Trapped in the snow with very little food for 24 hours, Stewart Schmidt and his two children spend the night in their car before hiking out the next morning
It all started with a dilemma. The sign said, 'Road closed.' And yet, the gate was open.
Things began innocently enough when Stewart Schmidt, 33, of Lake Oswego and his two children, Gabriel McCoy, 15, and Aiden Schmidt, 6, headed toward Estacada on Monday, Jan. 2 with the idea of an impromptu day in the snow.
Little did they know, however, that their day of snowball fights and snowmen would ultimately evolve into a frightening 24 hours spent on the Mt. Hood National Forest.
The decision was made the night before that Stewart would use his day off from NW Natural to take his children, with whom he shares custody, to an area they were familiar with near the Indian Henry Campground.
With no snow to be found in the initial location, their search for snow led them farther up the mountain before settling just outside of Timothy Lake.
'Eventually we found a good spot to play in the snow, built a snowman, had some snowball fights and just hung out,' Stewart said. 'I brought some Subway with us, so once we were done playing and eating we got ready to leave.'
At 4 p.m. he loaded up the kids in his Hyundai Santa Fe, a small SUV with all-wheel drive, and took off for home. Unfamiliar with the area they had eventually settled on, however, Stewart made a wrong turn that would be costly.
'The road conditions just got worse and worse, and eventually the snow forced us off to the side of the road and into a snow bank,' he said.
With all of the doors on the driver's side forced shut because of the surrounding snow level, Stewart crawled through the passenger side door and got to work.
Step one was try to put chains on the passenger's side tires. His efforts were unsuccessful.
'I had put these chains on this vehicle before, and I have no idea why it didn't work,' he said.
With chains out of the equation, Stewart took off his snow gear and spent the next four-and-a-half hours attempting to dig the car out of the snow using a hand shovel and a long pipe with the help of his son, McCoy.
'I remained positive, and told the kids, 'We're either digging this car out, a car will come and help us or, we'll hike out of here,' he said.
With temperatures dropping as the night grew nearer, however, the situation worsened as it began to rain. Caught without his snow gear on, Stewart began to get a chill. Shivering and chattering his teeth, he realized that the night would be spent in the car.
'Any anger or frustration I was feeling internally, I made sure not to express externally,' he said. 'So I had a conversation with my son that we both need to have very good attitudes and remain positive so that we could manage my daughter's mental state, which was my top priority. If I had a crying little girl the whole time, my job would have been very difficult.'
So at 9 p.m., Stewart and his son joined his daughter, who had been listening to music in the car, and began settling down for the night.
'We all had a slice of bread for dinner,' he said. 'I took off my wet clothes, put on my dry ones and then got under the blankets and warmed up.'
After cracking the windows to ensure that some fresh air was circulating in the car, Stewart began a cycle of running the engine and the heat for one hour before turning it off for two.
While the kids slept for most of the night, Stewart was able to doze off when he wasn't waking up to turn on the heat.
'There was a point when I was scared,' he said. 'That night when the kids were asleep and I had woken up to turn on the heat, the gravity of the situation was pressing on me.'
With rain throughout the night, the group found good luck the next morning as clear skies emerged. They decided to leave the car in search of help.
'I knew exactly where we were and where we wanted to go,' Stewart said. 'I knew we wanted to get to (National Forest Road) 57, where we would find some traffic.'
Having already begun rationing food for the trip, they began their hike with a slice of bread each and a pack of gummy fruit snacks to share. A couple hours into their hike, Stewart and his children experienced the relief that only comes from being found.
As a National Guard Helicopter was doing a search pattern overhead, it continued to get closer and closer to the group until Stewart was sure they'd been seen.
'So I told the kids, 'Hey, they found us!' But then the helicopter just moved on, so that was a little bit of a downer,' he said.
With spirits intact, the three continued their slow trek toward Road 57, taking frequent breaks for 6-year-old Aiden.
Two-and-a-half hours after leaving their car, the trio reached their destination, knowing they were nearing rescue. Just as they had expected, shortly after reaching the road, a biplane flew directly over them, only this time they were sure it had seen them.
'There was a little hooting and hollering,' Stewart said.
Eventually crews and a car reached the group and transported to the Estacada Ranger Station where they were reunited with family and friends.
'It was emotional, for sure, to see family again because we had the knowledge that we were OK and alive, but our family and friends did not know that, so they had an even more traumatic experience than we did,' he said.
Among those most emotional at the reunion was Stewart's ex-wife, Rhiannon, who was the first to alert the authorities of their disappearance when the group didn't return home at 5 p.m. as expected.
'I had a gut feeling that something was wrong when they weren't in cell phone range or home before dark,' she said. 'So just waiting until 8 p.m. to call was difficult enough for me.
'My emotions just ranged from feeling really helpless and sad to being angry and frustrated because we didn't know what happened,' she said. 'I knew they were out there, but you have the police investigating to make sure that (Stewart) didn't kidnap them and during all of this lag time I knew they were out there in the cold. There just isn't a worse feeling than not knowing.'
For Stewart, the lessons learned were numerous.
Aside from the obvious - like not driving on a closed road - the danger of a false sense of security was on the forefront of his mind.
'Going to an area I thought I knew well led to a false comfort level, and so if this were a mountain I hadn't been to I probably would have been prepared better,' he said. 'I think not being lulled into that false security is important, as well as having supplies in your car at all times, even when you're not going up the mountain.'
In a stroke of bad luck for the group, Stewart admits he typically has survival gear such as blankets, food and water in his car, but in helping to move furniture the week before, all of that - except for a few blankets - was taken out before the trip.
Interestingly, three groups went missing in the area that same day. And Stewart and his children were the only ones to remain unaccounted for over night.
After taking a little time to recover mentally and physically, both he and his children returned to work and school just a couple of days later - to standing ovations no less.
'The support came from every area of our lives from people searching for us to those helping the searchers, even people who weren't there who were praying for us,' Stewart said. 'It was just awe-inspiring.'