Park Ranger Kevin Bacher got the call during breakfast on the morning of Monday, June 18. Could he come in ASAP and act as the public information officer, please? The TV stations and newspapers would be calling soon.
A hiker was missing. Again.
Public relations isn't really Bacher's job at Mount Rainier National Park—it's no one's job—but Bacher is one of three rangers who end up dealing with the press whenever there's an incident. A 47-year-old software developer from Minneapolis named Jeff Graves had already been missing for a day and a half.
Graves left for a short hike on Saturday afternoon, June 16, and hadn't been heard from since. There was a "hasty search," according to Ranger Mike Gauthier, the park's search-and-rescue coordinator, that night when Graves failed to return, and a full-blown search-and-rescue mission Sunday. The story broke Monday morning and the search continued a second full day.
Based on the lay of the land and the likelihood of various scenarios, incident command had taken a map of the southwest quadrant of the park and drawn a line on it roughly the shape of Kentucky. This area—representing three or four square miles—was divided into 17 pieces. Each was designated by a letter, A through Q, and assigned to a pair of park rangers for overland search. The terrain is very steep and very rugged, so searching was slow and dangerous.
I found out about it Tuesday morning by reading the Tacoma News Tribune. The search was being conducted out of Longmire, the park's administrative headquarters as well as the starting point of Graves's hike up the Eagle Peak Trail. I've always imagined search operations as clamorous, high-tech extravaganzas, straight out of a jillion-dollar blockbuster, but when I pulled into the Longmire parking lot, all I saw was a quiet KIRO 7 news van. Inside it, a plump blond lady was napping. Park visitors crisscrossed the sunny parking lot, unaware of the life-or-death drama playing itself out somewhere. I stepped into the information center, with its scale model of the park's topography. It was deserted. A ranger appeared and I asked if there was anything I could do to help with the search. There wasn't. So I headed up Eagle Peak Trail on my own.
I was searching for the search effort and couldn't find it. All afternoon the percussion of a helicopter could be heard coming from somewhere over the treetops. Otherwise I seemed to have the whole mountain to myself. But halfway back down the mountain I chanced upon Hunter and Ian, two park rangers, in charge of section Q. We were "standing down" (meaning, sitting down) on the margins of the steep dirt trail because, according to Ian, someone on the ranger radio wanted stillness while the rescue chopper searched this area. The noise was steady and close. I ate a carrot.
Then a crackly voice fired over the radio, asking to confirm something about a weight limit. Ian hinted that this didn't bode well. The chopper must be retrieving something. A minute later, through the branches, I caught my first and only glimpse of the helicopter as it shot past—white and blue, a quarter-mile distant, its bay doors wide open and a silhouette visible inside.
From further up the trail came two more rangers, a guy with an Iowan accent, and a female intern.
"Didn't you guys get the message?" said the Iowan. "There was a general announcement: everyone come on down. It's all over."
"Happy ending?" asked Hunter.
The Iowan shook his head.
We can expect more harrowing stories of lost hikers this year, particularly on lovely Mount Rainier, which gets well over a million visitors per year and is in disastrous shape. Washington State's trails sustained heavy damage over the winter, due mostly to a huge November storm. You may remember your power being out for a few days.
"The damage, it's been, you know, it's pretty unprecedented," said Lauren Braden, director of communications and outreach for the Washington Trails Association.
Mount Rainier National Park's website describes "floods that exceeded anything the park has experienced in its 108-year history." Ranger Bacher said, "Just about every trail in the park sustained damage. We're encouraging people to be hypervigilant and extra cautious."
The park was completely closed to vehicle traffic due to flood damage until recently, and many sections remain off limits. The extent of the destruction of roads, trails, and campsites will only be revealed as the snow melts. And damaged travel routes equal danger. Throughout the region, hikers are going to find that roads and trails that appear on maps have been erased by floodwaters or blocked by debris.
These hikers will be presented with a choice—either turn back or find a way around. The people who try to find a way around, who venture off marked trails, are the ones at the greatest risk.
