Raw interview: How rescued Gorge hiker survived night alone and injured in snow

Rescued hiker Leslie Drapiza talks one-on-one exclusively with KATU's Chris Liedle.

Only on KATU, Leslie Drapiza shares in vivid detail how she became injured and stuck in the snow while on a hike in the Gorge, and how she survived a night alone, wet and in freezing temperatures.

You can watch her entire raw interview with KATU's Chris Liedle here:


Below is an email from Leslie, giving her full account of her frightening ordeal.

"I have been backpacking and solo hiking for several years and I’m very accustomed to reading maps and navigating. I’m also used to being in the elements. The mountains are my second home.

My plan was a 12+ mile loop up Mt. Defiance trail and down Starvation Ridge trail. It was supposed to be a quick training day hike with 5000 ft elevation gain. I made excellent time up to the summit, an hour ahead of schedule even with post-holing and route finding. So on my way back down I decided to check out Warren Lake. Navigating out of there proved to be very difficult with all the snow and debris on the trail. Even with using Gaia, I undershot Starvation Ridge and found myself separated from the trail by a ravine. I crossed it hoping to reconnect with the trail on the other side but had no luck. So I decided to backtrack and due to the slick terrain I fell into the ravine (Warren Creek) twice, falling further down each time. On the second time is when I sprained my ankle. At first I wasn’t able to bear weight but after a few minutes it got better. The cold water was essentially icing it. Climbing up the steep embankment looked too difficult at that location so I followed the creek down and at this point I was soaking wet. I came up to a waterfall and straddled a tree and slid down it to get to the bottom. I followed the creek some more until I reached another waterfall with a 40 foot drop and no tree. So I had no choice but to climb the embankment. It was a slow process, finding and grabbing on to branches strong enough to hold my weight with a bad ankle.

I changed plans because at this point I was closer to Mt Defiance trail and I hoped it would be more familiar. My phone was frozen and would barely turn on for more than 30-60 seconds at a time so I had to recall the topo map from memory. I knew I had to climb about 800 ft southwest to get back to the trail and by now it was almost sunset. I did some hiking in the dark and was able to send my mom a text that I was injured and likely needed a rescue. I gave her my general location between Warren Creek and Mt Defiance trail. Snow started to fall and I knew it was best to just hunker down for the night. I found a shrub with leaves like a canopy to shield me from the snow. I curled up into a tight ball and wedged rocks under my feet to keep from sliding down the mountain and out from under the protection of the leaves. I lost my waterproof mittens during the fall since they were strapped to the outside of my pack. My glove liners were soaked. So I wrung them out and stuffed them in the inside of my puffy jacket to warm them up and hopefully dry them out with body heat. I wrapped my hands in my hat and tucked them between my belly and legs. I kept wiggling my toes to keep the circulation going. I zipped my shell up over my mouth to retain the warmth from my exhaled breath. I drifted off to sleep a few times but it was restless between shivering uncontrollably and then worrying when I stopped shivering that I was getting hypothermic. I could feel the temperature dropping as the hours passed. I thought about my kids and my husband Evan and all the upcoming adventures I have planned. I had no idea if anyone was coming for me because I didn’t leave an exact location. I left my headlamp on for a while just in case I was spotted.

