When you’re helpless: My story of Rescue



Thirteen years ago today, at this exact time, 8:30 am on a Monday morning, I was freezing.  Literally.  I was huddled in the snow in the rugged backcountry wilderness of Colorado.  I was sixteen years old at the time, and I was alone with my sister, who was twenty.  We had spent the night stranded in the frigid conditions, lost.  Helpless.  The previous day, February 11, 2001, had been a gorgeous windy day in the backcountry.  We had driven up from Denver with our brother and good friend Chris, and we were all planning on a fun day of snowboarding at Loveland Pass.  My sister and I broke off from the guys, who were going to build a jump and play on that, to hike farther around the bowl and do laps.  The wind was insane that day on the ridge, and as we hiked farther around the bowl, Jennie and I set our sights on a peak on the backside of the bowl.  We had never ventured over there before, but from where we were standing, it looked entirely feasible.  And fun.  So we set off to hike the next peak.  And thus began what would become an incredible story of survival.



We were young and foolish.  We didn’t think about the fact that we were going far beyond where we had told everyone we would be.  We didn’t account for snow conditions, or even cared (read: 16 years old).  Or for the fact that it was late in the afternoon.  It was incredibly deep snow and soon we were slogging waist deep, post-holing and fighting to just make forward progress.  Long story short, we were soon exhausted and thirsty.  And we were losing daylight.  It was an extrememly vulnerable feeling.  We knew how to get back where we had come from, but we couldn’t physically hike back up the mountain we had ridden down because of the deep heavy snow.  We had decided to head a different way, hoping to circle around and meet up with the pass road on the other side of the pass.  But the farther we ventured down into treeline, the less visibility we had, the sooner we realized we were lost.

The sun sank behind the towering peaks behind us.  The shadows were lengthening.  The temperature was immediately dropping.  We had been hiking now for hours without water or food.  We found a clearing in the trees where we could get a view of the valley below us, expecting to see the pass road.  Instead we saw a mountain.  My heart fell in that moment.  We would never get over that in the couple of hours of daylight we had left.  And with our level of exhaustion, I was skeptical that we would ever make it that far.  It was an incredibly sobering and terrifying moment. 

We changed plans.  Instead of it becoming about getting out of the backcountry, we realized we were in a survival situation.  It became about preparing to spend the night here, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of snow, in the middle of February, with no supplies, no water, no shelter, no cell phone.  What’s worse, no one had a clue we were here. 

We trudged out a huge S.O.S. in the clearing, we dug a hole down into the snow pack just big enough for the two of us to crawl inside, we set our brightly colored snowboards out where we hoped they’d be visible.  We crawled headfirst into the dark, freezing hole.  We grabbed some branches and packed the sugary-like snow desperately into the branches, trying to cover the opening.  It was dark in the snow cave.  It was silent.  It was growing dark outside, as we saw the light growing dim through the patched-over opening of the snow cave.  It was insanity.  Both Jennie and I had these desperate urges to just jump back out of this hellish hole and keep trudging.  But instinctively we knew we would die if we did that.  We knew the temps were going to be freezing that night and we would freeze, in our wet gear, traveling in the woods with no light.  We didn’t know if we were making the best decision.  But we had made it and we committed to stick to it.  When light came in the morning, we would start hiking again.

So we thought.  Thus ensued one of the most insane nights of survival I could ever have imagined.  Temperatures that night, we later learned, dropped to -11 degrees, -21 with windchill.  Negative 21!  Thankfully we were protected from the wind in our makeshift shelter.  We were not warm, however.  We were shivering convulsively.  We were wet and laying on wet snow in total darkness.  We were thirsty.

There is so much that happened in that dark hole alone together that evening.  There are a whole host of miracles that happened, people who were working and searching and sacrificing out in the dark cold, hundreds searching for us, due to my quick-thinking brother and friend, Chris, who called in search and rescue.  But it’s not the purpose for which I write to you today.  A story for another time.  But as morning began to dawn, we couldn’t have guessed that our energy would be vastly depleted just from trying to survive and keep warm through the night.  Our muscles were so tired from convulsing and shivering that we couldn’t imagine even walking.  We realized that having gone almost a full 24 hours without water or food and yet expending all the physical strength we could muster to hike and to stay warm had left us completely depleted.  Helpless.

