Pam Bales’ story will feature in the upcoming film, Infinite Storm, starring Naomi Watts and Billy Howle. Bales set out that October 2010 day on a trail she’d hiked countless times before. Nevertheless, as was her custom, she left her itinerary in her car and with two of her friends from the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team.
As Pam gingerly made her way up the trail, she realized that bad weather would force her to abandon part of her journey. However, all her plans changed when she saw footprints, seemingly created by a person in sneakers. Pam followed the footprints despite the rapidly worsening weather and found John motionless and battered by hypothermia.
Pam started her hike knowing that the weather would turn sour quickly
The base of Mt. Washington’s Jewell Trail had pleasant October weather. The first selfie Pam took at the base of her hike showed a snowy trail and sun rays breaking through the trees. Pam had no gloves or a hat and wore a tank top, a testament to the mild weather around the base.
However, her hiker’s backpack had extra layers of clothing: the observatory had described the conditions near the summits as ‘full-on winter.’ Pam’s itinerary would take her up Mt. Washington, an unpredictable summit that had claimed over 150 lives.
Hikers christened it the ‘home of the world’s worst weather.’ Nevertheless, Pam felt confident that the clothes she’d packed would keep her warm. Furthermore, if it got too dangerous to hike, she would turn back – “returning to my car was more important than making the summit,” Pam wrote on Backpacker.
Pam added more layers as the temperature dropped and winds picked up with every rise in altitude. Visibility also decreased as the fog thickened and clouds dropped lower.
It was time to abandon her journey, but before she turned back, she observed a set of footprints. From her experience, she knew the person leaving the prints didn’t have hiking boots on – they had a pair of sneakers unsuited for such a trail. Ty Gayne’s article on the Union Leader about the rescue reads:
“Strong gusts of wind screamed as they exited the fog at full charge and attacked her back and left side. The cloud cover had transitioned from canopy to the equivalent of quicksand, and the only thing keeping Bales on Gulfside was the sneaker tracks in the snow.”
Bales refused to leave John behind even when he insisted that she save herself
Pam followed the footprints towards the Great Gulf, calling out and hoping that someone would answer. She treaded as carefully as she could, with 50 mph winds pummeling her from all directions.
After a while, she saw a man who, for the conditions, was scantily dressed. Furthermore, rain and snow drenched his clothes and shoes; hypothermia prevented him from moving his limbs or responding to Pam.
Bales took off his wet clothes and dressed him in extra clothes she’d packed. Pam placed heat packs all over his body and fed him hot cocoa with electrolyte cubes to raise his core temperature.
With the weather worsening, Pam’s urge to leave intensified. After an hour warming up, John (he refused to reveal his real name, so Pam called her John) regained mobility but seemed unmotivated to move. Pam gave him no choice. Ty wrote:
“He was not actively working against her, but he wasn’t trying to help her either. Bales recognized that he would die soon if they didn’t get out of there. She looked her patient squarely in the eyes and said, “John, we have to go now!” Bales left no room for argument. She was going to descend, and he was going with her.”
Bales chose the shortest route back to base and instructed John to walk close behind her. Pam and John made progress at creeping pace and following the tiny holes made her trekking poles.
Pam sang Elvis songs to keep her spirits up and give John something to hold onto. However, John dropped into the snow after a while and instructed Pam to go without him. Bales’ training in search and rescue advised her not to risk her survival for the sake of a patient. However, Pam refused to leave:
“Bales would have none of it, however, and said, “That’s not an option, John. We still have the toughest part to go — so get up, suck it up, and keep going!” Slowly he stood, and Bales felt an overwhelming sense of relief.”
The pair reached the Jewell Trail at 2 p.m., and four hours later, they arrived at base.
John later revealed that he hiked up the trail to die, but Pam’s refusal to leave convinced him to live
At base, Pam heated John’s clothes in her car. John swapped her clothes for his, and without a word of thanks, hopped in his car and drove off. “Bewildered, I stood in the parking lot, glancing back at the howling mountains. What had just happened?” Pam wrote on Backpacker.
Pam got home and wrote an email to her teammates about the rescue. She tried to close the chapter on a bewildering day, but she had a plethora of lingering questions.
The answers came via a letter from John addressed to her rescue group. The letter read: “On Sunday Oct. 17 I went up my favorite trail, Jewell, to end my life. Weather was to be bad. Thought no one else would be there, I was dressed to go quickly.”
Pam now knew why John hiked up the trail without protection from the cold. John wrote that he expected to find no one else, only to find a woman named Pam ‘talking to me, changing my clothes, giving me food, making me warmer and she just kept calling me John, and I let her.’
John said he thought about running off, but he didn’t want to put Bales’ life in danger. “I followed but I did think about running off, she couldn’t see me,” he wrote. “But I wanted to only take my life, not anybody else and I think she would’ve tried to find me.”
Pam made John realize that his life mattered. A stranger had risked her life to save him, making him believe that he wasn’t meant to die yet. He continued:
“I became very embarrassed later on and never really thanked her properly. If she is an example of your organization/professionalism, you must be the best group around. Please accept this small offer of appreciation for her effort to save me way beyond the limits of safety. NO did not seem in her mind.”
John said he’d sought help for his mental struggles, a job, and temporary shelter. “I have a new direction thanks to wonderful people like yourselves,” he wrote.
Pam swapped the cold of New Hampshire for the heat of the national parks out west
Pam Bales’ story made her a legend around the mountains of New Hampshire, but she had no desire to hog the headlines. Bales remained humble about the event, even after it was announced that the miraculous rescue would feature on the big screen.
Filming for Infinite Storm happened in the Slovenian section of the Alps, where filming costs less than in the United States. Bales told Concord Monitor that though the film takes place miles away from Mount Washington’s summit, Infinite Storm should sensitize people on the dangers of hiking in cold environments.
Bales didn’t participate in filming the flick, though she communicated regularly with the scriptwriters and Naomi Watts. “Pam’s level of courage is so deep and moving,” Watts told WCAX3. “The kindness of strangers. And she also feels to me like someone I just want to know.”
Pam has seen a rough cut of the film, and she’s impressed. “It kind of took me away,” she told Concord Monitor. She hopes that the movie teaches people to observe all precautions and carry the appropriate gear when hiking dangerous trails. Bales said:
“Hopefully they come out (of seeing ‘Infinite Storm’) with the thought of being prepared – checking that weather report, especially on Mount Washington. You have to know yourself, first and foremost, and then know your gear.”
Bales has seen many people underestimate the dangers posed by Mount Washington’s trail only to end up in trouble. She explained: “They say let’s go on a hike, with flip flops and a 12-ounce bottle of water … thinking ‘I will conquer the mountain,’ and that gets them in trouble most every time.”
Bales no longer hikes the cold trails of New Hampshire’s famous summits. She patrols the national parks out west, where people are likely to die from heat rather than cold. Pam said she hopes to return to New Hampshire after a three-year absence.
“I may come back this summer,” she said. “I think I need back and maybe tip my toes in the Whites again.”