I woke up at 5pm this past Sunday to hike Mount Pilchuck for the first time. The forecast was for temperatures to reach 100 degrees, so the plan was to summit early and be done by 10am to avoid the main heat of the day.
I set out on what was a fairly uneventful, pleasant hike. It was quiet, the north views soon started opening up, and before I knew it I had hit the snowline. The sun was quite bright by this time, and snow was melting, causing rivers of water to flow over exposed rock faces.
Near the summit (about 1/2 mile), I ran into a hiker who had already summited and was making his descent. We stopped to talk for a few minutes. He told me that Pilchuck was his favorite mountain, "I grew up hiking this mountain", and that he has hiked it many times over the years. He said that he had gotten up at 4am to beat both the crowds and the heat. I asked him if the summit was crowded and he said "No, you'll have the place all to yourself".
Before we parted, he warned me that the trail was really difficult to follow near the summit. He said he had gotten lost a few times earlier in the day. He said "Just remember to head north when you're near the summit and you'll be headed in the right direction".
As I got closer to the summit, I did get lost, and in hindsight, I wandered off-trail. I began to mark my path with trail markers so I could find my way back. I ended up following some footsteps in the snow from other hikers who had wandered the same pathway, and when I got close to the lookout, I improvised my own path, which was "the straightest line I could draw from where I was standing to the lookout". The fact that it proceeded over a huge field of tumbled boulders on the west side of the summit seemed of little consequence to me (after all, I had never summited, so I had no idea that I was off-trail).
I summitted early, right around 8am. I did indeed have the place to myself, and spent a fair amount of time taking photos and exploring the east side of the summit (which was where I was supposed to have already traversed). I could tell that the proper trail approached the summit from the east, but I was reticent to follow it for fear of getting lost (as I had marked my approach, I felt confident that I could re-trace my approach path).
Mount Pilchuck is incredibly beautiful, and the views really are stunning. I described the summit as "a precariously arranged set of boulders", with vertigo-inducing drop-offs on the north side.
I had 360 degree views on a decently clear day, and I took what are arguably the best photos of Mount Baker, Shuksan, and Mount Rainier I will ever take.
Before I began my descent, I ate a protein bar and drank some water. I felt good about how much water I had (two 8-oz plastic containers and a full Boxed-Water-Is-Better, size: 1 liter. This was way more than I needed for my descent). I had maybe 300 calories of quick-energy snacks left but was unconcerned because I'd be back at my car in an hour.
I began my descent from the west side of the lookout over the boulder field. My trail markers made the initial part easy. Ironically enough, I actually congratulated myself on doing so well navigating the summit (as they say: pride goeth before the fall).
After I had descended maybe 500 feet, and travelled only a quarter mile of distance, I found it incredibly difficult to find/follow the trail. It was a mix of snow and earth, there were false paths, and many areas of snow looked like they could go either way: were those footsteps that have been obscured by yesterdays melting, or just melting? Is the dirt/evergreen needles/bark/etc on the snow due to hikers traversing between patches of earth and snow, or just due to the wind blowing debris off of all these trees?
I became very disoriented, but knew that if I just kept (a) gently descending and (b) heading north, I would pick up the trail soon enough.
The next few minutes are the most difficult to recall, even though I recall most everything else from that day with perfect clarity. I remember rushing. I definitely went too fast. I also remember falling a handful of times, sliding on my back or side until my boots found some kind of purchase. I was off-trail, and it was steep, and I had descended below the snowline, and so I was hiking on earth and rocks. I had some south-facing views, and knew that I was too far south and west, and as I attempted to correct my path and proceed north, I hit a steep ravine that prevented any/all northward progress.
As I made my way down-slope some more, I hiked in/on/around a massive boulder field that tumbled straight down the side of the mountain. It was difficult to navigate, but I figured at least I would be hiking in such a way that I wasn't wandering all over the place: I was generally headed straight down slope. I also recalled that there was a tumble-down boulder field near the beginning of the hike that hikers were advised to avoid, and I did wonder briefly if I just continued down, would I intersect the trail? (The eventual answer turned out to be "no, it wasn't even close").
I finally reached a point where, in front of me was a steep drop-off, down the boulder field, and to my right (where I knew I needed to go) was a ravine I couldn't cross. So I stopped.