Take Frances and Robert Blakely. They and another friend were hiking in Mount Rainier National Park over the weekend of March 17–18. The Carbon River Bridge, part of a vehicle access road that led to their campsite, was washed away in last November's flooding. They used a downed log to cross over Ipsut Creek, a tributary of the Carbon River, but that Sunday they were unable to cross back as they had intended due to the unusually violent rushing of the creek. So they camped an extra night. On Monday morning, while crossing back on their makeshift log bridge, Frances slipped. She fell into icy, raging, four-feet-deep waters. Her husband Robert jumped in to save her. They both drowned.
Bacher described the Blakelys' story as "a really good example" of the hazards of storm damage. "Because if she had crossed the log without slipping, they'd have been fine. They'd have had a great time. It just takes one misstep, and you can't take that step back."
Cindy Wysocki is the girlfriend of a coworker of a former housemate of mine. In November of 2006, she disappeared in the mountains near Snoqualmie Pass. Though they differ in surface details, Cindy Wysocki's and Jeff Graves's stories are identical in their setup: hiker departs for an afternoon wilderness outing, gets into trouble alone in the mountains, and sparks a several-days-long search.
The story of what happened to her has the logic of a dream, where every new task unfurls into infinity. Each time Wysocki lit upon a strategy to find her way out of the woods, reality would object, and she'd have to come up with a new plan.
The basic facts are these. The Saturday before Thanksgiving, Wysocki went snowshoeing 4.5 miles up the Denny Creek Trail to Melakwa Lake with her boyfriend, Greg, and their friend Eric. The three of them reached the lake together, but after lunch she got cold and began the descent alone. Greg and Eric planned to stay behind a little while and catch up with her at the car. Unbeknownst to Wysocki, the trail they hiked in on splits just southwest of the lake. One branch leads back to I-90; the other into remote mountain wilderness. On the way down all by herself, Wysocki took the bad path. She hustled full-speed in the wrong direction, trying to keep warm, all afternoon. When dusk crept in over the snow-capped peaks, she realized something had gone terribly wrong. She should have returned to the car by now.
As the darkness deepened, she spotted a trail sign for a second lake.
"Then I knew," she told me. "I was like, 'This is totally wrong. We didn't—we didn't see that coming in. So when I saw that, I was like: 'I totally messed up.'"
Eventually she realized she was going to spend the night alone in the woods.
"Once it got, like, black, I mean I couldn't see anything, I decided, 'Well, it's time for me just to stop, because there's no way—there's no way. I can't get out tonight,'" she said. "I just kind of huddled up by this tree."
There was nothing Wysocki could do to stay warm because she was dressed for an afternoon excursion—yoga pants, thin nylon pants, a wool shirt, a polyester long-sleeve T-shirt, and a hat. The temperature hovered just above freezing.
"What happened during the night was I got really, really cold. Extremely cold. And I started worrying... that, um, I was going to be in trouble if I didn't get moving, because I thought I would freeze to death. So I started moving around in the night. Problem was, it was pitch black. The terrain was pretty treacherous, so I was worried I was going to walk over a cliff or something. I had to move kind of slowly, crawling around. And, um, basically, I moved so much in the night that by the time the morning came I couldn't figure out where exactly I was. When it got light out again and I tried to go back where I thought I had come from, I couldn't figure it out."
By the dawn of the second cold day, whatever string had been tethering Wysocki to the civilized world had come loose completely. The connection had dissolved in the dark.
Wysocki's disappearance was the first big-time search-and-rescue story in the winter and spring of 2006–07. Less than two weeks later the nation woke up to the news that a whole family had disappeared in the rugged Klamath Mountain Range in southwestern Oregon. On an indirect route from Seattle to San Francisco, James and Kati Kim tried to navigate their station wagon through a maze of remote logging roads, with their two small children in the backseat, and became stuck in the snow. After nearly a week of eating candy, melted snow, and breast milk, they were still lodged in the snow bank, the gas tank was empty, and they had burned their car tires for warmth. Kim left on foot to find help. While he was gone, his family was saved, but Kim died of exposure before rescuers could locate him.
"Everybody, everybody was following the coverage," recalled Sergeant John Durand, the vice president of the Washington State Search and Rescue Coordinators' Association. "And then, right on the heels of that you had the incident on Mount Hood." He was referring to the saga of climbers Kelly James, Brian Hall, and Jerry Cooke, none of whom came off the mountain alive. The search effort for them began four days after James Kim's frozen body was found and eight days before the Kim family made the cover of People magazine.
