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, and return to her car before some forecasted bad weather was scheduled to arrive. Bales always left her hiking plans in her car, as well as with two fellow volunteers on the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team.
It was just before 8 a.m. on October 17, 2010. She’d checked the higher summits forecast posted by the Mount Washington Observatory before she left:
In the clouds w/a slight chance of showers. Highs: upper 20s; windchills 0–10. Winds: NW 50–70 mph increasing to 60–80 w/higher gusts.
Based on her experience, Bales knew that her hike was realistic. Besides, she had two contingency plans and extra layers of clothing to better regulate her core temperature as conditions changed; the observatory had described conditions on the higher summits as “full-on winter.” The hike up the lower portion of Jewell was pleasant. Bales felt excited as she walked up into snowy paths. At 8:30 a.m., still below the tree line, she stopped and took the first in a series of on-the-trail selfies; she was wearing a fleece tank top and hiking pants, and no gloves or hat because the air was mild. The sun shone through the trees and cast a shadow over her smiling face.
Less than an hour later, she took another photo, after she’d climbed into colder air and deeper snows. She now donned a quarter-zip fleece top and gloves. An opaque backdrop had replaced the sunshine, and snow shrouded the hemlock and birch.
She still smiled. Above her, thick clouds overloaded with precipitation were dropping below Mount Washington’s summit, where the temperature measured 24 degrees F and the winds gusted about 50 mph in fog and blowing snow.
At 10:30 a.m., the weather was showing its teeth. Bales added even more layers, including a shell jacket, goggles, and mountaineering mittens, to shield herself from the cold winds and dense fog. She made her way across the snowcovered ridge toward Mount Washington and began to think about calling it a day. Then she noticed something: a single set of footprints in the snow ahead of her. She’d been following faint tracks all day and hadn’t given
them much thought, because so many people climb Jewell Trail. But these, she realized, had been made by a pair of sneakers. She silently scolded the absent hiker for violating normal safety rules and walked on.
By 11 a.m., Bales was getting cold, even though she was moving fast and generating some body heat. She put on an extra top under her shell jacket and locked down her face mask and goggles system. Good thing I packed heavy, she thought. She decided to abandon her plan. Summiting Washington was just an option. Returning to her SUV was a requirement.
Strong gusts of wind screamed as they attacked her back and left side. The cloud cover had transitioned from canopy to the equivalent of quicksand, and the only thing keeping Bales on Gulfside Trail was the sneaker tracks in the snow. As she fought the wind and heavy sleet, her eyes searching for some type of shelter, the tracks made a hard left-hand turn off the trail.
Now she felt genuinely alarmed. She was sure the hiker could not navigate in the low visibility and was heading straight toward the challenging trails of the Great Gulf Wilderness. Bales stood there, stunned. The temperature and clouds were in a race to find their lowest point, and darkness was mere hours away. If Bales continued to follow the tracks, she’d add risk and time to the itinerary she’d already modified to manage both. But she could not let this go. She turned to the left and called out, “Hello!” into the frozen fog.
Nothing. She called out again: “Is anybody out there? Do you need help?”
The strong westerly winds carried her voice away. She blew into her rescue whistle. For a fleeting moment she thought she heard someone reply, but it was just the wind playing games with her mind. She stood listening, then turned and walked cautiously in the direction of the single set of tracks. Her bailout route would have to wait.
Bales followed the tracks gingerly for 20 to 30 yards, struggling to remain upright. She rounded a slight corner and saw a man sitting motionless, cradled by large boulders. He stared in the direction of Great Gulf, the majesty of which could only be imagined in the horrendous visibility. She approached him and uttered, “Oh, hello.”
He did not react. He wore tennis sneakers, shorts, a light jacket, and fingerless gloves. His head was bare. He looked soaking wet. Thick frost covered his jacket. His eyes tracked her slowly, and he barely swiveled his head.
A switch flipped. She stopped being a curious and concerned hiker. Her informal search now transitioned to full-on rescue mission. She leaned into her wilderness medical training and tried to get a firmer grip on his level of consciousness. “What is your name?” she asked.
He did not respond.
“Do you know where you are?” Nothing. His skin was pale and waxy, and he had a glazed look on his face. It was obvious that nothing was connecting for him. He was hypothermic and in really big trouble. Winds were blowing steadily at 50 mph, the temperature was 27 degrees, and the ice pellets continued their relentless assault on Bales and the man who was now her patient.
The prospect of having to abandon him in the interest of her own survival was horrifying, but she’d been trained in search and rescue; she knew not to put herself at such risk that she would become a patient too. She also knew she didn’t have much time. As he sat propped up against the rocks, she stripped him down to his T-shirt and underwear. Because he wouldn’t talk and she was in such close contact with him, she gave him a name: “John.” She placed adhesive toe-warmer packs directly onto his bare feet. She checked him
SHE FOLLOWED THE SNEAKER TRACKS. HER BAILOUT ROUTE WOULD HAVE TO WAIT.
for any sign of injury or trauma. There was none. From her pack, Bales retrieved a pair of soft-shell pants, socks, a winter hat, and a jacket. She pulled the warm, dry layers onto his body. He could not help, because he was so badly impaired by hypothermia.
Bales next removed a bivouac sack from her pack, holding it firmly so the winds would not snatch it. She slid it under and around his motionless body, entombing him inside. She activated more heat packs and placed them in his armpits, on his torso, and on each side of his neck. Bales always brought a thermos of hot cocoa and chewable electrolyte cubes. She dropped a few cubes into the cocoa, then cradled the back of his head with one hand, gripped the thermos with the other, and poured the warm, sugary drink into his mouth.
