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Lost snowshoer recalls ordeal
How does one survive a night in frigid temperatures, lost on a mountainside during white-out conditions?
Islander Marynell Matt found out the hard way a few days ago when she, along with three companions and her golden retriever Gracie, went missing during a snowshoeing trip near Snoqualmie Pass, triggering an almost 24-hour search and rescue operation that wound up in newspaper headlines and at the top of the nightly news.
Matt, who is best known on the Island as a talented gardener and the devoted mother of a young son, said she and her companions were all determined to stay positive and stay put, once they realized they were lost.
"I don't want to sound cavalier, because I was really scared," Matt said, as she began to tell her story in a phone interview. "But we kept checking in with each other, asking 'do you have that sinking sense of doom,' and no one did."
The ordeal started at noon on Sunday, when Matt, an avid outdoors woman and experienced hiker and snowshoer, arrived with three other women — one of whom was a good friend, another an acquaintance and another a person she had just met — at the Gold Creek SnoPark in Kittitas County.
Conditions were excellent, she said, adding that her group came up with a plan to go up the mountain on the main trail, and then veer off the trail to head back downhill to the trail head.
It was something Matt has done countless times while snowshoeing, and something she said others routinely do as well.
"There were tons and tons of tracks going off the trail on Sunday," she said. "That's what people do."
But as the afternoon wore on, Matt realized that something was wrong.
"It was taking a long time to get down, and the sense was, we should be there by now," Matt said.
Around 4 p.m., light was fading and the group had arrived at some flowing water that Matt said she and the rest of the women didn't want to cross.
It was at this point in the journey that Matt suggested calling 911, and after waiting 10 minutes, that was what they did.
Matt immediately reached Kittitas County Sheriff's Department and Dep. Mark McBride, who became a lifeline for the group throughout the long night and morning that was to follow.
"He stayed in contact with us from the beginning to the end," Matt said. "He was such a top notch professional, always personable and always professional and always confident. He never faltered."
Both Matt and one of her companions had fully charged cellphones, and they had also packed essentials, including a compass, a supply of extra food and water, a headlamp, a whistle, as well as mylar blankets and a tarp, which they fashioned into the floor of a makeshift snow cave. They also brought along matches and flint, but couldn't get a fire started because the wood they found was so wet.
Matt said she initially thought that she and her friends would be found quickly, as they began to blow their whistle, watch for flares and listen for gunshots and sirens that McBride told them were being set off.
But no one in the group heard or saw anything, Matt said, and soon heavy snow began to fall, eventually accumulating to 7 inches overnight. The temperature also sank considerably below freezing.
The emotional low point came around 1 a.m., when McBride phoned to say that the volunteer search and rescue teams were coming off the mountain and wouldn't be able to return until the next morning.
Matt said the group coped the realization that they would be spending the night outdoors in different ways — she walked in a labyrinth pattern to stay warm, while other members of the group huddled together under the blankets. But no one slept.
Instead, the group also sang songs, including John Lennon's "So This is Christmas," and talked about the things they were most looking forward to when the got off the mountain.
"For some of us, it was just the car, and for others, it was the hot tub or a hot toddy," she said.
Throughout the long night, Matt also marveled at her dog Gracie.
"She was awesome," Matt said. "I feel like she had a pulse on each one of us and was watching out for all of us."
At one point, the group discussed whether or not they should follow the running water next to them and try and make it out on their own — an option they all decided was too risky.
In hindsight, it was a very wise decision.
"It turned out we weren't by a creek; we were in a drainage area, and there was a ton of water all over the place, and that made it really
treacherous," Matt said.
As dawn broke on the mountain, Matt got back in touch with McBride, and eventually got the OK from him to leave the spot where they had camped for the night and move to a more open location. By 1 p.m., a rescue team on skis reached the group of friends.
As it turned out, they had wandered almost two miles off the trail, according to rescuer Kevin Huggett, who spoke to the press briefly after the incident.
"We weren't just a little lost," Matt said. "We were a lot lost, way beyond where I thought we were."
Matt said she was in awe of rescue effort and deeply appreciative, so much so that she has already agreed to volunteer as a "lost person" as part of Kittitas County search and rescue volunteer training.
"It was a tremendous coordinated effort," she said.
But as the rescuers brought Matt down off the mountain, she was greeted by something she hadn't expected — banks of television cameras and a gaggle of insistent reporters.
"It felt like paparrazi," Matt said.
And with the whirring cameras came another sinking realization for Matt — that her family and friends might have heard about her disappearance.
"I had no idea that anyone knew," she said.
Luckily, Matt's 4-year-old son, who spent Sunday and Monday with his father, never knew that Matt was missing until after she was found, but she did have 28 calls from friends and relatives waiting for her on her answering machine when she returned to Vashon.
"That kind of overwhelmed me with emotions," she said. "I didn't want anyone to worry."
Matt said that she'll definitely snowshoe again, but she's also spent time thinking about the entire experience.
She said that she assumes a personal GPS tracking device might have helped her and the group, but she also noted what the group did right once they realized they were lost.
"I think there can be a lot of false senses of security, and having skills and being prepared can go a long way," she said. "That we called when we called, and that we kept our wits and worked well as a team went a long way. I don't feel like we attempted something beyond our level. We just got lost, and that can happen to anyone."
And Matt offered some wisdom for people who might find themselves in a similar situation.
"Keep your wits about you, and use all that stuff you learned in Girl Scouts," she said. "And then when you get home and learn that people were praying for you and breathing for you .... that's what gets me emotional. We're not alone, we're never alone, we all do need each other."