Just before reaching its northern terminus at the Canadian border, the Pacific Crest Trail runs through the Glacier Peak Wilderness, an unforgiving stretch of rugged timberland in Washington state’s Cascade Range. With its steep, winding switchbacks and alpine elevations, Glacier Peak is considered one of the toughest sections of the grueling 2,650-mile trail.
Waist-deep snow is not irregular for late October, and most people who complete the entire Pacific Crest Trail try to finish by September. So when Nancy Abell went for a day hike last week and spotted a late northbound hiker from Munich, Germany, she asked the woman if she had snowshoes.
Katharina Groene did not. The 34-year-old Groene had been hiking since May, with a three-week interruption when she had to leave the country to renew her visa. Inspired by the 2014 film “Wild,” which was based on Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Groene was determined to make it all the way to Canada.
Abell, an experienced backpacker who lives in nearby Sultan, Wash., hiked alongside Groene for two hours. As they swapped stories and got to know each other, Abell tried to convince Groene to turn around. But Groene was insistent that she had to keep going: With less than 200 miles to go, she was so close to making it to Canada.
Eventually, they parted ways. Abell went home, but kept an eye on the weather in the mountains. When she saw forecasts predicting that a winter storm would bring 2 to 3 feet of snow over the weekend, she couldn’t stop thinking about the blond woman in the red jacket who had stubbornly insisted that she would be fine without a pair of snowshoes.
“I’d been through a storm up in the same area and we couldn’t go anywhere for three days,” Abell said at a Wednesday news conference. “It was just terrifying. And I was there with a friend and a dog, and it was still terrifying. I just kept thinking of her being up there alone.”
After four days had passed, Abell posted on a local hiking forum on Oct. 26 and asked if anyone had met a woman named Katharina from Munich. One hiker had seen Groene on Oct. 22, the same day Abell met her. But no hikers reported seeing her since.
Over the weekend, the temperature dropped and snow blanketed the Cascades. By Sunday night, Abell was so worried that she couldn’t sleep. She called 911 the next morning, telling the dispatchers that she was worried Groene might not make it out of the backcountry alive.
Her intuition was correct: Groene had tried to call for help the day before, but her cellphone had no service. Her clothes and sleeping bag were soaking wet, one of the tarps that she used to keep her tent dry had blown away and she had rationed her food to one Pop-Tart per day. There was a ranger station about 30 miles away, but she was struggling to make her way through the snow with a heavy pack and had been traveling at a rate of only seven miles a day. On Sunday, she woke up to a whiteout. It had taken her an hour to walk 100 feet, she told reporters on Wednesday.
Groene was dehydrated and disoriented, and thought she might have frostbite. She kept falling down and having to will herself to get back up, a sign of hypothermia. Surrounded by evergreens that were sinking under the weight of the snow, she screamed for help. No one heard her. She got out her phone and began recording messages for the friends and family who she hadn’t seen for months, apologizing for dying on the trail.
By then, it had been a week since Abell and Groene went their separate ways. But Abell knew that Groene was planning on covering 15 miles per day. Factoring in the weather and the amount of weight that Groene was carrying, Abell figured out how far along the trail where she might be.
“She told us she would probably be north of Mica Lake and south of the Suiattle River,” said Sgt. John Adams of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Unit at Wednesday’s news conference, “which ended up being right on.”
The Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team weren’t sure if the weather would even allow them to make it Mica Lake, but they decided to give it a try. Hovering just below the clouds, they located the Pacific Crest Trail, and, eventually, a set of footprints. Amid snow and sleet, they followed Groene’s tracks through the jagged mountains. Finally, they spotted her bright red jacket.
By then, the helicopter was running low on fuel. The rescue team tried 10 times to land, but couldn’t find a flat surface. Determined to make one last attempt, one of the two pilots jumped out of the helicopter and crafted a makeshift landing pad out of logs.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Groene thanked Abell and the search-and-rescue team for saving her life. “I still don’t feel my fingertips fully,” she said.
The Sheriff’s Office credited Abell on Facebook for saving Groene’s life. “If Nancy had not taken action Katharina would have most likely died in the mountains,” the office wrote.
Groene told reporters that she had initially set out to hike the trail because she had started losing faith in humanity.
“My faith in humanity is definitely restored, so box checked,” she said.