Skills, love help Lacey woman, Vancouver man survive Mount Rainier blizzard in a snow cave

Staff writerJanuary 27, 2012 

As the third day of searching for a missing snowshoer began at Mount Rainier last week, a man and a woman appeared out of the inclement weather.

When searchers first saw them on Mazama Ridge, they figured the two were fellow rescuers. There were no reports of any other missing parties, and they couldn’t be day hikers because the road to Paradise was closed.

Then the shrill sound of a distress whistle pierced the morning air.

As they rushed to the couple the reality of the situation hit. She was missing a snowshoe and goggles. He was poised but frostbitten.

Josephine Johnson and Jim Dickman were rescuers. They had just saved themselves.

The couple had headed out on a short snowshoe hike two days earlier. Instead, they spent two nights lost in a blizzard, putting their survival skills and new love to the test while beating back the fear of death.

“There were times when I just wanted to sit down and cry and say ‘I’m going to die,’ ” Johnson said. “… But we stayed strong. It is a miracle that we are alive.”

A SIMPLE START

Johnson and Dickman, both 53 and divorced, met eight months ago, drawn together, in part, by their love of the outdoors. Johnson, an administrative assistant at State Farm, lives in Lacey. Dickman, budget director for Clark County, lives 110 miles south in Vancouver. Soon after meeting, they were getting together every weekend to hike, camp and climb.

With plans to climb Mount Rainier this summer, they headed to the mountain Jan. 14 for a training trek to Camp Muir. They changed their minds when a ranger warned them that winds were gusting up to 75 mph. They decided on a short hike to Panorama Point, but shortened that too because of the weather.

Planning to be out for only a few hours, they found themselves behind a group of hikers from Tacoma.

The group spoke Korean and was led by a man named Yong Chun Kim, a 66-year-old South Korean military veteran.

Johnson became nervous as the wind picked up, almost knocking her over on several occasions. Then, suddenly, they realized the group had stopped.

“Something had happened,” Dickman said. “Radios were going. One lady was very scared. But we couldn’t quite understand what they were saying.”

Then they saw for themselves. Kim had fallen down a steep slope and could not climb up. Meanwhile, the weather was rapidly deteriorating.

Johnson and Dickman said they’d go for help and asked if any members of the party wanted to go with them. “We didn’t get much of a response,” he said.

“The wind was really whipping up and we needed to get off that ridge,” Johnson said. “We thought, if we don’t go right now nobody is going to be able to get help.”

A MISERABLE NIGHT

The weather offered no mercy as Johnson and Dickman headed back. The snow blew through the vents on Johnson’s goggles, icing the lenses inside and out.

“It was like sand blasting my face,” Johnson said.

Johnson had bought a GPS handset the day before but couldn’t load the map because of a scratch on the software CD. It didn’t matter. The world turned white around them, the conditions so bad they couldn’t even see the device’s tiny screen.

About 2 p.m., Dickman decided it was time to stop and build a snow cave. Johnson was surprised and delighted when Dickman pulled a shovel from his pack. She’d given it to him three weeks earlier during their first Christmas together but didn’t know he’d packed it for the short hike.

“I hate to think about what might have happened if we didn’t have that shovel,” Johnson said.

It had been decades since Dickman built a snow cave. He was a teenager hiking on wicker snowshoes on Chinook Pass in the 1970s. But he knew what to do. In about two hours he and Johnson were squeezed into a 6-foot-long, 3.5-foot-wide, 3-foot high cave.

They wedged their gear into the opening to keep out the wind. They didn’t have sleeping bags.

“I was never so cold in my life,” Johnson said. “It was miserable.”

IT GETS WORSE

At first light on Jan. 15, they peeked outside only to realize visibility wasn’t any better.

They thought they were in the Edith Creek basin and that following it would lead them close to the Paradise parking lot.

They were actually in the Stevens Creek canyon, which descends farther east of Paradise to the Stevens Canyon Road, which was closed for the winter.

Unaware of the mistake, they kept going.

Recovering from hand surgery, Johnson needed Dickman’s help just to put on her pack, leaving his hands exposed for long stretches of time.

