DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – From the moment Karen James first met hiking enthusiast Kelly James, she knew she was in love. “He knocked my socks off.”
James said friends set them up at a party, after that they were inseparable. It’s a story few people know. Instead, many remember the story of how Karen lost the love of her life at the top of Oregon’s Mt. Hood.
“It’s very dreamlike, sometimes and you find yourself wondering ‘Did that really happen?’” says James.
Kelly and two other experienced hikers, Brian Hall and Jerry Cooke, found themselves caught on the mountain in one of the worst storms any of them had ever seen. Wind gusts at the summit were nearly 90 mph and Kelly James was injured.
James says rescuers believe Hall and Cooke tucked Kelly James away in a snow cave and then set out for help, but the winds knocked them off the mountain.
Kelly James is believed to have sat in the cave alone for days, holding out hope. He did make a few calls from his cellphone for help. Karen was able to intercept one of those and relay his whereabouts to rescuers.
She was also able to tell Kelly “Hold on! The Christmas tree is all decorated and it’s so pretty. I can’t wait for you to see it. Stay Awake! I love you.”
It would end up being the last words she would ever utter to her husband. Kelly James was found in the snow cave a few days later, the other two have still never been found.
“I just look back and try to be grateful for what I had and not bitter about what I lost.”
Karen says there was a time she didn’t think she would ever want to return to Oregon or even see Mt. Hood, but she recently took a trip there in October.
“I wanted to change my opinion of Mt. Hood and be able to see it’s beauty as Kelly saw it, and not be afraid of it as the icy monster it was.”
Karen was in Oregon to speak at a Women of Faith conference and share her story of tragedy and moving on with faith. It was at that conference she said she was finally able to say “thank you” to the men and women who helped recover Kelly James’ body.
With her husband gone, Karen says a lot has changed but her bond with Kelly’s four grown children is even stronger, and so is her faith.
She often uses her artwork to express her loss, and even showed CBS 11 one very personal painting she did before Kelly’s death, a person who can be seen chilling in the cold alone.
“It just gives me chills now. Kelly loved it, but it’s just so cold now, I think because he died of hypothermia.”
Karen will not sell that painting, but she does use other works to raise money for her new passion: raising money for children in Africa.
Fifty percent of all her sales go towards the “If you knew” non-profit group she and four other Dallas women have started. In partnership with World Vision, their goal is to raise money to build water wells in African communities.
“I just go back and go ‘I couldn’t save Kelly in the snow cave but all those babies we are going to be able to save with something as simple as clean water.’ It makes me happy to get up in the morning.”
In the midst of her grief, Kelly James said she has managed to dig down, find inner strength and a new purpose-one that happens to run as deep as a well in Africa.
“I try to live my life in a way that will make him proud,” said James.
For more information on If You Knew and the water well effort visit their website – http://ifyouknew.org/