ARLINGTON — Shivering, wet, cold, slipping in and out of consciousness early Wednesday, Van McKeon believed his life was coming to an end.
McKeon, 16, and two friends, 17, were caught by bad weather near the summit of Three Fingers Mountain.
“I thought I was dead,” the Arlington boy said. “I didn’t think I’d make it off the mountain.”
On Thursday, the day after being rescued, McKeon and the other boys, Shayne Helm, also of Arlington, and Steven Bet, of Everett, said their toes and fingers were still numb.
As they recounted their ordeal, the friends kept saying how thankful they were to the small army of search-and-rescue volunteers and Snohomish County sheriff’s officials who helped bring them to safety.
“We pretty much owe our lives to them,” McKeon said.
He plans to spend his junior year of high school studying in an online program offered through the Marysville School District.
Spending a night on Three Fingers was Helm’s idea. He’ll be a senior this year at Weston High School in Arlington.
Several years ago, Helm hiked with a group to Tin Can Gap, a stopping point en route to the mountain’s triple-peaked summit. The teenager had heard about the lookout shelter at the summit. He and his friends decided to make the trek.
“For some reason, I decided that I wanted to push my limits and do more than walk through the woods,” Helm said.
The trail from Tin Can Gap to the shelter at 6,854 feet quickly changes from a rigorous hike to mountaineering. It crosses snow fields and steep ice. Ice axes, and sometimes ropes and crampons, are required for safe travel.
The boys said they encountered other travelers who told them to be careful. At that point, Bet, a senior at Mariner High School, and McKeon, both less experienced hikers than Helm, began to have second thoughts.
“Van and I were in way over our heads. We didn’t want to go any further,” Bet said. “And that’s when it started to hail.”
Still, the group continued on. As the weather pounded them, they sought shelter in a small cave.
When the boys realized their peril, they decided to call 911 for help.
Emergency officials told the boys the safest place to ride out the storm was in the lookout shelter, which is reached by squeezing part way up a rock chimney, and then scrambling up ladders bolted to the summit rock.
It was snowing, raining and hailing. They could barely see one footstep in front of the next.
The wind was gusting up to 40 mph.
“We were almost blown off the mountain,” Helm said.
That’s when McKeon slipped and hurt his back. The boys hunkered down next to a boulder.
Overnight, Helm kept in contact with emergency dispatchers. Stay where you are, and keep everyone awake, the boys were told.
The teens were wearing cotton clothing, which provides no insulation when wet. They didn’t have a tent and lacked good rain gear. They admit to being woefully unprepared to spend the night outside.
As their body temperatures dropped, their thinking became clouded and their speech slurred. Hypothermia was setting in. Bet and McKeon began to fade into spells of unconsciousness.
“The boys were prepared for a day hike,” said John McKeon, Van McKeon’s father and Helm’s guardian. “They weren’t prepared for the hike they were on.”
The parents and teens had no idea how difficult the climb on Three Fingers’ upper slopes can be, John McKeon said.
In Arlington, the boys’ family first learned something was wrong from late-night TV reports.
“I was scared to death,” Heidi McKeon said. “Is it our kids? Are they OK? Even if it wasn’t our kids, we were going up there anyway.”
They rushed to mountain.
Dozens of rescuers from across the Puget Sound region came to help, Snohomish County sheriff’s spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said. More than 20 teams set up camps along the 8-mile trail to the summit.
Rescue teams reached the boys at daybreak.
“It was a huge relief,” Helm said. “We were still freezing cold, but a huge relief.”
Rescuers set up warming tents for the boys, gave them extra clothes and bottles of hot water.
Bet felt strong enough to be led down the mountain. He was greeted by his dad at the trailhead around 1:30 p.m.
Helm said he stayed in the tent near the mountaintop with McKeon, not because he was hurt, but out of concern for his friend.
Eventually, rescuers told Helm he had to head down in hopes that a rescue chopper could find a clearing to land below. McKeon was given his options: Try to hike down behind Helm, stay another night in the wilderness, or, as a last resort, be carried out, which could take up to two days.
“Pump me full of ibuprofen,” McKeon told the rescuers. “I have to get off this mountain.”
Snohomish County’s rescue helicopter logged nearly five hours of flight time Wednesday trying to find a clearing to get the boys, sheriff’s deputy Terry Haldeman said.
“We ended up with two windows of opportunity, and we happened to be at the right place at the right time,” he said.
McKeon and Helm were brought by helicopter to Granite Falls, where medics cleared them to go home, get some food and take a hot shower.
Bet and McKeon said they have no immediate plans to go hiking again anytime soon, at least not without more experience.
Helm said he’s still interested in pursuing adventures in the mountains, perhaps with Everett Mountain Rescue.
Before anyone hits the trail again, John McKeon said he’ll make sure they’re properly equipped with all the essentials.
The boys plan to write letters thanking the emergency officials and volunteers who saved them.
“If it wasn’t for search and rescue, it would have been bad,” the father said.
Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or firstname.lastname@example.org.