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To survive a snowstorm on the Pacific Crest Trail, a Portland woman looked inward

Alejandra Wilson, right, with her father, Dane Wilson, at the beginning of her first attempt to through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. (Courtesy Alejandra Wilson)

A Portland woman was just 400 miles from ending her through-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to Canada when an early October snowstorm five years ago left her stranded in the Mount Adams Wilderness.

Alejandra Wilson’s story is about what can go wrong, and how small correct decisions can help you survive.

It would be the hike of a lifetime, a challenge like no other for Wilson.

She set off in late spring of 2013 for 5 to 6 months of through hiking, where the community you meet is on foot and the goal is finishing the hike.

Her trail name was "Rocket Llama."

“It’s a traveling community. People are all drawn together by the same thing,” she said.

Wilson stopped in Portland to visit her family and then continued across the Bridge of the Gods to Trout Lake just southwest of Mount Adams, before heading north on the PCT.

The forecast was for rain.

A lot of rain.

It was part of a storm that had picked up energy from a typhoon. A local ranger tried to talk her out of continuing. But she walked on into the wilderness.

“I can turn around and go back to town and be safe, or I can accept that this is how it is now and keep going north and just try,” she said. “And I was very determined.”

She passed the point of no return.

It started to rain.

The temperature dropped.

She made it to the Killen Creek campground, spent the night and awoke to a blizzard.

"I would sit up periodically and knock snow off the tent to keep it from falling in,” she recalled. “Then I woke up in the morning -- am I allowed to swear? ... I am screwed, and what on earth am I going to do? That was me waking up and realizing I had a situation.”

The situation would last for a full week.

Snowbound. Soaking wet. Waves of panic, despair, hope and back to despair.

Her father, Dane Wilson, knew that she was not going to make her next supply point at White Pass.

“We had no idea where she was,” Dane Wilson said. “There are a lot of areas in that section of trail that are notorious for being death zones in bad weather.”

Resuming the hike was impossible in three to four feet of snow.

“It’s still coming down and it’s so thick at that point that you can barely walk,” she said. “You’re exhausted walking a quarter of a mile in that kind of snow.

“I couldn’t even see a suggestion of a trail at that point and it’s all forest and fog and so snow that’s falling so fast.”

She was alone, but figured staying close to the trail was probably the best plan.

“I didn’t know how to leave,” she said. “I was like, 'Well if anyone does come to look for me, well they’ll look on the PCT first.' So I was like, 'I’m going to stay right here. Like I need to stay where I know where I am.'”

She tried to dry out. She could hear a helicopter, and one passed right overhead.

“I ran out. I threw some orange gear. I think I threw a tarp around trying to draw attention to myself,” she said. “It was no go. It left and it didn’t come back.”

She then had what she described as a mental shift.

It was time to get out.

“I couldn’t rely on outside help to get me out of this situation,” she said. “I was able to see that if I followed this creek downhill and never crossed it, and didn’t get too far away from it, I could use that as directional guideline.”

And so she walked downhill, out of the snow and to a road.

“When I heard an engine I was like, 'OK, maybe I can hitchhike to a campground or hitchhike to a road,'” she said

The engine belonged to a motorcyclist. They chatted briefly and he took off. He was back in minutes. Snapped a picture of her and told her a search party was heading her way.

“It was a very emotional time, and I think at that point I kind of broke down a little bit. I may have started crying,” she said.

Her dad, who by this time had gone through an emotional roller coaster, was in a car with a search coordinator at a command post.

A voice came over the two-way radio.

He kind of put down the radio and he looked at me and he said, ‘They found her.’ And within 45 minutes she was there,” said Dane Wilson.

Rather than return to where her first attempt failed 400 miles short of her goal, Alejandra started all over again, completing the entire Pacific Crest Trail from south to north in the fall of 2014.

For the next six weeks, she and her father are backpacking -- off trail -- through the Sierra mountains of California.

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