Freezing week in canyon no deterrent to Wallowa woman

Posted: Friday, January 02, 2004

WALLOWA, Ore. (AP) A year after an elk hunting accident left her stranded in a remote canyon for seven nights of subzero temperatures, Mischelle Hileman returned recently to the same pine-covered mountains where she almost died.

Sinking into a folding chair, she stretched her new artificial legs toward a crackling campfire and assured the hunters gathered around that she was doing fine.

''I don't need anything,'' said the 40-year-old Wallowa woman. ''My feet are nice and warm. I'm comfy.''

Both of Hileman's frostbitten legs were amputated below the knees a year ago this month. As she continues the long process of adjusting to artificial legs, many locals still struggle to understand how she survived.

''I think we witnessed a true miracle,'' said Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen.

Nighttime temperatures dropped to at least four degrees below zero in Alder Creek Canyon where Hileman lay injured for more than a week. She was dressed lightly, without a winter coat or matches to build a fire.

Hileman believes her survival was miraculous. The former home health worker says that during her struggle to survive, two angels appeared and remained with her, radiating warmth and keeping her from dying of hypothermia.

''The best way to describe it was two golden bright lights, just in the shape of two people,'' she said.

They appeared on the second night after she began to pray for help, they never spoke and disappeared at daylight, but they were with her every night until she was rescued, she said.

She recently told her story to a group of teenagers in Joseph, said Bishop Ken Nash, 50, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregation in Enterprise, where Hileman attends services.

''But she doesn't go around and make a big thing of it,'' Nash said. ''She is kind of our hero up here, but she is pretty low-key about it.''

Nash took part in the search and was on hand when she was found. He thinks the conditions were too terrible for anyone to survive as long as Hileman did without shelter and a fire.

''It was a cold that would just suck through you, pull every bit of strength out of you,'' he said.

Hileman was suffering from severe frostbite and hypothermia when she was found. An Oregon National Guard Blackhawk helicopter flew her to a hospital in Boise.

Hileman thought she had been missing for only four days. She said her first words to rescuers were, ''I'm having breakfast. What took you so long?'' But she was so weak that her survival remained in doubt for two weeks.

Charles Lyons, 50, professor of psychology at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, said Hileman's desperate condition and physical suffering freezing, exhausted, starving and dehydrated might have left her in a confused dream state. But Lyons suspects the strength of Hileman's religious faith and her single-minded determination were keys to her survival.

Hileman's ordeal began on a sunny 55-degree Sunday morning on Oct. 27, 2002, when her father, Benny Hileman, 62, pulled his pickup off a logging road 12 miles northeast of Wallowa to let her out. It was elk season, and Mischelle planned to hunt on foot along a fence line for 45 minutes, then rendezvous with her father at another road.

Mischelle deviated from the plan by following three elk into Alder Creek Canyon, where she took a fall. Suffering from a deep puncture wound to her left leg, she was unable to make it out of the canyon.

Within hours, a winter storm moved in. Four inches of snow obliterated any tracks rescuers might have been able to follow, and the snow soaked her trousers. Then an arctic front slammed the region with the coldest early season temperatures most people can remember.

More than 100 volunteers, friends and family members turned out to search for her. Most quickly became convinced that Hileman, who suffers from diabetes and asthma, had little chance of survival. The search was scaled back on Oct. 31, but many refused to quit, and 27 people turned out the next day, spreading across the forest on horses and ATVs.

Hileman, meanwhile, was foraging for berries, rose hips and moss and used a pocket knife to excavate shelters beneath fir trees where she could cover herself with boughs. After elk broke the 6-inch thick ice in Alder Creek, she was able to get a drink before it froze again.

''They were the same elk I'd been chasing that broke the ice,'' she said.

She fired all 11 rounds she had for her .30-06 rifle, but nobody heard the shots or her cries for help. At one point she removed her red fleece pullover to wave it at a helicopter passing overhead, but no one spotted her.

She was found Nov. 3, 2002, three days after the official search ended.

Friends Bill Lehr, 45, and Marilyn Seifert, 43, both of Wallowa, worked their way into the canyon calling Hileman's name. Near the bottom, they came upon so many fresh cougar tracks that an alarmed Lehr drew his handgun. Moments later, he heard Hileman's voice float up to him.

''When we got there, she was kind of half on the ice and half on the bank,'' said Lehr. ''She thought that was her last trip to get water. She was about done in.''

Hileman's rescue began a new ordeal. Her legs were amputated Nov. 26, 2002, more than three weeks after her arrival in Boise. She now wears the second of what probably will be six pairs of prosthetic legs before she is properly fitted.

Hileman's determination to survive touched many of those who searched for her.

''Mischelle has given us a motto of 'Never Give Up,'" said Matt Marmor of the Wallowa County sheriff's department search and rescue unit, which was involved in the search for her.

Hileman and her father went deer hunting last month, their first outing together since her rescue. Though she chose not to hunt elk this season, she hopes to take it up again next year on her artificial legs.

''Maybe that spot, I'll leave them alone,'' she said of the Alder Creek canyon elk.

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