Recipe for Disaster in North Cascades National Park

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Kayla and I emerge from the forest and arrive at my car. We look at each other. Joe still hadn’t caught up with us. I unlock my car and pull out my phone. Kayla keeps glancing at the trailhead as I turn my phone on. Finally, it turns on. No signal, that isn’t a surprise given we are in the North Cascades Mountains in North Cascade National Park in northern Washington. Kayla looks at her watch. “It’s 5:30,” she states. “Sunset isn’t until at least 9,” I respond. We have over three hours of sunlight. “He should have realized we were going to make it to the top by now, right,” her voice wobbles. I hesitate for a moment, but respond, “Yea, he should have caught us on the way down.” With that statement, the nagging feeling that I have had the whole way down comes back.


The cool morning air surrounds us as we make breakfast at the Goodell campground. Joe is exploring the Skagit River bank and throwing rocks in the river. Kayla and I finish packing up the campsite and our backpacks. We drove up to North Cascades National Park last night from Mount Rainier National Park, where the three of us are working for the summer. After breakfast, we headed up to the Hidden Lake Trailhead in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Hidden Lake is a 4.5-mile hike with 2900 ft of elevation gain. We signed the trail register and started our hike.


About a mile up the trail, Kayla and I cross a wooden bridge over a small mountain stream. Joe crosses the stream using a fallen tree just upstream of us. “I want to hike ahead,” Joe announces. I know better than to break up a hiking group but I still find myself saying, “Yea, go ahead we will meet you at Hidden Lake. Be careful.”


The temperature increases and Kayla and I pass the tree line. We kept scanning the trailhead, looking for Joe, but we couldn’t any sign of him. As we moved up the valley, small snow patches started to appear. The further up the valley the more snow we saw. Kayla and I were about half way up the valley when the trail disappeared under the snowpack. We stand below the snow pack and try to make our Joe’s footprints, and we find what we think are his footprints. After following them for about 500 yards then they disappear. The snow ahead of us looks unstable. Kayla is nervous about hiking without footprints to follow so we decided to turn around and return to the area below the snow pack.


The light softens as we enjoy the view from below the snowpack. We figure that Joe will realize the sun is falling and make his way down the trail. After about two hours of waiting for Joe, Kayla and I decide to head back to the trailhead. “Joe will figure out we are not going to meet him at the top,” Kayla asks. “Yeah, he should catch us on the way down,” I state with a confidence I don’t feel. We start the 2-mile trek to my car. About an hour later, we arrive at my car and Joe had not caught up with us. My nagging feeling was confirmed. Joe was missing.


The mountain road pass by my car windows. “Does my phone have signal,” I ask Kayla. “Not yet,” she responds as we arrive in the closest town Marblemount. I pull into the gas station and store clerk walks out. “Ma’am, can I borrow your phone? I have to report someone missing” I ask the clerk. She unlocks the door and hands me her phone. I look at it and dial 9-1-1. I explain the situation to the operator and she dispatches a sheriff to meet us. He is about two hours away from our location.  The lady in the gas station tells me about the national park service command center a couple blocks away.


I leave Kayla at the gas station and head over to the command center.  They are aware of our situation but since we started in the national forest and not the national park the local sheriff has jurisdiction.  I listen to them try to raise the deputy but he is in the dead zone.  All I can think is, I have a missing person.  I don’t care who has jurisdiction; I just want him found.  For an hour, I listen to this go on before they get permission to head up and start looking for Joe.  With that, I headed back to the gas station to meet up with Kayla.


In the last vestiges of daylight, Kayla and I sit on the gas station steps. We both glance up at the sound of a car pulling it to the station. The sheriff deputy gets out of his cruiser. He asks us some questions and gets our information. I reach into my car to grab my wallet when I notice the beer from last night is sitting out while two under-21 are handing a sheriff deputy our ID.  Subtly, I reach into my car to grab a jacket and pull something over the beer.

