Yesterday Marie and I set out for what we thought would be just another hike. But what developed could have been a serious problem, had we not been as prepared as we were.
The goal was to hike the Sandy River Trail in Oxbow Regional Park.
Google maps had the drive-time estimated at 45 minutes to get to the trailhead. So we packed day packs with snacks and water and other standard essentials (listed below) and we headed out for the trailhead.
We missed a turn onto the last leg of the trip to the trailhead and didn’t know it. As a result of missing the turn, the iPhone we were using for navigation adjusted the route, also without us realizing it. The new route took us into the Larch Mountain Corridor on Larch Mountain Road, “the highest road in Multnomah County’s jurisdiction, reaching an altitude of 4055 feet in east county.” (Multinomah County)
In winter, the county closes public access to recreation areas off upper Larch Mountain Road by installing a snow gate near Milepost 10. The gate prevents drivers from getting stuck in the snow at upper elevations and reduces snow removal costs in this non-residential area.
In the map pictured below, we wanted to go to point A, but ended up at point B.
As we were driving along Larch Mountain Road, road conditions rapidly deteriorated as we gained elevation. There was a point where Marie wanted to turn around but I thought we could make it through okay with the truck. We had shifted into 4-high and were making progress.
No gate was closed. Nothing indicated the road was impassible. However, the snow on the road was getting much deeper and the useable width of the road narrowed to a little more than a car-width. We got into a situation where we felt we couldn’t turn around safely so we continued forward, hoping to divert onto NF-1509 (NF = National Forest road) and head back down away from the deep snow.
We were headed downhill with momentum when we came to a stop and the wheels started spinning. No amount of rocking back and forth or turning the front wheels helped. We had ‘surfed’ up onto packed snow under the truck frame and the wheels were essentially suspended, preventing good purchase for traction.
We eventually dug enough out from under the frame and placed sticks and evergreen branches down for traction. Two hikers happened upon us and helped us by getting in the truck bed along with Marie to add weight to the rear tires. That allowed us to back up the hill, get turned around, and exit the way we came in.
Without the hikers, we would have eventually achieved the same outcome because we continued to dig and add weight to the bed in the form of blocks of snow and debris we were gathering from the woodline.
There was little-to-no cell service in this location. I brought along two, hand-held ham radios for the hike, as part of my standard day pack for hikes. Once I realized we were significantly stuck and potentially had no way to call 911, I used my FT-3DR to try to contact local repeaters. I was able to reach several, but not many had anyone listening. I finally made contact with Hal, KC7ZZB through the K7RPT repeater on the Sylvan TV Tower. The repeater is 29.2 miles away from where I got stuck. Luckily I was in an elevated location with nothing between me and the repeater.
My goal was to establish communication with someone who could, if necessary, call for emergency help. I conveyed our non-emergency situation to Hal, gave him our approximate location, fuel and water situation (both were good), and we established exactly when I would make contact next. Hal was also able to advise us on possible solutions, in effect adding to the number of heads-in-the-game. We then established scheduled contact times, in between which I powered off the radio to save battery.
Over the next two hours I checked in with Hal three or four times to provide updates, eventually calling an all-clear as we got ourselves freed and turned around safely.
The FT-3DR is APRS-ready and has a built-in GPS receiver. It is capable of sending an APRS beacon over radio frequency (RF). This is a form of packet radio. The APRS beacon contains GPS coordinates, a status, and a message. APRS establishes a local RF network between radios but is also able to get data to the Internet. Nearby APRS radios that receive the beacon and have an Internet connection — such nodes are called digipeaters — or know the location of a digipeater can get the packet to the Internet, where it can travel worldwide. The website https://aprs.fi displays a map with the location of APRS nodes.
I was able to beacon our position immediately. Hal doesn’t use APRS but that’s okay. I was able to explain to him how to find our location using https://aprs.fi. He was also able to relay to another Ham friend of his who is familiar with APRS.
One of the things I realized afterwords, is that my APRS message was still set to “Monitoring 146.52,” my standard message when hiking (and actually monitoring 146.52 MHz). I should have updated that message. I wasn’t monitoring 146.52 MHz and that could have hampered a rescue if rescuers tried to contact me on 146.52.
At any rate, it was fortunate there was another APRS node able to receive my beacon. The Portland area does not have great APRS coverage. At a minimum, a successful APRS beacon got my GPS coordinates onto the Internet and my lcoation recorded and mapped (see image below).
