At 8,500 feet, I kicked off my barely two-week old marriage sliding down a snowy
embankment, face down and unconscious.
It was day two of our seven-night trip in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of Eastern Oregon (The Wallowa Mountains).
I had spent at least three miles absorbed with my new reality: I was a wife, a spouse, a part of a
duo, no longer answering for just myself. Traveling side by side with my college sweetheart was
the beginning of a lifetime of doing this together. In my mind I sounded profoundly older as I
tossed around my new name: Mrs. I couldn’t have been happier.
And then my world went black.
Cory made a quick grab for me, missing by inches. He was left to helplessly watch his
new bride slam into the rocks at the base of the snowfield. He leapt down the slope, racing as fast
as he could to my unmoving body where he threw down his pack, grabbed the top edge of mine,
and rolled me over. My eyes were rolled back into my head. My mouth gaped, and I choked out
small breaths and grunts. My legs and back were rigid and straight. He tried to make sense of this
nightmare, his mind racing through his emergency wilderness training.
Mike was over 200 feet away across the ravine when he heard Cory scream, “Julie, Julie,
breathe!” He fell to his knees and prayed, begging God for a miracle to spare my life.
Just four minutes earlier, there was no sign I was in trouble. My breathing was labored
but strong and my muscles were tense with the excitement of the descent. My backpack was
loaded with a week’s worth of equipment and food. It pressed on my hips and pulled back on
my shoulders, forcing me to turn into the slope and use my foot to dig into the snow-covered
The dreamlike sparkles of sunlight on the snow stretched before me like a carpet of
diamonds as tiny rocks tumbled ahead and lodged themselves in the gullies below. I could see
our trail exit about 100 feet below us, and I knew that the nervousness I felt about traversing
a steep, snowy slope would disappear the moment I stood on that narrow ribbon of snow-free
I took a deep breath, inhaling cool, crisp air that tasted of sweet tea on a hot day. As I
walked, my mind began to do what can happen on a trail with endless miles ahead. It began to
wander, concentrating on the descent as needed.
“Help, I need help! Mike, I need help!” cried Cory as he knelt down and cradled my
My body relaxed, my eyes closed, and I gave one long final exhale, before I ceased
breathing all together. As Mike ran up the slope toward us, he saw Cory hold my lifeless body
and put his cheek close to my face, hoping to feel me breathing. Then he unclipped my pack’s
hip belt and positioned himself to begin CPR. He checked my neck for a pulse, and when he
found one, paused momentarily to consider the safety of beginning artificial breathing.
Then, without so much as a twitch, my mouth suddenly opened and I gasped for breath.
Two breaths, then three, filled my lungs. My eyes fluttered, and the veil of black turned white. I
opened my eyes to find Cory’s face contorted with fear.
“How are you feeling? I mean, are you okay?” Cory tried, without success, to steady his
“What do you mean? I feel fine.” I said. He helped me to my feet.
My mind felt free, disassociated from my body, like I was floating. I looked up the slope.
Voices sounded muted and distant. I felt confused but not exactly sick.
I noticed Mike climbing the last switchback to reach me. “Hey, oh my gosh, Mike! What
are you doing out here?”
“Really, you don’t remember?”
“Okay, okay, what’s the joke here, guys?”
Mike and Cory were notorious for messing with my mind; a prank was not out of the
ordinary. College roommates for four years, they could finish each other’s sentences. Both in
rigorous academic programs, they often chilled out with their guitars in the evenings. If they
happened to have the same break in their weekly schedules, they’d meet on a muddy trail to
power up local forestry roads and single track on their mountain bikes. More times than I can
count, I’d stop in to visit after class to find them laughing together, mud-splattered as they hosed
down their bikes.
During a particularly difficult time for Cory and me that nearly broke us up for good,
Mike showed up at my doorstep, took me out to coffee, and insisted I tell him my side of the
story. Equipped with the full picture, he was able to bridge the gap between us, a gap we were
not capable of bridging ourselves. We laughed that Mike was the reason we ever made it to
marriage. It was only fitting that he’d be by Cory’s side during the most terrifying singular event
of his life so far.
Mike said, “Well, we’re on your honeymoon hike, you know. We planned this months
ago. You really don’t remember?” He glanced with a furrowed brow and nervous eyes at Cory.
They quickly decided that they needed to get me down to the nearby lake basin to a flat spot and
an area that was more populated. Fifteen minutes later, on our way down the slope, I collapsed
again. This time, Cory was able to watch what was happening and determined that I was having
seizures. This seizure left me far more disoriented. My speech was slurred and the fog that
settled over my mind was thicker.
We were eight miles and over 2500 feet of climbing from the nearest trail head,
surrounded by the stunning granite ridges of the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Northeastern Oregon.
