Miracle at Glacier
Windom family find beauty in near-tragedy
Pattie Holmes returned to the accident’s scene this past summer, 47 years later
This summer, Pattie Holmes and her family took a trip back to Glacier National Park in Montana where 47 years ago she miraculously survived a fall into a steep gorge rushing with white water.
She was hiking with her two young girls while trying to reach beautiful Avalanche Lake when the fall occurred.
Is there any good that can come out of revisiting the scene of a bad accident?
Yes, Pattie said, because the accident was also the site of much goodwill by people and what she considers an astounding act of God’s grace.
“I mean, there’s more good people than there is bad people, but you don’t always know that, or remember. And this is so reassuring to see these things again,” Pattie said.
What happened in 1976
It was a hot day in August of 1976, and Pattie was hiking with her husband at that time and their two daughters, Denise, 11, and Deanna, 9.
“It was early morning, and we stopped along the Avalanche Creek Gorge to take a picture,” Holmes remembered. “The sun was right in behind the girls, so me, not really thinking, I just kind of stepped over for a different angle to take the picture. With that, I was too close to the edge of the water and my cowboy boots slipped and I went in.”
She fell into rushing white water that swept her deep into a gorge and over a 10- foot waterfall and through steep, twisting channels in the rock. She passed through narrow gaps of huge, jagged rocks but does not remember it, as Pattie had binoculars on and a camera around her neck. They came up and hit her in the face and also knocked out some teeth.
“I can remember when it happened thinking I might not live through this,” Pattie remembered. “I can just remember taking one big gulp and that was probably water and then after that I don’t remember anything.”
The young mother was swept violently down the gorge for a few hundred yards and the girls saw her head spin once and then their mom swept away. The water was going to have its way with her before coming through some steep falls to some flats near a bridge where an attempt to find Pattie could be made.
The two young girls could do nothing but watch their mother go under the water and down the gorge.
Denise remembered, “I ran right up to the edge where my mom had fallen in. I had my cowboy boots on, and my boots started sliding on the rocks and I plunked my butt down. I’m sure it was an angel there with me because my knees were in white water, but I didn’t slide in.”
Meanwhile, their young mother was being swept violently down the gorge until she came to an area where the channel widened and the water slowed down.
A heroic man, Thomas Ott, a park visitor originally from Switzerland, came along and he ran down the trail a few hundred yards following the gorge to where the water slowed and spotted Pattie face down out in the water.
He plowed through thighdeep water to reach Pattie, and then drug her over onto the other bank to begin resuscitation efforts.
His girlfriend Jan comforted the girls the whole time.
The park rangers were called and they transported Pattie to a waiting helicopter and over the mountains to Kalispel. She was so hypothermic that her body temperature was not registering on a thermometer. She suffered multiple bruises, a concussion and broken teeth and spent several days in the hospital recovering.
Park ranger Jack Fewlass was quoted at that time, stating, “She was very lucky. It’s a miracle.”
Pattie still concurs today. She was a believer before the accident, and she truly felt God’s hand in the whole incident.”
“God had His hand in it for sure,” Pattie said. “When we visited back there this year, now the water is so low compared to when it was when I had the accident. We could see that the water being high at that time really helped save me because it kept me out of some of the worst boulders and trees down in the water.”
Stack of letters Pattie
Denise and Deanna talked about the accident over the years, but there was never any desire to return until this year when it just seemed time to go back and complete that hike to Avalanche Lake.
Pattie said Denise is the travel planner in the group. The night before the hike, they did a lot of reminiscing. Pattie’s story had been written about in several newspapers when it happened, and she also got cards and letters from people all across the country.
One letter was from two women who were in the park at the time of the accident and heard someone had fallen in the gorge. They shared that they got down on the trail and prayed for her safety and that if she didn’t know God that she would come to know him.
With a stack of letters and articles in front of them on Pattie’s table in Windom, the women took turns discussing the kindness of strangers, and the faith of so many people at that time, and reflecting on the writing and words of encouragement.
At the gorge again
When asked what the highlight of this year’s trip was, Pattie said, “It was really completing the hike. We got to the lake and we had shared this memory and story with so many people. It was great to be there all together.”
There were seven on this year’s trip. Pattie remarried years ago and her husband is Lyman Holmes. Denise and her husband Bob Wolff came along, and Deanna and her husband Rick Caza, plus Deanna’s 16-year-old son John McEachran.
“It was so nice for the girls to see it with adult eyes now,” Pattie said. “As compared to when they were children.”
“Yes,” Deanna nodded. “When you revisit something like this it just kind of blows you away. It was such a miracle. And I didn’t know this before we went, but I have to say that it was healing. There was healing in that trip.”
Denise agreed, and shared that as they completed the hike and arrived at Avalanche Lake, she was struck with the thought: “There is beauty behind the fear.”