Upate March 31, 2023: I’ve been taking a deeper-dive into APRS and understanding the information available at https://aprs.fi/. Two digipeaters received my beacons from the point where we were stuck:
Elevation for the win: 66.6 miles with 5 watts is almost unbelievable. The road we were on was oriented E - W, creating a corridor of trees. I think that contributed to getting a signal to IDOTV, which was directly west of us. The map at the top of this page shows the locations of all digipeaters and the repeater, in relation to our location as well as the trailhead (that we never reached).
As a backup, I used an iPhone app called MilGPS to note my exact location. I took a screen shot for reference. Had I needed to, I could have simply read my GPS coordinates to Hal to give him our exact location, accurate to within 5 meters. That would have been useful, because one of the points Hal made was there is a Larch Mountain in both Washington and Oregon.
Note that even without a cell phone signal, your iPhone GPS is still active and can still acquire your location.
I had only recently removed a foldable spade I kept in the truck for just such situations. I do keep a set of tools in the truck at all times, including a claw hammer. I was able to use the claw hammer to dig snow out from under the truck. But it was slow and difficult and the added time and effort meant I ended up wet, winded, and physically tired quicker/sooner.
We also used a long branch to push, pull, and break up packed snow under the truck.
I have no winch but I do have a manual come-along. But like the shovel, I took the come-along out of the truck recently.
I have no tire chains. Though I doubt they would have helped much in this situation. The truck surfed up on-top of snow, lifting the tires away from the pavement.
I have no traction boards. They might have been useful as ‘ramps’ backing up onto snow (the spinning tires dug straight down to ice).
I keep warm, work gloves with my tools in the truck and those were still there. They were essential, as I was digging and lifting chunks of snow. I had a thinner pair of work gloves as well, that Marie tried to use but they were too thin and her fingers and hands quickly got painfully cold and wet.
This one is critical. It is tempting to become angry at the situation, angry at the reason you are in the situation, etc. However, this is counter-productive to solving the problem.
To deal with this, I did the following:
It is very easy to get frustrated in situations like this but having a plan and a timetable for status reports helped me tremendously. It gave the situation a structure I could follow: dig and test until the next, scheduled contact. Also, having contact with Hal was a huge mental boost for me. I was confident that I would be able to get emergency help if something happened (bear encounter, injury, inability to dig ourselves out, etc).
I typically take the following in my day pack on a hike and had this available at the time:
For me this is the bare minimum to keep Marie and I safe during basic emergencies while on a hike.
I was enjoying the drive. I was enjoying the rough conditions. Marie was not. Marie’s gut was right this time; we should have turned around sooner. The hikers that stumbled upon us (and two additional hikers later) all made the decision sooner to park roadside and start hiking. Had we done the same, we would have avoided the situation altogether.
I could use the Ham radio but Marie doesn’t know how, even in an emergency when she would be authorized to do so without a license. I didn’t tell her what repeater I was on, how to select that repeater, how to push-to-talk, etc. If I were knocked unconscious, she wouldn’t be able to easily call Hal for help.
We know now that conditions in the mountains can be drastically different from those in the city. Even though we had no intention of going that close to Larch Mountain, we should have had the equipment needed, given the area we were going into.
I initially made the mistake of not having my exact location ready upon initial contact over the radio. I had to tell Hal I’d contact him later with accurate data. I had taken the radio with me away from the truck to scout the road ahead and simultaneously test connection with various, local repeaters. I should have first noted my exact location.
I also conveyed the junction road (NF-1509) inaccurately, forcing the two of us to work through correcting that as he would repeat information back to me to ensure accuracy. I initially conveyed to him NF-1590. Working through getting that corrected took a little extra time given my not-so-great radio connection to the repeater.
I should have used the pen and paper I keep in the pack to log information for later reference and recall. That would also be good if Marie had to assume the role of communicator had I been incapacitated in any way.
However, having made initial contact before an emergency, and communicating our location early, meant that, had something happened like a serious injury, I could have just contacted Hal again and said something like “I’ve broken my arm and am incapacitated. Call emergency services” and he already had enough information to do so.
On the way back out we passed the Corbett Fire Department less than 10 miles from where we were stuck. Help was close had we needed it.
This one worked out okay in the end. Lots of lessons were learned along the way and we have a fun story to tell now about a bit of adventure on a day we just wanted to get out of the house.
All-in-all; good training.