The last thing Ruth Woroniecki remembers before waking up bleeding in the snow surrounded by a group of concerned hikers was telling herself to focus on the slippery trail at her feet.
It was a sunny and clear morning on Christmas Eve and Woroniecki was hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains. She had climbed Cucamonga Peak, one of Los Angeles’ most popular peaks, which is over 8,000 feet high, when she encountered an icy switchback on her descent. “I had no grip,” said 40-year-old Woroniecki. She put away her phone and headphones and grabbed her canes.
“I wasn’t in the ‘enjoy walking’ mode anymore,” she said. Her heart raced as she told herself to focus on her feet.
“That’s my last memory before I came to,” Woroniecki said on a recent video call.
Woroniecki slipped and fell nearly 200 feet down the trail before slamming into a tree that broke her fall, narrowly averting a fate that has befallen a number of Southern California hikers this winter. Just two weeks after the fall of Woroniecki, experienced hiker Crystal Paula Gonzalez fell 500 feet to her death on the icy path on nearby Mt. Baldy, where search and rescue teams have responded to at least 14 calls for help since Christmas. Several hikers have died and others are missing. A recent series of storms has increased the risks for mountaineers.
Although Woroniecki survived, her recovery has only just begun.
Woroniecki, who often works as a server in Las Vegas, arrived in California after Thanksgiving for a business trip with her parents and siblings, visiting prisons and doing outreach on skid row. This morning she had a choice between running and walking 20 miles.
“I had my running shoes in addition to my hiking boots,” said Woroniecki. “I chose the walk.”
She left the family campground in Lytle Creek around 6 a.m. with her backpack, hiking poles, phone, and water. Woroniecki grew up in Colorado and spent her life hiking, with family and alone.
She told her family she would be home in time to watch the Dallas Cowboys, one of her father’s favorite teams, play the Philadelphia Eagles at 1:30 p.m.
The day was perfect: uninterrupted bands of blue stretched overhead, a warm morning sun, a path that cuts through woods, the scent of pine needles mingled with the desert air. Woroniecki listened to Irish tunes, oldies and songs her father made.
Woroniecki, for whom prayer and Jesus are the basis of her life, said she saw and felt her Creator everywhere.
She reached the Icehouse saddle, where the path leads to the top, about 8:30 a.m. She texted her family, sent them pictures and let them know she would be staying longer. She still planned to be home for kick-off.
Woroniecki arrived at the top of Cucamonga Peak between 9 and 9:30 am, where she sat for about 25 minutes before turning back, following a series of switchbacks. Snow had piled up on mountaintops all over Southern California, and Cucamonga was no exception. Woroniecki said it reached to the ankles at certain points during the walk.
For Woroniecki, there is only before and after the fall.
Woroniecki said she woke up to the faces of several concerned walkers, including an elderly couple and a man. She heard a helicopter cutting through the sky. She recalled worrying that she couldn’t afford the helicopter and telling the couple to go ahead, that they would be fine.
“I still thought I could get myself off the mountain,” she said.
But as her blood stained the snow, Woroniecki soon realized the severity of her injuries. Her face and hands had been cut open. She had a cut on her head that the walkers said was to the bone. Woroniecki didn’t know it at the time, but she had also broken two vertebrae in her neck.
The fellow hikers, one of whom called for help by activating a distress beacon, put a ski hat on her and covered her with emergency blankets. Woroniecki continued to pack her head wound with snow.
It took about two hours for the first helicopter to arrive — one of the hikers helped out by waving his bright orange beanie to mark their location — but the rescue was complicated by high winds. After several attempts by the helicopter to drop a cable, a rescuer who descended told Woroniecki that they should hike to another spot to be evacuated.
The pain seared through her body, especially her neck. Woroniecki grabbed her neck with her hands and began to pray: “Have mercy on me, here, now,” Woroniecki recalled asking God. “Please help me.”
She estimated she walked about 200 feet down the trail — the rescuer guided her while clasping her neck — before she was airlifted and transported to the trauma center at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center.
It was around 2 p.m., she said. The last time she remembered looking at the time was after 10 a.m. From the helicopter, Woroniecki texted her family.
“That was one of the hardest texts I’ve ever had to send,” Woroniecki said. Her brothers had already left the campsite to look for her. Her younger sister said the family was shocked and devastated.
Woroniecki spent five nights in intensive care. She received 40 stitches and staples in her head, as well as stitches on her nose and under her mouth. She had surgery to put screws and a plate in her spine to repair the broken vertebrae.
After six days bedridden in the hospital, Woroniecki finally took her first steps. She felt dizzy and unsteady, but with the support of the hospital’s therapy team, Woroniecki stabilized herself and slowly moved forward.
“It was like a surreal moment of, ‘I can’t believe this – I’m walking,'” Woroniecki said.
Since her fall almost two months ago, Woroniecki still has some numbness in her mouth and pain in her leg that causes her to limp. She wears a neck brace that she has decorated with a hand-drawn cross on one side and the words “John 14” for two Bible passages on the other. In the center the word “Jesus” in bold capital letters.
A scar runs from her left temple up through the center of her head. Another scar runs from under her lip to the center of her chin. She has to use the braces for another six weeks or so, she said. She rebuilds her strength daily.
There were some dark nights that day, she said.
“You’re human and you can’t help but analyze things,” Woroniecki said. “I definitely evaluate things and think twice: what should I do differently? …I will still live and walk.