I realized I was hopelessly lost. It was approx 9:30am. I knew how much water I had, but noticed that I had stopped in a location that was nowhere near a water supply. I knew the temperature was soon going to hit 100 degrees. I had a compass, but thought it largely useless due to the hostile terrain. I could see Mount Rainier, which was extremely disconcerting, as I knew I was on the wrong side of the mountain. I was alone on the mountain, which meant no one would hear me if I called out.
It was the first time in my hiking experience that I thought I had gotten myself into a situation that I couldn't get myself out of, and so I did something I never thought I'd do: I set off my emergency rescue beacon and sat down to wait.
The next two hours were incredibly difficult. I felt very alone, and largely helpless. I was surrounded by many sounds. Birds mostly, but also insects... lots of insects, who were very interested in me. There was the occasional growl down the slope, in the ravine, which thankfully remained of an unknown origin. It took me a while to become comfortable with my aloneness, and I'm not sure I initially ever got there due to the fact that I was now waiting on external help that I wasn't sure would ever arrive. I wondered a lot if the beacon was working. It was clearly broadcasting, but was anyone listening? Would it be 2 hours, or 4, before someone came (if anyone came at all)?
The loudest sound was a cicada-type insect: regular bursts of sound with long-ish intervals of silence. At first, it was irritating, but for some reason I thought of The Story of the Russian cosmonaut, from the movie Another Earth, and it helped a lot.
The story is about a Russian cosmonaut who is confined in a tiny space capsule for 25+ days, and a ticking sound originates in the cockpit and nearly drives him insane. He can't find it's origin and so he can't fix it, and he thinks it might likely drive him mad in the end. To persevere, he makes a decision, which is to fall in love with the sound, and so when he's done with his internal re-conceptualization of the sound, it's like beautiful music to him, and he finishes his mission in peace.
This story helped. It reminded me that my best best way to try not to fight the sounds, but to enjoy them. I tried to calm down by opening myself up to the sounds that were all around me. Woodpeckers, birds calling out, insects, mysterious growls, the occasional soft breeze making the trees creek. I tried my best not to go insane, sitting there alone for two hours.
I spent most of that time standing, half-way between "stay" and "flight". I had to keep moving to stay in the shade. My water supply was dwindling. I started to wonder how long I could afford to wait where I was. If I waited too long, and ran out of water, I'd have to hike to find water, and it would be incredibly hot by then, necessitating a steady supply of water. If I didn't find water in time, I would become dehydrated and could get heatstroke.
So I made a decision I knew was a mistake: two hours after deploying the beacon, I shut it off and decided to hike back in the direction of the summit, where I knew there was snow.
My initial camp was at 3,600' above sea level. I began to make my way straight up the boulder field, this time under relentless sun. I didn't have a head covering initially, and so I took breaks off to the side of the field when I could find shade under trees or behind large rocks to catch my breath. It was so very, very hot. I could tell I was getting dehydrated but was making slow and steady progress going back up the mountain.
I was calling out "Help!" and "I am Lost!" every few minutes. I knew that, the further up I went, the better my chances were of being heard.
I took a long-sleeved shirt out of my backpack and tied it around my head. I was just so hot, and tired, and the boulders were incredibly difficult to navigate. I kept slipping, and re-navigating small parts when I ran into a jam. Sometimes I was able to proceed straight up, other times it was more of a zig-zag pattern.
I managed to get back up to the snowline and found a shady spot in which to rest. I didn't know it at the time, but I had made it 1,000' up the slope from my original camp. This was over only 0.4 miles, so the vertical ascent was incredible for such a short distance.
After just a few minutes I head the SAR helicopter (SAR = Search and Rescue) approach the west side of the mountain, way below me. It hovered over the location I had originally set off my beacon, flying back and forth across the 3,600' level, looking for me.
I watched, helpless, the entire time, searching way below me, and too far away to see. I immediately re-deployed the beacon and set it out in the middle of the boulder field, figuring that perhaps the new ping would relay back to the helicopter pilot so he would know I had moved.
I stood in the middle of the boulder field and took off my orange shirt and started waving it around my head trying to be noticed. The helicopter went back and forth, slowly scoping out the area I had initially deployed my beacon. They were incredibly thorough. I felt completely helpless watching it, and was tempted to run back down the side of the mountain (which would have been a terrible idea). It was in the air for 20 minutes before it flew away, giving the appearance of abandoning the search.
