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Rescued hiker's life lessons delivered on harsh mountain trail

by: NEWBERG GRAPHIC: GARY ALLEN - George Fox University student Mary Owen says she learned a lot of difficult lessons while stranded for more than six days on Mount Hood. She was rescued Saturday, March 30, and treated at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center for an ankle injury and frostbite.After falling about 40 feet during an attempted solo summit of Mount Hood, 23-year-old Newberg resident and George Fox University senior Mary Owen spent most of the six days before Easter on Oregon’s tallest peak, injured and alone.

Her only companions were her questions (e.g., “Why isn’t anyone looking for me?” and “Is God trying to teach me something?”) and the cold- and exhaustion-induced delusions that visited her each night as she floated between sleep and wakefulness.

“People kept coming to me, and they would say ‘There’s a path down the mountain. Come on, we’ll show you,’” she said. “And I would physically gather all my stuff up because I was so convinced it was real.”

Tired of the packing and unpacking, Owen devised a strategy her third night on the mountain: She would ask the people for a cup of cold water. If they couldn’t give her that, she knew they weren’t real. The ploy helped her differentiate, but it didn’t stop the visions from coming. In fact, they became increasingly bizarre. One of the weirdest was an acquaintance from GFU who offered to give her a ride home on her dragon.

“The dragon didn’t want to help me because I smelled bad,” she laughed. “But I was so certain that it was my mind that was holding me back. That if I could just get my mind in the right place, I would be able to go with these people and be free — get on the dragon and fly off the mountain. I was praying to make it real. That’s when my mind was the weakest, the most distressed.”

Owen survived for six days on the cold, windy mountain after starting a hike Sunday, March 24. Her college roommates reported her missing on Thursday, March 28. An Oregon National Guard helicopter plucked her from the mountain on Saturday, March 30, two days after dozens of mountain rescue crew members began searching for her.

‘Created a bubble’

During daylight hours on the mountain, Owen was far more lucid. She mostly spent them curled into a fetal position, wrapped inside her jacket, poncho and sleeping bag liner she had brought for the planned day trip. She sat on her climbing harness and ground tarp, in a crude depression she had pounded into the snow with her fists and what she thought was her “good leg” (in the fall, she had suffered a deep cut on her left leg; she had also sprained her right ankle, but she didn’t know it at the time).

Early on, she tried to continue down the mountain. But she couldn’t walk (due to her injuries and the depth of the snow), and crawling both exhausted her and robbed her of precious body heat. So, she passed the days eating what little food she had brought and drinking water she melted from snow.

And she spent a lot of time thinking. She recounted what had led her to that point — including how she had decided to go ahead with the hike even after her experienced guide canceled due to a dicey weather forecast, and how she ignored the advice of a snowboarder she met midway through the trek, who encouraged her to turn back because conditions further up were quickly deteriorating.

Owen admitted that she made a few “uncharacteristically idiotic” decisions, and believes the experience was meant to teach her several lessons. One was about the way she communicates with people. In the past, she had so thoroughly rebuffed her loved ones’ attempts to keep tabs on her that she wasn’t reported missing until she’d been on the mountain more than five days.

“I had created this bubble around me, and there I was sitting on the snow and wondering why no one was out looking for me,” she said. “I realized I had brought it on myself.”

God’s sense of humor

Owen also realized how careless she had been with her life. On the mountain, she recognized the impact her death would have had on her family, friends, teachers, mentors and fellow students.

Not only that, it would have prevented her from following through on what she believes is her calling: to be a Christian missionary and a Bible translator.

“I was just holding it all so carelessly as if it were about me,” she said. “And he (God) told me, ‘I have chosen you to do this thing. You will not throw your life away and deal with it frivolously as if you have the freedom to say whether you live or die.’ ”

On March 29 — Good Friday — Owen said she suddenly felt overwhelming peace and the sense that thousands were praying for her. She saw several search planes — but they didn’t see her.

She refused to give up hope. The next morning, Owen packed her things and crawled to the top of a ridgeline in the belief that she would be rescued that day.

She was right. Soon after, a National Guard helicopter crew on a test flight spotted her as she waved and yelled.

Owen was taken to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center for treatment of her leg injuries and frostbite on her feet. She is expected recover.

Even from her hospital bed last week, Owen saw signs. The name of the hospital — “Emanuel” — means “God with us” and is used in the Bible as a reference to the messiah.

“And my nurse’s name is Charity,” Owen said with a chuckle. “I think God has a sense of humor.”