At daylight I decided to press on towards Mt Defiance trail crossing boulder fields and steep terrain sometimes having to climb using my hands to pull myself along. I rationed my one day supply of water and food to last another day. I intermittently turned my phone on to check if I had service. Again it would only turn on for 30 seconds at a time. I saw numerous text notifications and some from Search and Rescue. Once I knew I was on the Mt Defiance trail I was able to send that location out. I figured if I stayed on the trail someone would find me. When rescuers are looking for you, it’s best not to move but honestly when I stopped the uncontrollable shivering started again. I had to keep moving to stay warm. I learned later that 80 people were searching, but never once heard any of them. A couple times I thought I heard voices but I would stop and only hear silence. I figured I was hallucinating. So I worked my way down the trail the best I could but none of it looked familiar when covered in snow. I couldn’t find the burnt trees that marked one side of the trail. There was so much debris. So again, I headed towards the Warren Creek gully. I knew it lead back down to I-84 and once I was closer, I had a better chance of being located. I hiked all day and once I could see the road, I turned my phone on again and was able to reach Evan briefly and told him I was coming down a gully and could hear a waterfall. I quickly pulled up the map and realized it was Lancaster Falls. I was disappointed to find a sheer cliff on each side. I explored each side crossing the falls twice to try to find a way down. I tried 911 several times and got disconnected after only a few seconds. On my last look down I slipped and started falling down the cliff. I aimed for a tree that broke my fall down my midline. I hit my head, nose and mouth and had a mild straddle injury. My nose was bleeding but it didn’t feel broken and I checked to make sure I had all my teeth. I saw directly beneath me there was a small ledge just big enough to hold 2 people standing. I carefully got down on to the ledge and tried 911 one more time. I kept my phone warm by tucking it into my puffy and breathing warm air on it between sentences to try to keep it on. Finally the call was long enough to give my location!! They told me they would be about 1.5 hrs away. I turned my headlamp off to save battery and turned it back on when I saw the crew approaching. They circled me for 2 hrs trying to figure out a way to extract me. I was surrounded by cliffs and a waterfall. Plans changed several times. Initially a climber tried to reach me by traversing the cliff face at eye level but there were too many obstacles between us. He then used that spot to see if we could safely rappel down from where I was but it was at least 30 ft down and covered with brambles. They ultimately had one climber rappel down to me and stand on the ledge with me. He gave me warm apple cider, dry gloves and lots of snacks! He strapped a harness on me and we started the climb up. There were a total of 9 climbers made up of the Hood River Crag Rats and the Air Force 304th Rescue Squadron. They are an amazing group of selfless and dedicated expert climbers who saved my life. They told me our plan, made sure I was warm, hydrated and fed before moving and checked periodically that I was feeling well enough to keep going. We climbed 300 vertical feet switching out ropes 3-4 times. Once at the top I rappelled down because it was much easier on my ankle to go backwards. We belayed from trees but at times they had to body belay me. The terrain was slick and steep, covered in moss and brambles. So I had both team leaders next to me, one on each side and another following close behind to make sure I didn’t slip when we walked forward. We switched ropes out another 4-5 times to come down and finally made it to flat ground. They brought a roller for me, but I was able to walk out on my own to the trailhead. I was shocked to see how filled the parking lot was and overjoyed to see my husband, brother, his partner and my cousin waiting for me as well. Kevin Heidrick, the CMO for YVFWC where I work, was there too and I found out he was keeping all of my work family updated as well. I was checked out in the ambulance and declined going to the ER. The ankle sprain clearly wasn’t severe enough for that. My vital signs were all reasonable. All I wanted was to get out of my wet boots and take a hot shower and see my kids. I was covered in mud and twigs and smelled like peat moss.

When we got home I was pulling twigs out of my hair. My forehead is scraped and my nose is sore. I pulled about 20 splinters out of my hands. My legs are covered in dark purple bruises and my ankle is 1.5 times normal size. My fingertips and toes are still a little numb and my legs feel like they climbed 8000 ft. But I’m home.

Whenever something like this happens, we learn about ourselves. I never thought I was close to dying until I was on that ledge and knew my fate was out of my control. I realized how complacent I had become because day hiking, hiking in the snow and spending time in the mountains is so comfortable for me. I should’ve been carrying my SPOT (GPS locator) even in an area I know I have cell service. I should’ve carried my external battery charger so that I didn’t have to worry about running out. I should’ve had an emergency shelter and emergency blanket. I should’ve been carrying a paper map and basic baseplate compass but instead decided to rely on my phone. I also learned that when rescuers are trying to locate someone, it’s best for loved ones not to text or call them because it makes it difficult to pinpoint their location. I had to wait for the notifications to pass before I could make a call out and when my phone was only staying on for 30-60 seconds the calls kept getting dropped.