It's difficult to describe the feeling of watching the SAR team appear to fly away, abandoning the search [for me]. It was a combination of hopelessness, despair, and frustration. I knew exactly what was wrong, and kept hoping that the new ping location would be relayed to the helicopter pilot. I watched as the pilot flew W/NW, out over the Pilchuck River valley, and finally disappear. (Ironically enough, I think this may have actually strengthened my resolve to survive, because now my plan to try to re-summit was looking like the only viable option).
Because I had re-deployed the beacon, I was pretty sure I had to stay camped where I was. If the new pings were to ever get to SAR, and it turns out I had moved yet again, I think they'd land and punch me in the face and then leave me on the side of the mountain. My new plan was to wait at least a couple of hours, rehydrate, try to relax, and then re-summit when I thought the time was right.
Apparently, I was relaxed enough to take a couple of photos. It's a little odd to me that I didn't take a single photo of my initial camp, the boulder field, or the 4,600' camp. I caught a couple of eagles flying overhead at 4,600':
I sat down in the shade next to the boulder field and began the next long wait.
Since I had hiked up to the snow line, I then filled two Boxed-Water-Is-Better boxes with snow and set them out in the sun to heat up. It hadn't yet occurred to me that I could make potable water from the snow, so I scraped the top couple of inches off from the snow until it was pure-ish white, and used that to fill the boxes.
After maybe fifteen more minutes of planning, I decided that I liked my chances of sleeping overnight in the lookout, even without a lot of extra layer of clothing (t-shirt, light long-sleeve shirt, thin fleece, rain jacket, hat, and light gloves). I also filled my potable water filter with snow and set it out on an exposed rock. While digging in the snow with my knife, I managed to cut my finger, which proceeded to bleed all over my pants, shoe, and the snow. I remember laughing at this and telling myself "On top of everything, now THIS. It's like some kind of cruel joke". I ended up wrapping my finger in a bright pink trail marker ribbon, which I then tied around said finger to hold the marker in place.
I sat down to camp out and rest. I started to feel better about my chances of surviving, mostly because I had water, but also because I decided that, if I could re-summit, all I'd need to do was wait for someone to summit and they could help me get back down. The lookout is a shelter, and my plan was to camp for a while until I felt better able to continue, and then make for the summit. I liked my chances of resummiting because I knew that if I kept going up, I would [theoretically] eventually get there.
All through this time, I had been calling out periodically with the hope that someone might hear me. I actually started before I set off the beacon, and had been calling out maybe every 15-30 minutes. I called out "Help!" and I heard a woman's voice respond, way above me and further east. So I called out "I'm lost" and "I can't find the trail". I didn't hear any other voice after that brief exchange. A few minutes later, the SAR helicopter came back to my old location and I climbed out into the middle of the boulder field to begin waving my shirt again (the rescue beacon was still deployed).
Less than five minutes later, a hiker poked his head out and offered to lead me back to the trail. I wasn't super far away .. maybe 300-400 feet. It was above me (up slope), and I likely would have crossed it again on my way to the summit. He handed me his phone, which somehow had service, and I called 911. They put me through to the deputy and I told him who I was and asked him to call off the search, which he did.
The hiker then lead me back up to the trail and asked me if I had enough food and water. I thanked him (and eventually bought his family dinner at a restaurant on Beacon Hill here in Seattle).
My hike down was uneventful. I stopped at two streams to fill up my water supply and I drank deeply each time.
Driving home, it was hot enough to liquify some of the Mountain Loop Highway (a 1/4 mile section heading east, approx 10 miles from Quarry Road). I didn't get back to Seattle until 4:30pm, almost twelve hours after I had left.
I spoke with a Snohomish County Deputy the day after and he was incredibly kind. His name was Deputy Espeland and I have to admit I was afraid to call him because I thought maybe I had done something wrong.
After a conversation to connect the dots (between how he saw things play out vs. how I experienced them), he actually apologized to me and told me that SAR considered the rescue to be unsuccessful (which is nor their normal MO).
