MOUNT PISGAH, Ore. — As the entourage made its way up toward the 1,520-foot summit on a recent Saturday afternoon, hikers coming down asked questions.
After all, hiking parties of 65 aren’t common on Pisgah. And what was with that “Welcome back Mike!” sign on top?
The curious were soon enlightened: “Mike” was Mike Hawley of Eugene, who on Sept. 16 had fallen 125 feet from near the top of 9,182-foot Mount Thielsen and, against all odds, survived.
The April 27 hike — on Hawley’s 59th birthday — was his attempt to make good on a promise he had made himself soon after he had been plucked off Thielsen in a Black Hawk helicopter.
“My goal,” he told me in November for a front-page story, “is to hike to the top of Mount Pisgah.”
At the time, I remember looking at Hawley in his wheelchair — his foot in a cast, his head pocked with scabs — and thinking: Really?
His right foot had been shattered in the fall and amputation was still a possibility.
As November became December, Hawley himself wondered if he’d ever touch the bronze memorial atop a hill rising above the Willamette Valley that he had hiked more than 2,000 times, a hill where he’d come to know dozens of people. None perhaps better than Jorma Meriaho, 65, of Dexter, who had been on Thielsen with him when he’d fallen backward, landed and pinwheeled down the rock-strewn peak like a rag doll.
Hawley remembers staring out the back window of his house on a rainy afternoon in mid-December. He couldn’t walk, couldn’t drive and, even if he had been able to work, had no job. Ironically, Sherman Brothers Trucking had eliminated his position three days before the accident.
“I was wondering if I would ever get better,” Hawley said, “if life would ever get back to normal.”
He was doing physical therapy at home, but not much more. Along with his wife, Linda, his hiking pal Meriaho was ferrying him to medical appointments.
Linda, marketing director for Oregon Imaging Centers, remembers those times all too well.
“People had told us it would be a long road back, but at the three-month mark I was really tired,” she said. “This was getting old. The days were dark and we didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”
Slowly came touches of light. On Dec. 22, Hawley drove for the first time.
On Jan. 24, under the guidance of Jeff Giulietti of Eugene Physical Therapy, Hawley began swimming. “I was standing on two feet for the first time since the accident,” he said.
In Giulietti’s estimation, Hawley needed to be challenged harder to get out of the wheelchair.
“We had to do ‘baby steps,'” Giulietti said. “He had to learn to walk all over again.”
On Feb. 8, Giulietti encouraged Hawley to walk — at first with Giulietti’s hand as guidance, then — at the therapist’s insistence — without it.
“I was terrified and thrilled at the same time,” said Hawley.
But he did it.
Hawley’s confidence began to rebound. On Feb. 21, now walking with a cane, he had coffee with Capt. Nathan Edgecomb of the Oregon Army National Guard, the Coburg man who had piloted the Black Hawk that plucked Hawley from the mountain five hours after the fall — and just before dark.
“That was awesome, getting to meet him,” Hawley said. “Very cool.”
He told Edgecomb he was planning to hike to the top of Pisgah on April 27 to celebrate his 59th birthday.
“Mind if I tag along?” asked Edgecomb, 36.
“Would I mind?” Hawley said. “I’d be honored.”
A few weeks later, Mike and Linda drove to Salem to meet — and thank — the entire helicopter crew.
He flew to Los Angeles to visit his daughter. Earlier this month, he started a new job as sales director for Eugene-based Cascade Sierra Solutions, a nonprofit agency whose mission is to reduce the environmental impact of heavy trucking.
Meanwhile, his hiking friends fanned out to make Saturday special. “Mike is back” email invitations went out. A flier announcing his return to Pisgah was posted at the trailhead. Friend Rick Kernan, who had been with Hawley on Thielsen, made a sign for the top.
Saturday morning, friends packed champagne, nonalcoholic cider and the sign to the summit. But 20 minutes before the 3:30 p.m. start time, only a handful of people had gathered in the Pisgah parking lot.
Then it happened. A dozen became two dozen and two dozen became four, many of them fellow hikers — whom Mike had met in his nearly daily trips to the top over the years.
“Incredible,” Hawley said.Kathy Kernan, Rick’s wife, was there; she’s the only one to have seen him fall. Also on hand was Karen Daniels, a woman from Bend who had joined the Thielsen party midway up the mountain and was there when Mike had fallen. Along with Meriaho, she and the Kernans comprised the “Fab Four” who were with Mike when the accident happened.
At Pisgah, Daniels got misty-eyed just greeting Hawley. “The last time I saw him they were loading him into a helicopter at 9,000 feet,” she said later.
At 3:38 p.m., Hawley offered a “whoohoo!” and the hike began. In his left hand he carried a wooden walking pole inscribed with three things: “Mt. Pisgah 4/27/13,” “1,520′ or bust,” and “7.5 Months A.T.F.,” meaning “after the fall.”
Halfway up, he looked as if he was Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. What started as 55 people crept closer to 70 by the time the group neared the top.
Just short of the summit, Hawley broke a “Happy Birthday” banner that had been stretched across the trail.
Finally, at 4:34 p.m. — just under an hour after leaving — Hawley slapped his palm down on the bronze memorial at the summit.