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Hikers leave map home, separate from party, spend cold night out

HIKING -- A couple of seasoned hikers made three classic mistakes that left them out on the slopes of Mount Rainier for a cold night in the woods Tuesday.

In a nutshell:

  • They separated from their party (and the party didn't wait for them at a critical trail junction!);
  • They didn't bring a map for the area to make an educated decision at the trail junction,
  • They didn't have matches that would light a warming fire when they realized they had to spend the night out in temps that ranged to about 40 degrees.

But they did a few things right

  • They stayed put, stayed calm, made shelter and cuddled to conserve body heat.

“I can tell you this for sure, his butt is warmer than mine,” said one of the hikers, both of whom are older than 75. 

"Yeah, how do you know?" the reporter asked.

“Because I was right up against it. And that’s a pretty strange feeling, I can tell you.”

Read on for the story by Scott Sandsberry of the Yakima Herald-Republic

By Scott Sandsberry
Yakima Herald-Republic

A couple of Yakima-area day hikers spent a frigid Tuesday night in the Cascades northeast of Mount Rainier after becoming separated from the rest of their group and missing a trail turnoff.

Jim Barnhill, 80, of Yakima and Jon Harlan, 75, of Naches were hiking down a forest road at roughly 9:30 a.m. Wednesday when they were found.

The two were none the worse for their experience, though Harlan admitted not having a restful night after hearing the distant screech of a cougar. Said Harlan, “I did not like that.”

The two had been at the back of the line of 18 members of the Cascadians outdoor club returning from a hike to the top of 6,000-foot Noble Knob, in Pierce County on the far side of Chinook Pass. The rest of the group had passed a trail junction and drawn an arrow in the trail indicating the left fork, but Barnhill and Harlan didn’t see it. With no cellphone coverage to reach the others, the pair guessed wrong and went to the right.

After coming upon an unsigned forest road, they hiked in the direction they thought would lead to a main road. Instead, it came to a dead end at an abandoned elk camp as darkness approached.

They tried to build a fire in the elk camp’s fire pit, but Barnhill’s matches — which were supposed to be waterproof — wouldn’t work. Each had extra food and flashlights, but they didn’t want to risk using up the flashlight batteries by continuing to hike and decided to try to sleep. They cut up a large garbage bag to use as bedding and, using a technique Harlan had learned in the military, cuddled together to stay warm.

“When we were talking with search and rescue (the next morning),” Harlan said, “they told us, ‘That’s probably what kept you from getting hypothermia.’ ”

Still, even with coats, long shirts and long pants, the two shivered in the 41- to 42-degree temperatures. Barnhill didn’t sleep at all; Harlan said he got maybe “five minutes at most.”

They saw a fixed-wing airplane flying nearby during the night — the pilot was part of the search effort — but, Harlan said, the plane was “one draw over from where we were.”

And in the morning, they began hiking out.

Barnhill, a former Yakima Herald-Republic publisher, said he regretted not having brought a particular map. The Noble Knob trail, he said, is split over two Green Trails maps — the topo maps favored by many Northwest hikers — and didn’t want to have to bring both.

So, he said, he was leaving behind one of the “12 essentials” experienced hikers should always carry for just such a situation.

“They’re easy hikes so we lighten up our packs, maybe put in more water on a hot day, and leave out some of the essentials,” Barnhill said. “And I think that’s probably true of everybody, me included.”

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Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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