We realized we were waiting now to be found.  We realized there would be no way to hike out.  We realized we were so cold, so weak, so lost.  We were utterly dependent on the reckless hope that someone would be searching for us.  That someone would find us, and soon.

And this morning, thirteen years later, I sit here as snow softly falls in the mountains of North Carolina.  I sit here cozy in my bed tapping away on these keys, while my husband plays with and feeds our two precious children.  I sit here almost 30 years old.  I sit here, having been RESCUED.  I sit here as one who received grace on that fateful day, February 12th, 2001.

As God would have it, I was studying Genesis chapter 15 and Romans chapter 4 this morning.  My mind is reeling with what God was speaking to me, so bear with me, as I try to give words to it here.

I know what its like to be helpless.  I know what its like to be desperate.  I know what its like to realize you are about to face death soon unless someone comes through for you.  To know that you have reached the end of yourself and you cannot save yourself.  There is nothing you can do.  It is the most vulnerable and terrifying position to be in. 

It is the place where all pride and self-sufficiency falls away and grace alone can save.

But I’m all about pride and self-sufficiency.  You see, I grew up with a faulty and broken understanding of righteousness.  I grew up thinking that if I could be good enough, God would be pleased with me.  I grew up thinking somehow that I had to earn my way into His favor, and that when I sinned, I lost His love and favor.  And all my days, I have strived.

And then there’s Romans 4.  There’s Abraham.  A man who “believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3, Gen. 15:6).

“If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  For what does the Scripture say?  Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.  Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.  But to him who does not work, but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:2-5).

If our standing with God is based on our good works, if we can be good enough, then God owes us our wage, which is salvation, heaven.  We are good people who generally stay out of trouble so God is obligated to save us.  But what about those of us who know we are helplessly flawed??  What about those of us who cannot see inherent goodness in ourselves?  What about those of us who see that every inclination of our hearts is only evil continually?  That our pride, our selfishness, our self-protectiveness runs deep?  What about those of us who return over and over and over to our sin, like a dog to vomit?  What is the hope of salvation for us?  We need to be rescued.

If our standing with God is based on what GOD Himself has done, because God Himself knew that we would never be able to be good enough to stand before Him, then we would know that it is by faith.  It is by believing this truth and resting all our hope upon it that we will be saved.

“Therefore it is of faith, that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all…in the presence of Him whom He believed–God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did; who contrary to hope, in hope believed…He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised, He was also able to perform” (Rom.4:16,17-18,20-21).

What had God promised, that Abraham was convinced He would be able to perform?  Head back to Gen.15 and remember that God covenanted with Abraham to make a great nation from Abraham’s line, even though Abraham and Sarai, his wife, were old in age and barren.  God promised they would in fact have a son, an heir, through whom God would bring the Promised One, the Savior, who had been promised back in the Garden of Eden (Gen.3:15), whom all humanity had been waiting for and looking for since the fall of the first parents, Adam and Eve.  God covenanted with Abraham, He promised that He would rescue mankind, He promised that He would do it through Abraham’s family, and He alone took on both sides of the covenant agreement (see Gen.15:17).  God did not require Abraham to make covenant with Him, because God knew Abraham would never be able to hold up his end of the deal.  God made covenant with Abraham and covenanted to uphold both parties’ commitments.  He alone would do this.  Would Abraham believe?  God then told Abraham what would happen to His people, those descendants of Abraham, for the next 400 years (all of which was perfectly historically accurate), and foretold to Abraham that His plan would be to rescue the people once they were desperate and hopelessly in bondage/slavery to Egypt.  God’s plan was for Israel to inherit Canaan through God’s supernatural act of redemption from slavery.

