When Nancy Abell met young German hiker Katharina Gröne in October 2018, alarm bells started to ring. She feared the danger the tourist faced after learning about her planned trip to the snowy Stevens Pass mountains in Washington state. Abell first tried to reason with her, then she begged and pleaded. But it was no use. So, as a matter of life or death, she called 911.
Abell is from Sultan, Washington, near the state capital of Seattle. It’s a small town with a population of less than 5,000, but the scenery is stunning. To the north is the beautiful Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, an area covering nearly 2,700 square miles of glaciers and snow fields.
With access to such a beautiful and vast natural playground, Abell is a keen outdoorswoman. And it was during a walk at Lake Susan Jane that she met fellow hiker Katharina Gröne from Germany. The two quickly got chatting.
As it happened, Gröne was in the process of a monumental hike. In May 2018 she had set out from the border of Mexico. There she followed the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a famous hiking route that winds its way up the west coast.
The PCT begins in San Diego county, close to the Mexican border, and follows the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Range up through the states of California, Oregon and Washington. The trail ends at Manning Park, just on the border with Canada.
The PCT winds for over 2,650 miles through mountain ranges, forests and national parks. Elevations rise from sea level where Oregon meets Washington state, to more than 13,150 feet in Sierra Nevada’s Forester Pass. The trek can take four to six months, but travelers need to be thoroughly prepared.
On the trail for five months, then, German hiker Gröne was reaching the end of her epic journey. She was a solo traveler through remote trails, taking in stunning views off the beaten track. So when she met Abell it’s likely she was grateful for the company, and the fellow hikers talked for a while.
Gröne’s next stop on her hike was Stevens Pass. Abell gave her a ride there, but alarm bells were ringing for the latter, who was more familiar with the area. As a local, Abell knew the region’s weather patterns and feared conditions were too severe for hiking, particularly for the underprepared Gröne.
Abell tried to explain the dangers to Gröne. She told CNN of her fears in November 2018. “I felt like, being from Germany, she wasn’t familiar with the Glacier Peak wilderness area. [The location] creates its own weather, and it can be really bad this time of year. The whole two hours we were hiking together, I was trying to talk her out of it.”
But it was no use. Determined to reach her destination and complete the trail, Gröne headed north. Defeated, Abell went home where she watched as the weather grew increasingly worse. She became more and more concerned about the lone hiker, who according to weather forecasts faced up to three feet of snowfall.
“I knew she didn’t have snowshoes and [that] she’d be up there by herself,” Abell recalled during a press conference. “I’d been through a storm in the same area and we couldn’t go anywhere for three days. It was terrifying.” But the experienced hiker couldn’t sit back and do nothing.
With the weather showing no sign of improvement, Abell put in a call to the Snohomish County search and rescue team. With all the information she had gleaned from Gröne, she was able to give responders a fair idea of where the woman could be located.
A search and rescue helicopter was deployed. Circling the area Abell believed Gröne might be in, the team spotted some footprints and the red jacket the woman had been wearing. They then located the hiker in a clearing among some tall trees close to the trail.
But the weather was still sketchy and the ground was rough. The pilots failed more than ten times to bring the chopper to ground and reach Gröne. And having been in the air for an hour and a half trying to locate her, the rescue team were dangerously low on fuel.
And yet, although pilots could scarcely maneuver the helicopter in the poor conditions, they came up with a plan. According to a statement released by the local sheriff’s office, pilot Einar Espeland “jumped out of the helicopter and stacked logs to create a level platform to land on.”
Abell’s instincts had proven correct. When rescuers reached Gröne, they discovered her grim conditions. Winds had whipped away her shelter, her clothes were soaked through and she was almost out of food supplies. The hiker also had no locator beacon to indicate her position or that she was in trouble.
Gröne’s only means of contact was her cell phone. But with no service covering her remote location, her attempts to call for help were doomed. She told CNN, “I was screaming for help in the morning because I just had to get the fear out of me. I was screaming all the names I knew and I was just hoping that someone would react.”
In fear that she might die out there, Gröne began recording messages on her phone for her friends and family. The hiker explained to ABC News in November 2018, “I informed my parents. I apologized for dying on the PCT, for risking too much.”
The stricken hiker was flown to Duvall, Washington, for a medical evaluation. There she was met by Abell, the woman who had saved her life. When given the all-clear, Gröne returned to Sultan to stay with her new friend until she was ready to travel home to Germany.
With a daughter a similar age to Gröne and with the same lust for adventure, Abell couldn’t allow herself to do nothing. The hiker, meanwhile, had spent her time stuck in the mountains asking why people don’t care about one another. But she told CNN, “My faith in humanity? Definitely restored, so box checked.”