Our cell phone was not operable in this remote location. Our hiking group of friends numbered
eight, only two of whom had any prior backpacking experience. No one in the group had the
medical background sufficient to save the life of someone whose body was trying to asphyxiate
Cory and Mike carried me down the final few hundred feet of trail and placed me in a
tent to get me out of the sun. Less than an hour later, a third seizure rendered me unconscious,
and the seizures repeated every forty-five minutes. With each convulsion, my body became
less and less able to return to normal breathing. My conscious mind was not aware of what was
happening, my body did not hurt, my mind was floating somewhere between dream-like and
Lying in the tent, I was unresponsive, but still breathing shallowly. Original plans to let
me rest and then hike out were abandoned. For thirty long minutes, Cory and Mike hashed out
ideas for a new plan, but none seemed workable. The guys weren’t sure how many more seizures
I could survive. Desperation set in. They were on the edge of a dark abyss, with few options, and
as the darkness grew, it threatened to suck us all into a place void of hope. Every moment that
passed pushed us all closer to that edge, farther from the known into the depth of the unknown.
As Cory looked out across the expanse to a trail descending into our base camp, what
seemed at first to be a mirage in the distance slowly came into focus. My trail angels arrived in
the form of a mule train, kicking up dust as they made their way to the water below.
Cory sprinted toward them, calling out, “We need help! We need help!”
As the group of horseback riders got closer, Cory could hardly believe his eyes, for
the group that stood before him were forest service personnel, trained for and paid to assist in
emergencies. Light suddenly pierced the darkness.
We were in Oregon’s largest wilderness area by far, at 361,446 acres. Just when the
situation seemed hopeless, these men and women happened by the exact spot. Clearly my time
had not yet come. In all the years and miles that we have hiked since that fateful day, we have
never crossed paths with a mule train of forest rangers again.
Luckily, they carried with them the only form of communication that worked in such a
remote area: a ham radio. They called out to their station that relayed the emergency message to LifeFlight.
Waiting was excruciating. As they monitored my weakening vital signs, time moved
so slowly that Cory began to feel faint himself. He was sick to his stomach, helplessly waiting
for my only chance of survival to arrive. With the sounds of the helicopter approaching, the
impatient crowd snapped into action and Cory’s heart skipped a few beats. Help had arrived.
Paramedics jumped out of the helicopter and ran toward my lifeless form, their hair and
scrubs blowing in the wind of the whipping blades. As they yelled to Cory over the deafening
noise, who brought them up to speed on my condition, I had a sixth seizure. While they attached
wires and probes to me, one looked up at Cory and said, “This cycle she’s in is not good. We got
here in the nick of time. I’m not sure she could have handled many more of these.”
Within five minutes of their arrival they had loaded my body with medicine—stopping
the seizure activity—noted that my temperature had soared to 106 degrees, and transferred me
into the helicopter.
Suddenly the quiet wilderness returned without any evidence that minutes before a giant
machine had pierced the silence, landed, and whisked me away to an unknown fate.
Too shocked to cry, Cory stared up into the night sky in disbelief as the helicopter
disappeared into the horizon, with Mike by his side. Would I live or die? Then he and Mike
hiked through the dark, moonless night, tripping countless times in their pursuit of the hospital.
The next morning, I awoke slowly. I couldn’t connect the dots. Nothing made sense.
The first things my eyes were able to focus on were a bedraggled Cory and Mike leaning on the
window ledge with stooped, tired shoulders and huge grins. They were a mess. Disheveled hair;
caked-on dirt covering their limbs and faces; dried blood everywhere; and puffy, bloodshot eyes.
Thankfully, despite the fact that our backpacking trip was completely erased from my
memory, I had no problem identifying them.
“Good morning, Jools. How are you feeling?” Cory asked.
“I feel fine! What’s going on? Why are you asking me? What am I doing here? You two
look like you need a hospital bed more than I do!”
“Hey, do you remember your name?” to which I promptly rattled off my maiden name,
despite being an O’Neill for a little over two weeks.
In classic form, they broke the tension by messing with my already confused mind.
“No, that’s not right! You and Mike got married. You don’t remember?” Cory asked.
“Really? No way. That couldn’t be right! What’s going on? Am I really married to
Mike?” I glanced first to Cory, then to Mike, then back to Cory.
Even in the fog, I felt the intense connection to Cory. The way he looked at me. The way
he wouldn’t let go of my gaze. I knew in seconds that they were messing with me, and that I was
married to the tall, blond guy who couldn’t take his eyes off of me. Their peals of laughter did
serve to ease my rising nerves, though. But what was I doing there?
And then the story started to unfold. How they hiked all night, falling and tripping
and getting scraped up as they raced to the closest trailhead to get a lift by the forestry service
personnel to their cars, parked hours away. How they drove the rest of the night and finally
arrived at the hospital. How they walked through the doors and were greeted by kind staff who
immediately realized why they were there. How Cory’s first words were, “Is she okay?” How he
and Mike wept when the nurse smiled and said the one word he so desperately hoped he’d hear.