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July 19, 2012


It was supposed to be easy, a brisk 30-minute hike on a pristine summer day. But a wrong turn led one woman on a brutal quest for survival. A year later, she shares her harrowing story.

pam salant

Photo Credit: Molly Landreth

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I woke up to a gorgeous Portland, Oregon, morning: 80 degrees, sunny, the perfect weather for a camping trip. Which meant at least one thing was going in my favor. I was hungover, thanks to too many drinks with a girlfriend the night before, and not exactly up for the wilderness. But the trip had been planned for a while, so I got myself together and went to pick up my boyfriend, Aric.

It was an easy 90-minute drive to Mt. Hood National Forest — a breathtaking, rugged park stretching 60 miles south from the Columbia River Gorge — and we zoned out, listening to bluegrass music. We'd done our share of major hikes, but this one was going to be mellow. The campsite was a mere half-hour walk through the woods, and we were staying only one night. Aric would play his guitar and mandolin, we'd chill. But like the hungover morning itself, nothing about this trip went as planned.

Halfway into the walk to Bear Lake, just south of the gorge, Aric and I started to argue. It was the same fight that always plagued our otherwise happy relationship, which had begun soon after I moved to Portland a year and a half earlier: At 28, I wanted to have a family, while he wanted to chase his wanderlust. Worse, once we got to the campsite, we realized it was too close to the trail. We decided to dump the gear, and, instead of looking together — I was too angry — we split up to find a more remote spot.

That was when a bad day turned disastrous.

It was 1:30 p.m. when I set off in my tank top and shorts to explore the left side of the small lake. Not finding a trail, I bushwhacked through the brush and, having meandered more than I realized, lost sight of the water. I walked toward it, or so I thought, but no luck. Dusk was falling now and, worried, I drew maps in the dirt. Then below me I heard a stream, which would lead to the lake. I headed eagerly down a steep hill and followed the water before realizing it ran downstream.

I began to panic. It was almost dark now, and colder. Everything was at the campsite — even my cell phone. Feeling light-headed, I figured some seven hours had passed since I'd eaten.

Suddenly, thrillingly, I spotted the dark glimmer of a lake in the distance and charged blindly toward it. Seconds later, the ground literally dropped out from under me. I felt my body falling, a weightless sensation, more confusing than frightening, that seemed endless. I had dropped off, I learned later, a 50-foot cliff.

I don't remember hitting the ground or passing out, but when I woke, it was morning. Disoriented, aching, I saw a sickening gash on my right leg that cut clean through the tissue to underlying bone. It was still oozing blood. My other leg was bent at a weird angle below the knee, and I knew it was broken.

I wasn't even sure I could move, but when I heard running water, I felt reassured. I knew it likely flowed into the Columbia River, which eventually reached a highway. I didn't dare contemplate how far away it might be. Gingerly, I pushed myself into a sitting position, and that's when I noticed the creek was below me in a steep, dark ravine. I'd have to scoot on my butt to get down there, then crawl. Every inch of my body ached, but there were no other options except waiting for someone to find me. Who knew how long that would be, if ever.

The pain was excruciating as I navigated the rocks and fallen tree trunks and maneuvered around waterfalls. Pricker bushes tore at my skin, my hands bled, my thighs were scraped. But I felt an unworldly focus, every sense heightened. For the first time in my life I was completely in tune with my body. I knew if I lost my balance I might not get back up.

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