In the elements: Silverton hiker rescued after two days in Columbia Gorge

February 2019 Posted in Community, Sports, Travel, Your Health

Leslie Drapiza. Submitted Photo

By Melissa Wagoner

“Since this has happened I’ve had these moments where I’m like, ‘Am I really alive?’” avid outdoorswoman Leslie Drapiza of Silverton said during a recent retelling of the harrowing rescue that saved her life in the early hours of Feb. 5.  

“I had gotten complacent,” she admitted. “I should have been better prepared.”

Drapiza, who is a physician at the Lancaster Family Health Center in Salem, has been really getting into outdoor sports since 2016 when she became certified to scuba dive and later attended a climbing school with the Chemeketans. 

Lately she has begun keeping a list of the places she wants to travel, including trips  to climb Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood. The relatively short, 12-mile hike up Mount Defiance on Sunday, Feb. 3 was meant to be a training hike. 

“I gave myself five hours up and three hours down,” she said. 

Drapiza thought she was well-prepared. Leaving her husband, Evan Inman, with her coordinates and timetable, she headed for the Starvation Creek Trailhead where she parked her car. 

“I saw a couple and asked if they knew how much snow was up there,” she remembered. “They said it wasn’t thick enough for snow, so I left my snowshoes.”

Drapiza was outfitted with clothes befitting the weather including a parka and waterproof shell, snow pants, double-layered gloves and boots with micro-spikes as well as an entire day’s worth of food and water and a cellphone with GPS capabilities. And in the beginning things went very smoothly.

“I made good time to the summit,” she recalled. “The summit was covered in snow, but there were no issues on the way up.”

As she began to head back down, Drapiza came across the couple she had seen at the bottom. She asked them about the trail – as they had taken a different route up the mountain – and they warned Drapiza that there was a tricky spot around Warren Lake where the trail was hard to find.

“I was just going to follow their tracks,” Drapiza said. “But me – making good time – I thought, ‘I love frozen lakes. So I’m just going to hike in and out.’”

That is where things began to go awry. The trail along the bank was covered in snow and fallen trees. She made it to the Warren Creek Ravine where she encountered boulders and couldn’t find the trail. Finally deciding to backtrack – she fell and then fell again into the creek of freezing water, injuring her ankle. 

“I try to put weight on it and I can’t put weight on it,” she recalled. “But the creek is icy and I’m wet. When I fell into it I was wet up to my knees.”

Upon scrutinizing her options, Drapiza deemed the embankment too steep to climb with an injured ankle and decided instead to just follow the creek, navigating trees and waterfalls.

“I wasn’t freaking out yet,” she said dismally. “And then I get to another waterfall with no tree and a 40 foot drop.”

Finding no way around it, she climbed the embankment. Then came the next big decision – what to do now that night was falling and it was starting to snow?

“I see a text from my mom saying, am I coming home?” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Tell Evan I sprained my ankle and might need a rescue.’”

Although this was Drapiza’s first time admitting she might need help getting off the mountain, unbeknownst to her, the couple she had met earlier, upon discovering her car still parked below, had already phoned for help.

At this point night began to truly set in and between the darkness and the snow Drapiza could no longer hike. 

“I found a tree with a canopy on a slope and wedged myself under there with rocks under my feet,” she described. 

Familiar with the symptoms of hypo-thermia – Drapiza knew she was still within the safe zone. She attempted to get some sleep. 

“It was a restless sleep because I was shivering,” she remembered. “But a lot sooner than I thought, it was light.”

Upon waking, Drapiza tried once again to use her phone. But between the cold, which zapped her battery and made her phone work only intermittently, and the barrage of messages that had poured in overnight, it barely worked.

“This is what I learned – texting someone who’s missing, it messes with their ability to call out. My phone would only stay on a few seconds.”

Although Drapiza knew that it is important to stay stationary while waiting for a rescue, she was unsure that anyone was actually coming to rescue her and movement was how she was staying warm.

She had studied a topographical map before she left, so Drapiza searched for the 213 trail, but ran into the same roadblocks as before – an unrecognizable trail obscured by snow and fallen trees.
So she headed back to the creek.

“My plan was to follow the creek down to the 84 and then scream or something,” she said. 

The trail ended in the 231 foot Lancaster Falls. Although she could see the cars on the freeway below, there was no way down. She made one more phone call to Evan, so he would know she was alive and where she was. And then – crisscrossing the stream in the hopes of finding a way to climb down – she fell off a cliff.

“There’s this tree and I kind of angle my body to the tree,” she remembered. “And I’m straddling this tree. And I hit pretty hard. I feel my nose and it’s bleeding.”

Nothing further appeared to be broken. And so, Drapiza, now dangling in a
tree, regrouped.  

“I see that maybe six feet below my feet is a ledge that can hold like two people and there’s a tree jutting out,” she described. “So I work my way down to the tree.”

Stuck once again, but safe for the moment, Drapiza made a final attempt to call for help by phoning 911, but it cut out. She called again, this time getting transferred to Hood River County where the dispatcher immediately greeted her by name. 

“They’re like, ‘Is this Leslie? There’s a lot of people looking for you.’ I’m like, ‘I’m on a cliff, on a ledge. I don’t know how you’re going to get me down.’”

Finally able to pinpoint her location, rescuers arrived within an hour and a half and began assessing the situation.

“It was sunset again,” Drapiza said ruefully. “They circled me for two hours trying to figure out how to get to me.” 

Eventually the crew of nine climbers – a mixture of Hood River Crag Rats and the Air Force 304th Rescue Squadron – were able to get someone onto the narrow shelf beside Drapiza where she was provided with food, a hot drink and a warming blanket to tuck inside her jacket. Then began the arduous climb out. 

“We had to climb 400 feet up and over and repel back down,” she described.
“We had to switch ropes four times and at each station there were different climbers. They were belaying from trees. They were amazing.”

Although the rescue team brought a litter basket to carry her out, Drapiza was able to walk back to her car on her own. 

“I thought I would get in my car and drive home,” she laughed, “but an ambulance was there and they checked me out.”

Along with paramedics, Drapiza’s husband, brother, cousin and her Chief Medical Officer were all waiting to see her safely home – albeit with a broken ankle. Now, Drapiza has had time to reflect on the ordeal. 

“Instead of relying on my phone, I should have had a paper map,” she said. “And I have a SPOT [satellite phone]. I should have had an emergency shelter and emergency blanket.” 

Although embarrassed by the amount of press her rescue has gotten, Drapiza has decided to use the attention as a way of getting the word out about the importance of hiking preparedness. 

“I don’t consider myself inexperienced,” she emphasized. “But I had gotten complacent and should have been
better prepared.”

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