Huddled together in a snow cave on Mount Rainier, trying to keep the cold fear of death at bay, Josephine Johnson and Jim Dickman could have easily turned to despair as an epic blizzard rose up around them.
They could have railed against the world, pointed fingers in blame and recriminations; they could have given up. They had been dating for just eight months and here they were, facing the very real possibility of a frozen eternity together.
"When you're in a situation where death is knocking on your door, your true inner being comes out," says Johnson, who has been mountaineering for more than a decade. "You're either going to be this ugly, selfish, hateful, blaming person, or a coward, or fearful or whatever it is you're going to be. Or you're going to pull through with flying colours.
As it turns out, Dickman was calm, quietly supportive, focused on Johnson's wellbeing and fighting down his own worst fears as the frostbite began to nip at his fingers and toes.
"When you're in a situation like that, people don't act, they revert to who they really are," says Johnson.
After three days lost on the mountain, two nights freezing to their very souls, they discovered that they are an "absolute team," so much so that she said "yes" when he proposed in Whistler one month after their harrowing mountain ordeal. Now, one year later, the couple is making it official at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler on Saturday Feb. 16.
Johnson's growing excitement about her upcoming nuptials bubbles over into the conversation as she looks out over Mount Rainier from her office near Olympia, Washington. She's found her perfect partner after all.
It's been just over one year since that fateful snowstorm, which would end up claiming four lives on the mountain. It's hard not to think about them, the four that didn't make it out, when she recalls her own story.
"It's just the horrible loss of life and I marvel every day at my survival... we walked out and they didn't," she says.
Theirs was just supposed to be a day's snowshoe in the area known as Paradise. There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary that morning. While they knew that a storm was approaching, it wasn't stopping several snowshoers from heading out. Johnson and Dickman had readjusted their initial plans to climb to Camp Muir, Rainier's base camp at 10,000 feet, and decided on a short hike instead.
It was at this point they made what would turn out to be a life-saving decision, though they had no idea at the time.
When they realized that they wouldn't be able to do the bigger hike as planned, the couple decided to make the short three-hour snowshoe worthwhile by loading up their packs. They were in training for a Rainier summit bid later in 2012.
The back of the truck was packed with everything they needed for a climb up to base camp at 10,000 feet — summit jackets, summit boots, tents, food.
Not thinking of survival, they stuffed their packs full of odds and ends to make up weight.
"We overpacked entirely for a three-hour snowshoe but we were dismally low on what we needed for a blizzard," said Johnson. "It was barely enough to survive with."
Of course, they weren't thinking of survival as they left the truck for their snowshoe up past Paradise Inn, towards the Golden Gate trail, which leads to Skyline Ridge and joins the Skyline tail on the Mazama Ridge.
It was here the problems began as the icy wind whipped up and snow began to swirl creating maddening whiteout conditions.
Up ahead they saw a group of 16 snowshoers from Korea and wanted to warn them that they should turn back. But language difficulties made communication difficult and that group continued on.
By that point Johnson and Dickman were at a crossroads. Not able to see in front of them, unable to read their malfunctioning GPS, afraid that each step could send them tumbling, Dickman suggested they build a snow cave. Fortunately a shovel was one of the random items that had made it into the packs.
It was 2 p.m. on Saturday.
When she got inside Johnson pulled off her balaclava and stuffed it in her pack. It had become "an ice necklace." They ate a little though Johnson wasn't hungry. They tried not to think of the thirst — the water bottles were frozen icicles, and wanting to conserve their body heat, they tried not to eat snow. They had no stove.
They didn't talk much. And it was cold. So cold Johnson's chattering teeth bit through her tongue.
But they came up with a game plan for the next day: head down off the Mazama Ridge toward the river and follow it out to the Paradise Valley Road.
At 7:30 a.m., with not much sleep, freezing cold, and the blizzard still raging, they set off. Unfortunately, in the whiteout conditions, the couple descended into the valley on the east side of the ridge and did not realize their error until they were committed to reaching the valley floor below and following the Stevens Creek out to Stevens Canyon Road.
It was a slow slog. About 30 minutes from the bottom, Johnson lost a snowshoe. But even that wasn't the low point. It was only then they realized that they wouldn't be able to follow the creek out — that the valley floor was a treacherous obstacle course of huge pot holes and cavities with no way to walk along the banks — that despair hovered close.
They would have to head back up. All of those maddening descending steps down the mountain, sometimes in waist-deep snow, had been in vain.
Around 2 p.m., still in the basin of the Stevens Creek drainage, they built their second snow cave and prepared for another night out.
It was hard for Johnson to wrap her head around the fact that just the weekend before she had been in the same area playing in the snow.
"Here we are just one week later doing the exact same thing and I have no idea where I am," she recalls.
"All these years of climbing... and I was feeling really foolish.
"How could this possibly be? After all these years, how could this possibly be?
"But I had to keep telling myself — be calm. Because fear is the biggest zapper of strength."
They awoke again, ate a little food, and set off, one foot in front of the other.
Johnson thought of her ten-month-old grandson Brandon with each step.
Left foot: "Brandon, nanny loves you." Right foot: "Nanny's coming."
Not only did she have Dickman near her, his looks of love keeping her going and supporting her, she also had Brandon's unconditional love waiting for her at home.
As they went through Stevens Canyon Dickman followed Johnson out.
"We had to stay about 50 feet apart so if I was hit by an avalanche, he would have the shovel to dig me out. I turned often and saw him in his bright orange jacket, slowly following my steps. We were very quiet because sound can bring down an avalanche without warning. (But) just seeing him there, looking up at me when he felt me stop to look back at him was all I needed".
"He would wave his frostbitten, gloved hand at me and I would raise my hand and wave back at him, just so he knew I was OK."
Big motivation, big inspiration.
"Love is the key to survival I think," she says, voice laced with remembered emotion.
They crested the ridge... and saw the rescuers — the first sign of life in three days. There had been no animal tracks, no sounds of helicopters, no birds save one lone raven. Just wind and whiteness. This was a sight for sore eyes. It was Monday morning.
As it turns out, the rescuers weren't even looking for Johnson and Dickman; they were searching for Yong Chun Kim, leader of the Korean group of snowshoers, who had fallen as the blizzard began. He was found alive, not far from where Johnson and Dickman had built their last snowcave.
Four others, however, never made it off the mountain — Mark Vucich, Michele Trojanowski, Eric Yang and Seal Hee Jin. One body has still not been found.
Johnson knows only too well how lucky they were.
"The mountain doesn't discriminate; it takes whoever — the inexperienced, the young, the old, the experienced, anybody and anyone, it just doesn't discriminate," says Johnson.
"It was just our luck and our good fortune that it wasn't our time to go."
Perhaps, she suggests in an attempt to make some sense of the situation, she was spared to tell their story, to teach others about their mistakes.
She will never travel without a stove to heat water, never without a bivvy for shelter. She will always leave more detailed plans of her trips, rather than saying "they'll be in the mountains."
But perhaps most of all, it's not what she lost on the Mount Rainier that weekend, but what she found, that will change her life forever.
As she plans her trip to Whistler she says: "My sweetheart, who was my absolute hero through all of that, has continued to be my hero in more ways than just being strong and helping me survive through a blizzard."
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