FORKS — Lost in an all-encompassing expanse of timberland for nearly 60 hours, the Evergreen State living up to its nickname for miles in every direction, Stephanie Lincoln did her best to suppress her emotions for much of her ordeal.
She couldn’t help but think of her husband, Brad Rosenthal, her partner of 16 years whom she married in December, or of her friends and family, but Lincoln knew that too much worry could turn into crippling waves of panic.
But when a National Park Service helicopter hovered over her discovered refuge, a small clearing along the Sitkum River on Monday evening, Lincoln dissolved into a puddle, the enormity of the situation and what had been averted washed over her.
“When the helicopter came and hovered over me as soon as he acknowledged me — I hadn’t cried — but as soon as he waved to me, my legs just buckled and I got into a fetal position,” Lincoln said Wednesday, less than 48 hours after her rescue.
“All my panic attacks that I had saved for the three days all came pouring out of me. I was crying like an infant and able to feel all those emotions that I hadn’t been feeling in order to keep me alive.”
The 40-year-old former Army National Guard Captain, a veteran of what she estimated as 500-plus grueling, backcountry hiking trips, tapped into her military training and deployed personal reserves of steeliness as crisp and cold as the glacier-fed Sitkum River to stay alive.
She recounted the terrifying adventure in the hope that her experience can assist less-qualified hikers avoid a darker outcome.
“Out of suffering and trauma, if some good can come out of this [it will have been worth enduring],” Lincoln said. “We all kind of live in a state of denial where we think something like this isn’t going to happen to me. I’m an advanced hiker. I’m trained and have a good track record. But one little mistake, one little technical error and you put yourself in a position where your life is at risk. It’s easy to pretend that these things don’t happen to people like us, and I got cocky.”
Lincoln was nearly as prepared as one could be for what she expected to be a day hike up the Rugged Ridge Trailhead to Indian Pass, a little under a 12-mile roundtrip.
“Get some miles in with a pack on my back,” Lincoln said of her goal. She had let Rosenthal know where she was heading, provided a map of the area and told him when to expect her return, all of which are recommended precautions for any hiker.
“My big regret, I always check my pack and I carry way more than a day hiker would,” Lincoln said. “You have to be prepared for the worst, but I didn’t have a few items because I rushed out of the house. I usually keep a fleece jacket and a dry bag, but I took them out for washing.”
She had the essentials for survival, otherwise.
“I had plenty of electrolytes, two-weeks worth,” Lincoln said. “I had a Camelbak with another liter of water. I had a compass, a map of the area, a rechargeable signal mirror with a bright LED light, purification tablets and an LED light for clean water.”
Lincoln also carried a fire-starting kit and some pre-soaked kindling that proved vital.
While hiking the trail, Lincoln noticed that the trail app map she was following didn’t correspond to the physical map she had brought along.
“The map wasn’t lining up, all the red flags were there, but I thought I could handle it,” Lincoln said “I’ve learned I need to take that [expletive] down a notch because I got cocky and could have paid for it with my life.”
She attempted to send an emergency message with her cell phone, but had no service at lower elevation. Lincoln climbed up a ridge the first evening to try and find service.
“The first thing is to not panic, it’s not helpful in any way,” Lincoln said.
“When I realized I was truly [in deep trouble], you have that heart-seizing moment. I had fear and anguish thinking about the suffering of my husband, family members and friends. But you flip the switch and focus on mission. That’s all I thought about. None of that emotion affected me, if it had, I would have seized up.”
With evening temperatures dipping into the 30s on her emergency whistle, Lincoln said she didn’t sleep at any point to stave off hypothermia — a lesson learned during a brutally cold training race in North Carolina.
“I didn’t sleep the whole time I was [missing],” Lincoln said. “I just paced to keep my core temperature up.”
Wearing a plastic garbage bag as insulation, Lincoln used the pre-soaked kindling to start a fire.
“That was key because I was soaking wet with sweat,” Lincoln said. “I had to use the fire-starting kit because the wood out there was so saturated and wet it wouldn’t burn. But I was able to warm myself, dry my shoes and socks, get my feet dry and use the garbage bag and a rain cover from my backpack as a scarf to retain heat.”
Lincoln focused on finding a water source and headed downhill after spending 24 hours atop the ridge.
“You are supposed to stay in place if you go missing,” Lincoln said. “I waited a full 24 hours, but with no sign of rescue, you switch your thinking, and the next step is to get to a water source.”
She used bouldering skill to clamber down the ridge, losing her trekking poles along the way.
“I got to the bottom covered head to toe in stings, bites, mud and thorns,” Lincoln said. “I washed up a bit in the river, got naked and dried out and lucked out with some sunny weather.”
Lincoln decided to hike as far west as possible to again try to find cell service.
“That was the hardest hike of my life, I was clinging to rocks hanging over this rushing river,” Lincoln said. Eventually, she couldn’t continue west, bound by a rushing river and steep cliffs.
During her hike, she had noticed a spot where the river branched, with an island in the middle.
“There was a lot of overhead clearance, a lot of daylight, and I decided that was going to be my mission-control post,” Lincoln said. “If I stayed there, I had the best chance to be seen.”
She headed to the spot when she heard a helicopter in the distance.
“That put a fire under my ass to get back to the clearing,” Lincoln said. “I had a compass and realized it was coming from the southeast and I saw it crest the trees. I beat feet back to the clearing, drew a HELP sign in the dirt with a big X arrow and tried to start a fire again, to provide some smoke.
Two hours later, the helicopter approached the clearing.
“I saw the crew and started blowing my emergency whistle and waving my red backpack to signal them.”
After regaining her composure on the helicopter ride to Port Angeles, Lincoln was examined by medics and debriefed by Clallam County Search and Rescue.
“I probably said ‘Thank You’ 1,000 times to everybody I encountered,” Lincoln said. “The helicopter crew, EMTs, the Sherrif’s Office, the Park Service people.”
Rosenthal gave deputies a fright when he and Lincoln were reunited at the Clallam County Courthourse.
“We had pulled into the parking lot and I was still on the phone being interviewed by NPS,” Lincoln said. “Brad was frantically pulling on the locked door handle and yelling, and the deputy was thinking some stranger was getting into the car.”
Lincoln reunited with Rosenthal, her brother and a family friend that evening and has been recovering from the incident, mentally and physically, ever since.
“I’m suffering from the first stage of frostbite on three of my toes, bug bites, a little bit of sunburn and a little soreness, but a pretty good gift in exchange for my life,” Lincoln said. “The mental injury will last much longer than any physical injury I suffered.”
And she’s already been able to use her ordeal to warn others of the dangers faced deep in the woods.
“We went out to retrieve the car from the trailhead and there was a man getting out of an SUV with his two young girls dressed in tennis skirts, no equipment visible, and I asked him if he was about to go up the trail and he said ‘Yes,’” Lincoln said. “I was horrified. I grabbed the flyer with my face on it that had been left on the car and held it up for him to see, told him about what I had experienced and begged him not to take the little girls up that trail. Thankfully, he listened.”
Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or at [email protected].