MOUNT PISGAH — 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, “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. 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.
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.
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.”
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. 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.
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 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, like a runner at Hayward Field, 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.
Hawley popped a champagne cork. The crowd offered toasts.
Next? Perhaps the South Sister, he says. For now, Hawley is happy to bask in gratitude.
“My do-over,” he said, “allowed me to learn what friendship is really all about.”