A 66-year-old snowshoer who was lost in a blizzard for two days on Mount Rainier said he stayed alive by digging out a snow tunnel and burning his paper money for warmth.
Stranded amid freezing temperatures in near-whiteout conditions on Mount Rainier, Yong Chun Kim held his trusty yellow lighter and wondered how much warmth $6 could buy.
Kim felt guilty as he watched a $1 bill quickly go up in flames. Despite the dangerous conditions he found himself in, Kim worried he was breaking the law by burning money and feared he would get in trouble for setting a fire inside the national park.
The brief warmth convinced him he should light his only other piece of paper, a $5 bill.
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Kim would ultimately set fire to anything else he could spare — an extra pair of socks, bandages, a nylon scarf and a toothbrush — before he was rescued Monday at an elevation of about 6,400 feet after spending two nights on the frigid mountain with only what he had packed for a day hike.
On Tuesday, Kim, 66, recounted his efforts to stay warm and calm after he became separated from a snowshoeing group on Sunday on a hike above Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park.
Kim was leading 16 members of a hiking and climbing club from Tacoma back down the mountain through a spell of nasty weather when he fell about 150 feet. Using his walkie-talkie, he told the group members he was OK and told them to keep moving back to the parking lot. He knew they would seek help.
For more than two days, the Tacoma man walked in circles in search of the way back to safety. He huddled in tree wells, sang “Amazing Grace” in Korean, ducked into a snow cave and slept a few fleeting minutes at a time. He dreamed of his wife, Sue, and relaxing in a hot sauna.
Though Kim was lost, took two steep falls and chipped a tooth, he never feared death.
” ‘I don’t want to die,’ I say. ‘I don’t want to die,’ ” Kim said during an interview at his home. “I prayed to God for my wife not to worry for me.”
Kim, a U.S. citizen for 30 years, said he’s faced worse threats — cancer, being shot at while serving with the South Korean military during the Vietnam War and falling 25 feet from a telephone pole while working for a phone company.
Lost in the powder snow and pounding flurries on Saturday, Kim took some relief in a cave near a boulder and ate rice and Korean food he packed. He only hunkered down for a short time because he knew that he had to keep his body temperature up by moving.
“I didn’t know what was west, what was east, what was north, because I couldn’t see,” Kim said.
Kim ducked into a tree well at nightfall, but not for long because he was determined to keep moving. Soon, he fell again, this time into a deep snowbank where he frantically dug his way to safety.
He lost his walkie-talkie, a glove and a ski pole after the tumble.
Kim said that he ducked into another tree well on Saturday, this time eating a candy bar.
Kim spent much of Sunday slipping and sliding as he tried to climb back up the mountain, toward the trail he was on before he fell. He gritted his teeth while trying to climb to safety, chipping one of them.
When rescuers found Kim around 2 p.m. Monday, nearly two days and 3 ½ hours after he became separated from his hiking group, he was exhausted but not surprised to see them. One rescuer handed him a candy bar and some water, which somewhat rejuvenated him. He was able, with some assistance, to hike back down.
Malcom An, Kim’s son, said that when his family received word that his father had been found alive, a cheer went out among family, friends and church members.
“He’s a survivor,” An said. “He’s made of steel. He’s 66 years old; he just beat cancer. He’s old now, and he knew just what to do.”
While An is impressed by his father’s resilience, he shakes his head at his father’s plans to return to the mountain soon. Kim has long gone hiking at Mount Rainier every Saturday morning and firmly believes that the mountain air is the reason he is cancer-free.
“Maybe a week off, then I’ll go again,” Kim said Tuesday. “It’s better than golf; that’s too much stress. Hiking isn’t as much money, just lunch and $10 in gas.”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or email@example.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.