Following the creek they reached a steep section where the avalanche risk appeared high and one slip could mean falling into the frigid creek waters they heard under the snow.

Dickman went first, glissading safely to the bottom.

“Then I heard a big clang,” he said. “And at first I couldn’t hear her.”

After a few agonizing seconds he heard her voice. Everything was OK.

Except it wasn’t. When she reached him, Johnson took a few steps then looked down. She was missing a snowshoe.

Just 5-foot-1 and 100 pounds and now sinking in the snow up to her waist at times, this might be a turn of misfortune they could not overcome.

FIGHTING THEIR FEAR

Dickman built another snow cave, this one a little wider than the first.

Outside, the weather raged, but inside there was only calm.

This was supposed to be a short hike so they weren’t registered. They lived alone, their kids grown and out of the habit of calling regularly.

Nobody was looking for them.

If they were going to survive, they were going to have to save each other.

They were out of food and hungry. They didn’t have a stove to melt water, and attempts to melt snow by carrying it in Nalgene bottles close to their bodies were frustratingly unsuccessful.

Johnson’s teeth chattered so much she bit her tongue. Dickman’s feet were frostbitten, so Johnson sat on them hoping to generate warmth.

At one point, Johnson took a blurry picture of Dickman and then turned the camera on herself.

“I thought it was the last photo anybody was ever going to see of me,” she said.

But she never shared her fear.

“I knew if I mentioned my fear or my insecurity that the situation would go downhill even faster,” Johnson said. “So I kept my fear to myself.”

The cave was quiet most of the night.

They thought about the love they’d cultivated over the previous eight months, how it had grown so that even staring into the icy eyes of death only made it stronger.

Johnson thought about her friend, Mariana Burceag, who survived a night in a trench during a storm on Mount Rainier in 2008 that killed her husband, Eduard. “It gave me hope,” she said.

But mostly they thought about their children, Johnson’s 10-month-old grandson and their friends. “And that,” Dickman said, “got us through.”

ONE FINAL PUSH

On Jan. 16, the couple crawled out of the cave to find visibility improved but still poor.

If they were going to survive, they surmised, they would need to climb up the steep slope to the ridge.

No easy chore with plenty of food and water and a complete set of snowshoes. They tried anyway.

“They were the steepest slopes I’ve ever encountered,” Johnson said.

With snow up to Johnson’s hips, Dickman couldn’t help but marvel at his girlfriend’s strength and determination.

“She is a mountain goat,” he said.

At first, when they reached the top of Mazama Ridge, they still couldn’t see anything. Then, “Look Jo,” Dickman said. “There are people.”

Johnson looked. “Hallelujah.”

They whistled and when the rescuers came closer Johnson was nearly in tears.

“I almost kissed them,” she said. “They gave me some tea. It was the best tea I have ever had.”

PREPARED TO SURVIVE

It was about 10:45 a.m. and the rescuers were shocked. They were looking for Kim, still lost after his fall two days earlier.

“They said we were lucky to be alive,” Johnson said.

“I want people to know that we survived because we were prepared,” Dickman added.

As a rescuer walked them back to Paradise, the radio crackled with more good news. Other rescuers had found Kim alive in a tree well, not far from where the couple was lost.

They drove home, the tip of Dickman’s left thumb purple from frostbite. A doctor later said Dickman had third-degree frostbite on his fingers and toes but that they would slowly recover.

It was a day later when the emotions hit, Dickman said. Friends and family marveled and cried when they heard of their ordeal.

Dickman can’t believe Johnson hiked off the mountain with one snowshoe. “She is the hero,” he said. “An incredible woman.”

“He says that, but he is the hero,” she said. “He was calm. He was strong. We would have died without him.”

Back in Lacey, Johnson easily dealt with a storm that knocked out her power for two days. On Jan. 20, Dickman came up for a visit and they went shopping, buying an emergency shelter, hand warmers, distress beacons, new mittens and a second shovel – items they wished they’d had.

This weekend, they plan to be back in the mountains for what they hope will be the next in a lifetime of adventures together.

“He is so amazing,” Johnson said. “I’m going to marry this man.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497

craig.hill@thenewstribune.com

blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure

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