TACOMA – A snowshoer who was lost in a blizzard for two days on Mount Rainier said he stayed alive by digging out a snow tunnel and burning dollar bills for warmth.
Yong Chun Kim, 66, of Tacoma, said he carried a lighter and other emergency supplies and burned personal items: extra socks, Band-Aid, toothbrush, packaging, and lastly $1 and $5 bills from his wallet.
Kim, who served in the South Korean military in the Vietnam War, told KOMO-TV in Seattle that skills he learned as a soldier helped him survive. He said he wasn’t scared. He kept waiting for the sounds of the helicopter – though severe weather conditions prevented park officials from using one to search for Kim.
“I’m a lucky man, a really lucky man,” he said in an interview Tuesday afternoon from his home.
With temperatures in the teens and winds whipping on the mountain, Kim said he kept walking and moving to stay warm. He took cover in several tree wells – depressions in snow that forms around a tree – and slept standing for 5 to 10 minutes at a time.
He initially made a shelter near a big rock and tried to stay warm. He tried to keep walking, but at times “the snow was so deep, I couldn’t breathe.”
Kim dreamed of his wife and a nice hot sauna. He talked to himself. He took pictures. He prayed to God. He worried his family and friends would worry about him. He made a fire, drank hot water and ate rice, some Korean food and a chocolate bar.
And even as he burned his personal items to stay warm, the last $6 going up in flames Sunday night, he said: “I worried because it’s a national park. You’re not supposed to have a fire. … I’m worried about that but I want to (stay) alive.”
Money made for the best fire, he said, laughing. Nylon socks and packaging, not so great.
“He could have died,” said Kim’s stepson, Malcolm An. “He was walking around, struggling to find a place, literally not knowing where to go.”
Kim, a U.S. citizen for 30 years, was leading 16 members of a hiking and climbing club from Tacoma on Saturday – a trip he takes nearly every week – when he slid down a slope and became separated. He radioed his group twice to tell them he was OK and would meet them farther down the trail, but became disoriented and went the wrong way.
His hiking partners last heard from him on the radio at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. When he didn’t show up at the parking lot, park officials launched a search. Kim said Tuesday he lost his walkie-talkie as well as his glove and ski pole when he tumbled a second time.
Dozens of park rangers, rescue dogs, volunteers and searchers from several rescue organizations scoured snowy mountain terrain for three days searching for Kim.
“The rangers are nice. The volunteers from all over are nice,” said Kim, who retired six years ago after running his own telecommunications company. He said he was so thankful for the rangers and volunteers who helped look for him.
Kim was about a mile from where he was last seen when he was found Monday by a ranger and two Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol members.
Kim was in such good shape that when he was found, he did not have to go to a hospital and instead went home with his family.
After rescuers reached Kim it took nine hours to bring him from the rugged terrain covered in deep snow to the Paradise visitor center, a popular destination at 5,400-feet elevation on the mountain’s southwest flank, about a 100-mile drive south from Seattle.
Kim said he goes to the mountains for the fresh air and because it’s good medicine for recovering from cancer.
“When I get out there, it’s a nice view. Every time, same location, different feeling though.”