You see, He knows we are helpless.  He knows we cannot be good.  But He allows us to experience that truth for ourselves physically in our lives, often to get into a place of physical helplessness, so that we make the connection to our spiritually helpless, lost state, apart from Christ.  We can do some good things in our lives, sure, but if we can be honest, we are prone to serve ourselves.  We are prone to greed, selfishness, hatred, bitterness, jealousy, sexual immorality, and on and on.  We are bent away from God, away from holiness.  We can try and be good some days, but we are never perfect.

And it hits me fresh, and it hits me hard this morning.

It isn’t the good-enough who inherit the kingdom of God.  It isn’t the people who do it all right who get to go to heaven.  It is those who believe.  It is those who hang all of their hope on Jesus. As Romans 4 says, “it is of faith that it might be according to grace” (vs. 16).  God wanted to show off the sufficiency of His GRACE.  If it were works, I could earn it.  I could lose it.  And God would be my debtor.  But as it stands, it is all of faith.  It is given to me, its a gift.  But I have to receive it.  I have to believe it in order to appropriate it.  And because of that truth, I am forever God’s gladdest debtor.


So back to that freezing cold, blinding cold morning, thirteen years ago.  The first sound of hope that we heard was the blurry, distant chop-chop-chop of helicopter blades.  It barely pulled me out of the fog that I was in.  I could barely put two thoughts together to figure out what that vaguely familiar sound was.

It got closer.  And closer.  And closer until it was like a thunder roaring right over us.  Jennie burst through the roof of snow above us, screaming and waving wildly at the smiling faces of two men above us, circling over and over above us, just barely above the trees.  Soon, two men hiked down to us, two rescuers, who offered us snickers bars and some warm layers and helped us to hike to another clearling where we were able to board that helicopter and be rushed to Summit County hospital for treatment.  We exited that helicopter to be greeted by our dearest loved ones, whom we clung to.  We were greeted by several news stations.  And in the coming days we were interviewed over and over again, on the Today Show, in Teen People Magazine, in newspapers and women’s magazines.  It was incredible.


What if we had said no to it all?  What if when those two rescuers showed up, we had said, “No I don’t believe you’re really here.  I don’t believe you really have my best interest at heart.  I don’t think you care to rescue me, I don’t believe you that right below this clearing is a large clearing where a helicopter is waiting for me.  I don’t believe that if I stay here in this dark hole, death is certain.  I think I can do it on my own.  I think I can be strong enough to get out of here.”  What if the gift that was offered, what if we refused it?  We had the FREEDOM to do that.  Those men could not have forced us to come to safety.  They could have given us many convincing proofs and arguments.  They could have pled with us.  But ultimately, we had to trust them, total strangers, we had to believe their word.  We had to place our lives in their hands.

We had to let them rescue us.

Because “rescue” implies submission, weakness, trust, dependency, helplessness.

Whoever you are, reading this today… that is the Good News of Jesus Christ.  He came for us.  He is God, who came from God, to make a way for humanity to get back to God, when we used our freedom to flee from Him.  But you must let Him rescue you.  You must believe that He is good, that He has a plan to redeem you, and you must put your hand in His and let Him lead you to safety.

The Christian life is not about being a good person.  NO!!!!  The Christian life is about placing your trust in Jesus, who was perfect, and believing He is the Savior of the world, and letting Him rescue you.

Will you do that today?  Will you believe?

“By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”  (Rom.5:1-2 MSG)


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A special word of thanks goes out to all those who worked and sacrificed and prayed that night on our behalf.  To my parents, my brother Andrew and Chris Harrison, Bill & Cindy Scott, Littleton Bible Chapel, Dan Burnett {our burliest mountain man}, Pat Mahaney {the pilot}, Mike Everest {the scout who found our tracks on a whim}, Bill Barwick, Loveland Ski Patrol, Alpine Search & Rescue team.  Because of what you did, I am here today with my precious children and husband.  I am forever indebted and “thank you” is simply not enough.  You all are my heroes forever!