Wilderness survivor drives home need to be prepared

Mishelle Hileman, who survived eight days in the Wallowa County wilderness last fall, talks to students at Joseph High School about wilderness survival and the price she paid for her mistakes. Photo by Kim Lamb

There was an audible gasp Thursday afternoon at Joseph High School when wilderness survivor Mischelle Hileman of Wallowa took off stockings and casts that protected the stumps of her legs.

Both were amputated below the knee because of frostbite after Hileman survived eight days in the Wallowa County wilds last fall before being rescued.

The 39-year-old Wallowa woman, in a wheelchair, was a guest speaker at an assembly by Wallowa County Search and Rescue unit about how to survive in the wilderness.

"Well, I suppose you all know who I am," Hileman began when it was her turn to talk. "I made a fatal mistake - I didn't tell my father where I was going."

During an Oct. 27 day trip for elk hunting with her father, Benny, in rugged wilderness country northeast of Wallowa, Hileman shot at and followed an elk down a rugged canyon and was unable to walk out after injuring one of her legs. She was the subject of an intensive week long search in unseasonable weather that produced a snow storm and below zero temeratures before being found Nov. 3. The search had already been scaled way back and many people termed her survival "a miracle."

Still recovering from her ordeal, Hileman is eager to help prevent young people from making mistakes she made in the hopes of potentially saving a life. In her first school visit she talked to Wallowa students not long after coming home from the hospital in January.

During her week in the wild, as suvival equipment, Hileman had only a pocket knife and a rifle, with which she tried to signal numerous times. The injured woman found shelter under a big tree, dug a hole and cut limbs to help keep warm. She drank water from a creek that froze over in the frigid temperatures.

Hileman talked to the middle school youngsters after three members of the Search and Rescue unit first spoke to them about what is necessary to survive in rugged Wallowa County or other outdoor settings.

"There are several things you should have when you go out into the woods," said Joe Reed, listing a plan, survival equipment and communication. "You need to tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. It doesn't do you any good if you say you are going to Salt Creek Summit and you go to Dug Bar," said Reed.

"Having the attitude, 'I will survive,' is a key element when you are lost," he said. "Attitude is the big thing. Mischelle had that attitude, and that's why she's here now. She survived longer than anyone ever has in Wallowa county."

Mel Byers, another S&R member, lined up a series of emergency packs ranging from a heavy backpack complete with snowshoes, which he carries around on a snowmobile, to a fanny pack with water bottle, which he wears whenever he's in the woods. He named the three things essential to survival for any length of time: water, shelter and warmth.

S & R member Tim Perales unveiled the smallest survival kit yet, which easily fits in a pocket. Inside a zip lock bag (which can double as a canteen to carry water) were such items as garbage bag for shelter, a straw, a small box of kitchen matches, the stub of a candle to help start a fire and a whistle. "It takes a lot less energy to blow a whistle than to yell at people trying to find you," he said.

In the sidelines nodding agreement to Search and Rescue's advice, was Mischelle Hileman, who wheeled to the front and talked to the youngsters in loud, simple and clear terms about the mistakes she made.

"I didn't take my pack," she told 5th-8th grade youths in the first of two assemblies at Joseph Thursday. She started unpacking a medium sized green backpack to show what she had left behind in her father's pickup. "I left a lighter. I left my water. I left my food. Here's even the cookies from that trip," she said, holding up a plastic bag full of cookies.

Hileman said knowing what she knows now, there were other items she would have packed, such as a heat reflective emergency space blanket she held up.

"And like the gentleman said, take a whistle," she said.

Then Hileman started telling the youngsters the price she paid for her momentary lapse of judgment.

"I'm a diabetic now. I didn't used to be, but the trauma pushed me over," she said. "When I go places I have to take a bedpan, because there's not a bathroom that I can use everywhere I go. ... I like to horseback ride, and I haven't been able to do that."

Hileman said that she used to be 6'2" inches and is now only 5'5. Another mistake she said she made was breaking off branches at her eye level as she followed the elk. Searchers were'nt looking so far off the ground, she said

As Hileman spoke she took the layers of protection off what was left of her legs. "They aren't very pretty are they?" she asked. After a gasp, total silence echoed through the Jo-Hi gymnasium. "That's because I didn't listen to my father."

The curious youngsters asked a number of questions of Hileman, who hasn't yet talked in depth about her ordeal.

"When I heard them call my name, I answered, 'Yeah, what do you want?' You can see I wasn't thinking too clearly," said Hileman about when searchers and friends Bill Lehr and Marilyn Siefert found her after many had given up.

Does she wish she had dressed differently? "For that day, I was dressed appropriately, but knowing what I know now. You bet your bippy I would have," she said. "I would have worn wool sox and a wool shirt."

Hileman told the youngsters not to wear cotton next to their skin. "It will freeze to you," she said, holding up the T-shirt she'd been wearing.

Hileman, who is scheduled to soon begin rehabilitation on new artificial legs in a Boise hospital, said that in the future she plans to resume activities she loves, like hunting, fishing and horseback riding. "One of my goals is riding horses again within the next two months," she said.

"I don't remember all my days," Hileman said in response to a question about her time in the wilderness. "The doctors say the mind blocks out things that are too bad to think about. I did a lot of praying."

The main things, Hileman told her very attentive young audience, are to make sure you let someone know where you are going and not to take your safety in the woods for granted. "Don't take it for granted that someone is going to be around a corner, because they might not be," said the true life survivor speaking from hard experience.

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