I walk back of to Kayla and the deputy when I hear him calmly say “On the bright side, the temperature isn’t going to drop below freezing, so there is no chance of Joe freezing to death.” Kayla starts to panic with this statement. I close my eyes and count to 10. “That’s good to know,” I state as non-sarcastically as possible. A park service ranger has already headed up the trail to look for Joe and search and rescue is on their way. “The best thing you two can do is head back to your campsite and get some sleep,” the deputy tells.  I give him a look but comply with his request.


Kayla and I sit at the table in our campsite. We haven’t said anything since we arrived. A light flashes through camp. We both turn and see headlights coming into the campground. The SUV stops at our site. A ranger gets out and tells us, “He has been found. They are on their way back from the trailhead.” “Thank god,” Kayla says in relief. We exchange a hug and turn towards the main road. The SUV carrying Joe arrives. I can’t decide if I am going to hug him or punch him when he gets out. The door opens and he hobbles out. The blood on his shirt makes my decision; he gets a hug. “I got swept by a small avalanche and fell 15 feet. I hike most of the way back to the trailhead,” Joe shares with us as the ranger treats his smaller wounds.


The moon had risen as I pull into the closest emergency room to North Cascades National Park. The nurse took Joe directly back to the emergency room. Kayla and I took a short nap while Joe got treatment. About 6 hours late, Joe wakes me up. “What’s the verdict,” I ask Joe. “64 stitches, and a broken ankle that need surgery,” Joe responds, “and a great adventure story.” We get in my car and drive back to Mount Rainier National Park. I don’t have to call my father to get my lecture about the rules of hiking. I can hear his voice in my head, “it’s a recipe for disaster.” As well as to never hike into a national park from the national forest.

Have you ever broken any hiking rules like I did in North Cascades National Park?

14 thoughts on “Recipe for Disaster in North Cascades National Park”

  1. Such a relief that the story had a happy end! I have heard so many mountain stories in the winter and it is terrifying being out there when there are not many people that can help. A memorable story to tell, though!

  2. What a scary scene. I am so happy to hear that it ended well and Joe was found. It is so frightening how a glorious vacation moment can go very wrong, very quickly and a reminder to always take precautions.

  3. I’m so pleased that this story ended the way it did…and not with something far worse. It must have been a terrifying experience for all of you. And one that you – and everyone read this – will learn from.

  4. Crazy, how scary! Snow hiking is no joke I guess. Did you guys have snowshoes on? Glad you got help but sorry to hear it was a bit of a run around. e like to hike up there a lot as we live in Washington at this point, so thankful for the warning story!

  5. At least Joe had a positive attitude about it. 64 stiches and surgery would shake me up quite a bit. I can’t imagine how nerve racking it must have been looking for him all that time. I’m just glad that they found him!

  6. That really sounds scary – I don’t think I would ever try hiking in wilderness snow country where there is too few people to rely on for help. Glad it turned out well in the end.

  7. Oh my goodness, I am SO glad Joe was found okay (well, reasonably okay!) I would love to hear his story about what happened and how he managed to hike back in such a state. Wow. So, so fortunate that he got out okay. Must have given you guys a big shock though. So…have you gone hiking with Joe again?!

  8. Have I ever broken any hiking rules??, uhm, I guess I did, but not on purpose, I accidentally went off the path, because I was really like looking around and never really looking down. So in the end I WAS in a dangerous piece of wherever I was(can’t remember was in the Netherlands) with Wild Swines(I literally translated that word from Dutch) so in the end I got lost and was found two hours later. Glad that I didn’t encounter a wild swine or that I had to stay alone in the dark!

  9. What a nail-biting story! Your writing had me engaged through the whole ordeal. So glad the rangers found Joe and that he was ok (apart from the 64 stitches and broken ankle)!

  10. Oh my! What an adventure? Hope Joe is recovering well! I guess some rules are meant to be broken and others are there for our safety but then it may happen to anyone. All is well that ends well!

  11. Looks like a beautiful hike. Glad it all worked out in the end, as I cannot imagine that would have been a good feeling when you realized Joe was missing. 64 stitches later and a broken ankle- yes, that does make for a good story. Again, glad it all worked out! Happy hiking.

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