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Hiker's faith not shaken, but she nearly gave up

At the base of a Mount Hood trail, Mary Owen pushed past the warnings of a climbing group and then a snowboarder who begged her to turn around.

She had spent most every minute of her life headstrong and confident in herself and God, and she was that way when she brushed off the dangers and pressed forward on the trail. The snowboarder would be the last person she would see before plunging 40 feet through a stand of trees on Mount Hood's northwest face and becoming stranded for six days.

Monday, while recovering at a Portland hospital from exposure and a gash in her leg, Owen recounted the time that led up to the fall and her rescue.

She says she was met almost immediately with pulsing snow drifts that eventually funneled her away from her path. On the mountain, Owen would see 30 feet of visibility one minute and an instant later, nearly none.

A deeply religious student at George Fox University in Newberg with plans to become a Bible translator on missionary assignments, Owen said she put her faith in God that she would find her way, despite the warnings.

Her plan to go ahead with her trek came a day after her climbing group canceled a planned summit of Mount Hood. She approached the mountain from the south, the traditional route taken by most climbers, "because I decided I didn't want to get lost," she said with a laugh.

She had grown tired of fellow climbers with too many hang-ups — those averse to the cold, the dark or too much snow.

When she finally saw the mountain peak, she realized she was on the wrong side of the mountain. From the northwest face, she couldn't make the summit and, in an uncharacteristic act of resignation, turned around.

The heavy snowfall had pushed her from the safer south face, she felt herself taking the path of least resistance. She could see, distantly, the lights of another snow park, and with them the hope that she was closer to civilization.

Then, she slipped.

She knows now the fall was about 40 feet. She fell through a stand of trees — "hit a few of them, apparently," — bounced and suffered a gash to her leg that included a splinter inches from her femoral artery.

To Owen, who said she communicates daily with a higher power, this was God playing the role of stern disciplinarian, because she heard nothing.

Not when she pounded out a snow cave for herself, not when she finished the last of her five Nutri-Grain bars, not when she woke up so cold that she wanted to die. She cowered in a hand-carved snow cave for much of her ordeal and prayed. The result, she said, was silence.

"God wasn't talking to me," she said.

By Friday, however, she said she saw signs of a search. On Saturday, an Oregon National Guard helicopter spotted a trail that ended near where Owen had landed, a trail left by what she now calls "my mountain angel."

She takes the experience as a lesson.

"I'm not afraid of death. I think that was God saying, hey, you need to be afraid," Owen said.