WASHOUGAL — The spirit of adventure called Washougal High students Hunter Nelson and Danny Riat to explore a new path of imposing cliffs near Archer Mountain Friday night. Hours after their camping trip went horribly awry, Nelson’s unshakable calm and knowledge of survival skills helped keep his friend alive until emergency responders could reach them near Cape Horn in the Columbia River Gorge.
A rock slide caused Riat, 16, to fall from a ledge 50 feet down the cliff’s side around 7 p.m. He landed feet first then rolled dozens of feet before coming to rest on a tree trunk. Nelson, who watched his friend’s plummet, hurried down to find Riat unconscious but still breathing.
Due to difficult terrain, it would be more than five hours from Riat’s fall before an Oregon-based Coast Guard helicopter whisked the boys away from near the Skamania County mountain to a Vancouver-area hospital.
While waiting for aid, Nelson, 17, covered his friend with his shirt and available tarps for warmth, gave him water and made sure he stayed immobilized until emergency responders arrived. Nelson called 911 and used a whistle and a smoke flare to alert responders to his location.
Riat remained hospitalized at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center Tuesday with a broken ankle, two broken vertebrae in his back and various other injuries, Nelson said. Doctors have told Riat he won’t walk for at least six weeks and his rehabilitation could take up to a year, his friend added.
Nelson escaped the ordeal unscathed except for poison oak on his arms, legs and chest.
Nelson’s mother, Shauna, said she and the Riat family were both grateful that neither boy was killed. Both are entering their senior year in high school.
“It could have been so much worse,” Nelson’s mother said. “We’re very lucky. ... We’re very happy Hunter was there with Danny because Hunter has the survival skills needed” in a situation like that.
Riat did not wish to be interviewed Tuesday, Nelson’s mother said. Attempts to speak with Coast Guard officials were also unsuccessful.
Nelson recounted his harrowing hiking accident with impressive poise Tuesday. At times his mother asked him if he was OK to continue. He nodded yes and recalled additional details.
“It was so dreamlike. It still doesn’t seem real. It’s hard to explain,” Nelson said, grasping for words to describe seeing his friend’s free fall. “It’s like everything you know being flipped upside down.”
Nelson is a self-described adventure junkie who climbed his first tree at age 2, sky-dived this summer and hopes to take two years off after high school to seek out adventurous feats like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and biking coast-to-coast. He has studied survival books, been on innumerable hikes and knows a thing or two about first aid from watching paragliding videos.
It is then no wonder he went into reactive mode at a time when a sense of panic or indecisiveness could have been fatal.
Nelson and Riat have been friends for about seven years. They are running partners. Riat, a member of Washougal High’s cross-country team, has been so focused on training in recent weeks the idea of a weekend trip in the wilderness surprised Nelson.
Nelson climbed the area near Archer Mountain on several occasions. It is about a 15- to 20-minute drive from his house, which is deep in the woods about a mile from the Skamania County line. The area is rife with outdoors possibilities.
On Friday, Nelson and Riat agreed they would try a more “adventurous” route hiking around the side of cliffs before setting up camp by old logging roads.
Shauna Nelson’s final words to her son before he went hiking were prescient.
“I specifically told him not to fall off a cliff,” she said. “But we didn’t expect them to fall off a cliff.”
About two hours into their journey, the friends became split while hiking cliffside. Riat took a route to the right of Hunter and subsequently ended up higher than him. Both were stuck in a tenuous situation where one false step could mean serious injury or death.
Realizing the danger facing them, they formed a plan. Riat would continue ascending the cliff while Nelson would descend to the base.
Then the rocks underneath Riat gave way.
Nelson braced himself, thinking the rocks were about to fall atop him. Instead, he watched in disbelief as his friend fell.
Asked if he could have done anything different, Nelson shook his head. His response was the same when asked whether the incident would cause him to think twice about climbing the mountainous terrain again.
On the contrary, Nelson and Riat are already making plans to revisit the area where their lives almost ended, once Riat regains his mobility.
Nelson’s mother said her son’s plan made sense.
“You don’t raise your kids in the country without knowing they’re going to be adventurous,” she said. “It’s just part of the lifestyle.”
Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.twitter.com/col_smallcities; www.facebook.com/raylegend; firstname.lastname@example.org.