Hiking alone is still up for debate. Many will say it’s irresponsible but nothing matches the solitude and joy that the outdoors bring. I’m happy to know people whose souls also come alive in the mountains and after all this attention. Maybe I’ll find more partners to share the trail with....or maybe not because who wants to sleep under shrubs, sit on cliff ledges and fall down ravines. I’ve been wanting to do some snow camping but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind. I can say it will be a long time before I hike alone because I’m basically grounded by my family.

Thank you for your interest in this story. I do feel it’s a moral responsibility to share any tips that could save another person’s life. We hear too many stories of hikers getting lost that were unprepared. I did hear one version that said I was only in a light parka. That’s incorrect. I had base layers, a puffy jacket and a shell and snow pants. I also had snow boots and micro spikes. I also carried my first aid kit."

According to the National Park Service, these are the 10 essentials:

  • Navigation: Map, compass, and GPS system
    Navigation systems are used when planning your route before your trip, and when you need help orienting yourself in your surroundings during your activity. Know how to use a topographical or relief map as well as your compass or GPS unit before going out.
  • Sun protection: Sun protection is necessary to protect your skin and eyes against harsh UV rays that are responsible for sunburns and skin cancer. Consider using sunglasses, sunscreen, and hats. Sun-protection clothing such as pants and long sleeve shirts can also help minimize your exposure to the sun.
  • Insulation: Nature is unpredictable. Be prepared for sudden changes in weather conditions. Pack an extra layer of clothing that reflects the most extreme conditions you could encounter.
  • Illumination: Lighting is indispensable in the outdoors where no conventional light sources can be found. Items include flashlights, lanterns, and headlamps. Headlamps are the preferred light source because they are hands-free. Be sure to pack extra batteries.
  • First aid & supplies: Be prepared for emergencies by packing first-aid supplies with you. Start with a pre-made kit and modify it to fit your trip and your medical needs. Check the expiration date on all items and replace them as needed. Consider including an emergency guide in case you are faced with an unfamiliar medical emergency.
  • Fire: Fire can be an emergency signal and a heat source for cooking and staying warm. Pack matches (preferably waterproof) and fire starters - items that catch fire quickly and sustain a flame (e.g. lighter). Familiarize yourself with the fire use regulations of your park before heading out. Learn more about campfires.
  • Repair kit & tools: Carry a basic repair kit with you to help repair equipment. The kit should include items such as duct tape, a knife, and scissors. Consider packing a multi-tool, a compact version of many tools that can include a knife, screwdriver, can opener, etc. Be sure to bring any tools specific to your trip and your activity.
  • Food: You should always be prepared for the possibility of changes to your trip plans. Pack an extra day's supply of food, preferably no-cook items that have good nutritional value in order to keep your energy high. Salty and easy to digest snacks (e.g. trail mix, nuts, and granola bars) work well for outdoor activities.
  • Hydration: Staying hydrated on your trip is of utmost importance! Physical activity increases your risk of dehydration (loss of water and salts from the body), which can lead to negative health consequences. If you’re active outdoors (hiking, biking, running, swimming, etc.), especially in hot weather, you should drink water often and before you feel thirsty. Prepare your water before you need it and do not allow yourself to become dehydrated. Before heading out on your trip, be sure to identify if there are any bodies of water at your destination that you could collect water from and treat using your water treatment supplies. Learn more about purifying water.
  • Emergency shelter: Shelter is one of the most important elements during an emergency survival situation. It can protect you from severe weather conditions and exposure to the elements. A tent, tarp, bivy sack, or emergency space blanket are all light weight options for emergency shelter.
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