Over the next hour, John began to move his limbs and speak. Slurring his words, he said that when he had left Maine that morning it had been 60 degrees. He had planned to follow the same loop as Bales. He had walked that route several times before. He said he had lost his way in the poor visibility and just sat down here. Even as he warmed up, he remained lethargic.
Bales recognized that he would die soon if they didn’t get out of there. She looked her patient squarely in the eyes and said, “John, we have to go now!” She left no room for argument. She was going to descend, and he was going with her. The wind roared over and around the boulders that had protected them during the 60-minute triage. She braced him as he stood up, shivering, and with a balance of firmness and genuine concern, she ordered, “You are going to stay right on my ass, John.” This wasn’t the way she usually spoke to people, but she had to be forceful. He seemed moments away from being drawn irrevocably to the path of least resistance—stopping and falling asleep. That was not going to happen on her watch.
She figured that the only viable route was back the way they’d come. As the pair retraced their steps on the ridge, visibility was so bad that they inched along. Bales followed the small holes in the snow that her trekking poles had made earlier. Leaning into the headwinds, she began to sing a medley of Elvis songs in an effort to keep John connected to reality—and herself firmly focused.
She was trying hard to stay on the trail, and trying even harder not to let John sense her growing concern, when he dropped down into the snow. She turned and saw that he seemed to be giving up. He curled in a sort of sitting fetal position, hunched down, shoulders dropped forward, and hands on his knees. He told her he was exhausted and had had enough. She should just continue on without him. Bales would have none of it. “That’s not an option, John. We still
have the toughest part to go, so get up, suck it up, and keep going!” Slowly he stood, and she felt an overwhelming sense of relief.
Bales and her reluctant companion had traveled just under half a mile when they arrived back at the junction of Gulfside Trail and the somewhat safer Jewell Trail. It had been around 2 p.m. when they’d started down. The sun would set in three hours. Although the trees would protect them from the wind, it was darker under the canopy. Bales switched on her headlamp, but with only one light between them, she had to move slowly down a steeper section, then turn to illuminate the trail so John could follow. She offered continuous encouragement—“keep going, John; you’re doing great”—and sang a dose of songs from the 1960s.
Their descent was arduous, and Bales dreaded that he would drop in the snow again and actively resist her efforts to save him. Just before 6 p.m., they arrived at the trailhead, exhausted and battered. Her climb up to the spot where she located John had taken about four hours. Six hours had passed since then.
Bales started her car engine and placed the frozen clothing she had taken off John inside so that the heater could thaw them. She realized he had no extra clothing with him.
“Why don’t you have extra dry clothes and food in your car?” she asked.
“I just borrowed it,” he told her. Several minutes later, he put his nowdry clothes back on and returned the ones Bales had dressed him in up on the ridge.
“Why didn’t you check the weather forecast dressed like that?” she asked. He didn’t answer. He just thanked her, got into his car, and drove across the empty lot toward the exit. Right around that time, at 6:07 p.m., the Mount Washington Observatory clocked its highest wind gust of the day, at 88 mph.
Standing there astonished and alone in the darkness, Bales said to no one, “What just happened?”
Bales wouldn’t get an answer until a week later, when the president of her rescue group received a letter in the mail, a donation tucked between its folds. It read:
“I hope this reaches the right group of rescuers. This is hard to do but must try, part of my therapy. I want to remain anonymous, but I was called John. On Sunday October 17, I went up my favorite trail, Jewell, to end my life. Weather was to be bad. Thought no one else would be there. I was dressed to go quickly. Next thing I knew this lady was talking to me, changing my clothes, giving me food, making me warmer. She just kept talking and calling me John and I let her. Finally learned her name was Pam.
“Conditions were horrible and I said to leave me and get going, but
she wouldn’t. Got me up and had me stay right behind her, still talking. I followed, but I did think about running off—she couldn’t see me. But I wanted to only take my life, not anybody else’s, and I think she would’ve tried to find me.
“The entire time she treated me with compassion, authority, confidence, and the impression that I mattered. With all that has been going wrong in my life, I didn’t matter to me, but I did to Pam. She probably thought I was the stupidest hiker dressed like I was, but I was never put down in any way—chewed out, yes, in a kind way. Maybe I wasn’t meant to die yet. I somehow still mattered in life.
“I became very embarrassed later on and never really thanked her properly. If she is an example of your organization, you must be the best group around. Please accept this small offer of appreciation for her effort to save me way beyond the limits of safety. NO did not seem to be in her mind.
“I am getting help with my mental needs. They will also help me find a job and I have temporary housing. I have a new direction thanks to
wonderful people like yourselves. I got your name from her pack patch and bumper sticker.
“My deepest thanks, John.”
In the nine years since she saved John, Bales has become something of a hiking legend. It’s a title she never sought or wanted, but one she certainly has earned. All that matters to her is that she was moved deeply by the man’s gesture and his reference to the fact that she made him feel that he mattered.
Some people have asked me whether I, in finally recounting this story for the public, tried to find John. The thought of searching for him felt wrong. As I’ve reflected more on this story and its relation to mental health, my response to that question has evolved. I have in fact found John, and he is very close by me. John is my neighbor; he is my good friend, a close colleague, a family member. John could be me. At some point in our lives, all of us have found ourselves walking with a sense of helplessness through a personal storm. Alone, devoid of a sense of emotional warmth and safety and smothered by the darkness of our emotions, we’ve sought that place just off trail where we hoped to find some way to break free of our struggles. Sadly, some do follow through. Many are able to quietly self-rescue. Others, like John, are rescued by people like Pam Bales.
“MAYBE I WASN’T MEANT TO DIE,” HE WROTE. “I SOMEHOW STILL MATTERED.”