Katharina Groene had 140 miles left to go of the famed, 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail on Sunday, Oct. 28 when she found herself just north of the North Cascades' Glacier Peak, soaking wet, running dangerously low on food and dry clothes and slogging through snow without snowshoes.
She had spent an hour going just 100 feet, and had miles to go before the safety of the next ranger station. Groene was so sure it was all over that she started messaging her family in Germany on WhatsApp. She apologized for being stupid and thinking she could successfully finish the trail, which traverses the spine of mountain ranges between Mexico and Canada, although she was five months into the hike.
"Maybe it was the dehydration, but I was screaming for help ... I just had to get the fear out of me," said Groene, 34.
She had assumed she had enough gear to stay warm and could stretch one ration and a single Pop-Tart. But now her sleeping bag was drenched and she only had one set of dry clothes. One of her two tarps had blown away, and she had lost two pairs of gloves.
Meanwhile, 112 miles away, Snohomish County Search and Rescue pilots Bill Quistorf and Einar Espeland were being briefed by Sgt. John Adams about a rescue mission. A German woman unfamiliar with, and unprepared for, the unruly backcountry of the North Cascades could be in danger. Their mission: Find her.
As they took off in a helicopter called HAWK1 from Snohomish, the weather didn't look good. They headed toward the Pacific Crest Trail, although no weather information was available for that specific area. All they knew was that it could get cloudy.
Quistorf and Espeland took a chance and headed to Glacier Peak. Clouds clung to the mountains and as they approached Mill Creek, snow started to fall. They could not get higher than 5,000 feet, barely sweeping under the clouds. They stuck their heads out, hoping to see Groene.
They didn't, but they did spot a single line of footsteps near Mica Lake, hooking right around the edge of the Pacific Crest Trail. The footsteps were headed north.
They followed the line in the snow to the next ridge's snowline, but there was no sign of Groene. "We were fairly confident she ... was somewhere between the snowline of these two ridges," Espeland said.
Suddenly, Groene emerged from a stand of old timber, wearing a red jacket. She was calm but showing signs of hypothermia and frostbite.
When Quistorf and Espeland landed, they handed Groene a flyer with a picture of herself, taken the week before by the woman who made the call that saved her life.
"She did it," Groene said, as she wept.
Nancy Abell, of Seattle, has been hiking Washington trails since she was 6 years old. She met Groene on Oct. 22 when they hiked together for two hours from Lake Susan Jane to Stevens Pass. Abell noticed Groene didn't have snowshoes and didn't seem prepared for the Cascades.
"I felt like being from Germany, she wasn't familiar with the Glacier Peak wilderness area, and Glacier Peak makes its own weather," Abell said.
Having been caught herself by Glacier's weather, Abell tried to persuade Groene to turn back. Groene didn't, but Abell gathered enough information – the direction she was heading, the mileage she was trying to cover and the weight she was carrying – for the Snohomish County Search and Rescue team to make a flyer and pinpoint Groene's location.
When Groene saw the flyer with the picture Abell had taken of her, she knew it was Abell who saved her life.
Groene, Abell, Quistorf, Espeland and Adams reunited recently for a news conference at Search and Rescue headquarters at Taylor's Landing in Snohomish, sharing the story of the dramatic rescue. Groene was still regaining feeling in her fingertips, but was giddy.
Groene will be buying her ticket home later this month. Until then, she will be staying with Abell. She doesn't plan on finishing the trail. Search and Rescue will not bill Groene for the cost of the rescue.
The German hiker said the experience has given her faith in humanity. "I'm just glad I'm alive," she said.