I got home late last yesterday from a hike. Nothing special about that.
Except this hike was with my sister Kristen, her sister-in-law Molly and my niece Meaghan and we were hiking on the trail to Sauk Mountain to look for the belongings of their mother-in-law and nana who fell to her death on July 11, 2017 in a tragic hiking accident. She simply stepped wrong on the trail, lost her balance and fell over the side of the trail and tumbled down 70ft.
My sister had called me Tuesday to say she had gotten a message that Karen had fallen on a hike and was being airlifted to the hospital. They didn’t think she would make it.
37 minutes later she texted to say she had passed away (in reality, she most likely died just seconds into her fall).
A few hours later after saying their goodbyes at the hospital, she texted me:
“She went quick and she died doing what she loved.”
Karen was a long time hiker and was out that day with her hiking friend of 43 years. Her husband and she had talked about having their ashes scattered at Mt. Pilchuck.
That Birch Bay woman’s name is Karen Vaden and her husband’s name is Bob and their children are Mike, Sandy, Trevor and Spencer. Karen had 12 beautiful grandchildren and she is going to be greatly missed.
Everyone is in shock.
“She went quick and she died doing what she loved.”
You read articles like this all the time: tragic accidents, families in mourning. No one imagines it will be them someday.
The day after her death, my sister asked me if I could post about her missing things on Facebook and in other places connected to hiking. I made several posts and within a few hours her camera was reported found and Cassie Cassidy, a complete stranger, offered to hike up the mountain the next day to look for her phone. Karen’s son used technology to find out its location and I was able to share that, as well.
Families want answers. We went up the mountain Thursday to continue to look for her phone. But I think we really went because the family wanted to damper the swirling questions around in their minds. They wanted to have all her things, tangible things they could still hold. I took them up there because I just wanted to do something.
People I love are in pain. My heart breaks for them.
In the car ride to the trailhead, everyone talked about memories of Karen and the little things that they had felt or sensed since her passing. Molly says she was listening to the radio about the time she is believed to have fallen and a song, “Hills and Valleys” came on and she was overwhelmed with emotion. My niece chimed in that she had also shared that song with Bob, her Papa. Just a few of the things that we do when trying to comfort ourselves and others in pain.
As we hiked up the steep switchbacks on Sauk, my family wanted to know where I thought she fell from. They wondered at every turn if this was where 20 people attempted CPR as they waited for the helicopter to arrive. Was that trampled patch of vegetation where she landed? Why wasn’t there any blood? There was a video someone posted online of the helicopter picking Karen up and they wondered if they were standing where that person stood to film it.
They wondered how this all could have happened to someone who was experienced, prepared, hiking with someone, etc. Someone who was just hiking on a short, mundane, popular hike. How did it happen to someone they love? Someone they were in no way prepared to imagine their life without.
Does the average person think about the consequences of walking out of the house every day? Driving to work? Taking a shower? No. But people die doing those very mundane things all the time.
“She died doing what she loved.” She died doing what her husband loved. She died doing what I love. And since you are reading my blog, she probably died doing what you love.
Being human is dangerous.
After seeing the news article posted on my sister’s Facebook page, my best friend (not a hiker) messaged me to say that she prays everyday that she never has to read an article like that about me and to please be careful. And that she loves me so. It’s funny because she travels for work and I don’t worry about her plane crashing every time she posts on Facebook where she is heading to now. Could it? Absolutely.
Am I going to stop hiking? No. Am I going to give thought to the consequences a little more? Maybe for a short while. But life goes on. We hold each other a little tighter and appreciate what we have a little bit more.
After a little over an hour of scrambling around on the slope between the switchbacks, I was able to find her phone and hiking pole. There were other hikers on the trail while we were there, completely oblivious to what had happened just 2 days before. Families with children and couples with dogs. The sky was blue, wildflowers were out in rainbows of color and tiny butterflies fluttered around and followed us (or so it seemed to my family).
It was hard for this to be a somber moment; the beauty of the mountain and joy of finding her belongings had us smiling. My niece was Facetiming her Papa and the family was able to share in the moment with us. Bob asked for us to take some pictures of ourselves on the mountain.
The day after her death came out in the news, Tim Buccholz, who had been hiking that day, contacted my brother-in-law and shared his GoPro (and drone) footage he had taken that day on the mountain, in fact capturing Karen and her friend as they were hiking up those switchbacks.
A complete stranger reached out to console my family with the beauty of Sauk Mountain.
He also suggested that the family listen to a song. A song called Hills and Valleys. I don’t know about you, but we call that a God thing.
*Irony? Irony is that 6 weeks later I had to be rescued off the trail myself. I also wrote more about dealing with pain and loss in the outdoors in Beauty: Salve For The Soul.