Hiker happy at home after ordeal in forest

EVERETT — A sandwich never tasted so good.

It wasn’t the corn flakes or grape Kool-Aid he’d been craving, but it beat the dried fruit, nuts and rice crackers he’d choked down for several days.

Jon Pontrello didn’t even mind that it was a tuna sandwich.

"I usually hate tuna, but it was really good," the 18-year-old Everett man said.

Pontrello and friend Jonathan Parks, 20, were stranded in Olympic National Park for almost a week before a helicopter crew spotted the men Sunday outside a shelter about 17 miles from the Bogachiel Valley trailhead near Forks.

A three-day hike had turned into a soggy, cold weeklong adventure that wasn’t all bad, depending on how you look at it, Pontrello said.

"Even though it sucks being lost, all the fear is a fire that transforms you in a way," he said.

Parks declined an interview with The Herald.

Pontrello is a senior at Cascade High School and attends Running Start at Everett Community College. He and Parks wanted to spend part of their spring break last week exploring the park.

They started off Monday and expected to be home by Thursday in time for Pontrello’s mountaineering class.

But snow and rain, along with bad trail conditions and insufficient provisions, left the hikers lost and stranded.

The men had hiked more than 20 miles when they encountered snowdrifts. They decided to return but were forced to camp out, using a poncho tied to a tree with strings. During the night the makeshift shelter collapsed under heavy rains.

"It was like a dunk tank. We were drenched from then on," Pontrello said.

The cold set in, and so did some mild delirium, he said. The men mistakenly left behind the poncho and a sleeping bag. They also lost the trail, which hadn’t been cleared and had sustained damaged over the winter. They found an elk trail and followed it before realizing it wasn’t the way home.

Tired, hungry and wet, the hikers camped out under a tree Thursday and Friday nights. They shared a sleeping bag and talked about food.

Pontrello craved "normal" food — corn flakes and grape Kool-Aid. They drooled over the thought of a Dairy Queen Blizzard.

They also talked about the possibility that no one would find them.

"We were turning into zombies. We could barely get out of the sleeping bag," Pontrello said.

On Saturday, things got worse. The hikers were hearing voices and imagining other people were on the trail with them.

"It was the turning point. I thought, ‘If we don’t get out of here now, we won’t ever get out of here,’" Pontrello said.

The hikers mustered enough strength to keep walking and followed a river. They spent another night in the cold, not knowing a search and rescue crew had begun looking for them.

Pontrello’s parents called police after the boys failed to return home Thursday night, and a search started late Friday.

On Sunday, the sun came out, bolstering the men’s spirits. They were able to find a park shelter. A search-and-rescue helicopter spotted them drying off in the sun.

It was Pontrello’s 18th birthday.

His first gift was a tuna sandwich from park ranger Ryan Mahalili, who had hiked up to the shelter.

Two rangers and the hikers stayed one more night and were flown out Monday. They were taken to a hospital for treatment of minor hypothermia.

The men also headed for a Dairy Queen, where they savored Oreo and cookie dough Blizzards.

Pontrello dropped more than 15 pounds from his 6-foot frame, and had severe blisters and other injuries to his feet from walking in soggy boots.

Dave and Kim Pontrello said they never lost hope that their oldest son would come home.

"We joke that we might not let him out of the cul-de-sac again, though," Kim Pontrello said.

The family attributes the happy reunion to the selfless volunteers who searched for the men. The search-and-rescue team took the family’s concerns for the men seriously, and quickly coordinated a search for them.

As for Pontrello, he says his adventure in the woods has changed him. He will go on hiking — but will be better prepared next time — and from now on he won’t be racing to the top of the mountain.

"I don’t have to be so intense. I can be happy wherever I am," he said.

"I don’t think being lost in the woods like I was is necessarily good, but I think it’s good to get lost in other ways sometimes. It gives you time to reflect on who you are," Pontrello said.

Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or hefley@heraldnet.com.

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