I don't think it was their fault (after all, the Air Force waited 90 minutes before notifying them, and there was an errant ping location in there that really didn't help [see below]). He was very matter-of-fact about the whole thing, told me "this is what we do" and that he was sorry that they didn't pull me off of the mountain.
I learned many things from speaking with Deputy Espeland, among them:
I also send a long-ish email to the SVC SAR team, which is included below:
---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: Tom Laramee
Date: Mon, Jun 28, 2021 at 3:16 PM
Subject: Mt Pilchuck beacon on the morning of 6/28.
Dear SCV SAR:
My name is Tom Laramee. I'm the one who set off my beacon on the west side of Pilchuck on Sunday at around 9:30am.
Despite being an experienced hiker (I've hiked Gothic Basin, Mount Dickerman, Mt Pugh, Goat Lake, Perry Creek, Pratt Lake, Commonwealth Basin, Granite Mountain, etc, etc, etc), I found myself incredibly lost on the west side of Pilchuck yesterday.
I ended up on a bounder field on the west side of the mountain, surrounded by trees, with a steep drop-off to the north, and I knew I couldn't go south (that was the wrong way), and I couldn't go north (due to the drop-off) and I couldn't get around these hazards (by continuing SW) ... and I had no idea where I was.
I was mostly worried about dehydration and heat stroke.
That was when I set off my beacon.
When I ran out of water (~2 hours later), I knew I needed to find a water source or I'd be in trouble, and so I shut the beacon off and tried to find my way back up towards the summit. I was so lost but I thought maybe I could find it if I just kept going up.
I know in hindsight this was a big mistake. I should have stayed put.
I also know I should have tried to find a clearer/larger area prior to setting off of the beacon. As it was I was in a fairly wooded area, and so difficult to spot.
I found snow by climbing up the boulder field to the snowline, and then camped out for another ~2 hours. I made potable water from the snow to try to keep hydrated, and stayed in the shade to prevent heatstroke.
I watched from ~0.4 miles away as the SAR helicopter looked for me.
When I saw the helicopter, I re-set the beacon in the clear hoping that the new pings would show I had moved up-slope. (I was around 800-1000 feet away from the original location, directly up). I was standing on a huge boulder waving my orange shirt above my head to try to be visible, but I think I was too far away.
Eventually, someone heard me calling for help, and a brave hiker descended down a few hundred feet to find me and lead me back to the trail.
I'm truly sorry for moving. I know this was the wrong thing to do - but I was really worried about heatstroke and dehydration. I felt hopelessly lost on a mountain that I have never been on. I didn't think I could get myself to safety - that's why I set off the beacon.
(I normally carry it for the case when I find an hiker with a broken collarbone, or ankle, or leg)
I never thought I would use it for myself.
A couple of things to wrap this letter up:
(1) thank you - those who came out to look for me. i found it incredibly heartwarming that a crew would come out and try to get me off that mountain safely. it's really incredible to me (and later on i learned SCV SAR is volunteer-based, which is also incredible).
(2) can i pay for the helicopter's air time and fuel? (i would really like to).
(3) can i make a donation to SCV SAR? i'm incredibly inspired by your organization and want to make a meaningful contribution.
Incidentally, here's the story of the Russian Cosmonaut, from the movie Another Earth (2011):
Do you know the story of the Russian Cosmonaut? So the cosmonaut, he's the first man ever to go into space. The Russians beat the Americans. He goes up in this big spaceship, but the only habitable part of it is very small. So the cosmonaut's in there, and he's got this portal window, and he's looking out of it, and he sees the curvature of the Earth for the first time. The first man to ever look at the planet he's from, and he's lost in that moment.
And all of a sudden, this strange ticking starts coming out of the dashboard. He rips out the control panel right, takes out his tools, trying to find this sound, trying to stop the sound, but he can't find it. He can't stop it. It keeps going.
A few hours into this, it begins to feel like torture. A few days go by with the sound, and he knows: this small sound will break him. He'll lose his mind. What's he going to do? He's up in space. Alone. In a space closet. He's got 25 days left to go with this sound. So the cosmonaut decides, the only way to save his sanity, is to fall in love with this sound. So he closes his eyes, and he goes into his imagination, and then he opens them. He doesn't hear ticking anymore. He hears music. And he spends the remainder of his time sailing through space in total bliss, in peace.