The search part of search and rescues turns out to be kind of boring. Search is what I found at Longmire, with napping journalists and long waits. Rescue is what everyone wants to hear about. Without rescue, news directors of the world are robbed of search's flashy payoff. When people are found dead on the mountain, coverage tends to shrink.
"A lost hiker dying is not nearly as exciting as a hiker lost for five days, and people nearly giving up on him, and then him surviving," Ranger Mike Gauthier told me. "'Hiker Dies in Mountains' is kind of the bummer story."
When a rescue turns into a body recovery, news coverage risks looking crass and morbid, and the story, like the hiker, reaches a dead end. Graves was spotted hiking at about 4,200 feet of elevation sometime on the afternoon of June 16, and three days later his body was found at the bottom of a cliff. That's it. That's all we know. It's not much to hang a story on.
According to Bacher, as soon as word came in that Graves was definitely dead, most news outfits took a short statement and then packed up. "It usually just goes 'Search Ended Tragically,'" said Bacher, "and that's that."
But sometimes the hiker is rescued. Sometimes the hiker survives.
When Cindy Wysocki awoke in the Cascade Mountains, she told me, she didn't know where she was. I couldn't understand what prevented her from following her footprints back to safety—she'd been snowshoeing, after all. I suspected that the cold and the strain had been messing with her mind, so one day in March I drove out to Denny Creek to see the trail for myself.
At the Denny Creek trailhead stands a kind of wooden message board hung with warning signs about littering and bears. There is also a laminated hand-drawn map with an arrow and the message: "You are here." Four and a half miles up a squiggly red line is Melakwa Lake. The fateful junction between Denny Creek Trail 1014 and Melakwa Lake Trail 1011 is marked for some reason with a bold red dot. This is the precise point where Cindy first went wrong.
I peered at the map and then at the blue sky, dotted with heavy clouds. I had already hiked a mile along a snow-covered road just to reach the trailhead. That took an hour. It was already midafternoon. The roundtrip to and from Melakwa Lake is nine miles of steep trails, plus the mile back to the car. I was alone. With a glance at the posted warnings—"Beware of Bears," "Recreation Pass Required" (what's a recreation pass?)—I set off into the woods.
The snow piled up in drifts along the forest floor. Black tree trunks poked out stiffly everywhere. The canopy overhead made a stationary darkness. I walked about a hundred yards up the trail and then paused to look back. It didn't look substantially different behind me than it did in front of me. There seemed to be about a hundred trails sprouting off in all directions, wherever I happened to stand.
The snow was icy and compacted, so my feet weren't sinking in, and the surface was hilly and pocked. Plus, it was sprinkled with soot and dirt and pine needles, and the shadows played tricks on my eyes. Every tree looked the same. I wandered another few yards, and came upon a particular black tree trunk that had long, thick wounds in it the color of honey. Wood chips were strewn all across the trail. Bears. Bears do this. They stand up on their hind legs and claw at trees. (To catch bugs? To sharpen their claws? For mauling practice?) I decided I'd had enough winter hiking and turned around.
Wysocki had spent her first morning alone, a Sunday, circling and circling around, trying to pick back up on whatever night trail had brought her to the ravine she woke up in. She couldn't find it. Without that trail she couldn't possibly go back out the way she'd come in.
When you're on a mountain, as everyone knows, home ought to be downhill. So Wysocki decided to follow the river for a while with the intention of finding a trail, but it just didn't happen. The best thing to do in this circumstance is to stay put because you're easier to find when you don't move around a lot. But Wysocki still didn't grasp how serious her situation was. She was still trying to walk out on her own, to clean up her own mess. Then it began to rain. "It was 30, 35 degrees, about. And raining," she said. "Just like, pouring. It was more water than I've ever seen anywhere. I was just like, 'What?!' I was walking downhill, and water was just pouring down the hillside."
She moved all day this way, slowly through the freezing rain, scrambling over fallen trees and through marshy bogs, following little trails that led nowhere, following paths she thought were trails but weren't. She forded a river, falling repeatedly and smacking her ribcage on the rocks. An old, abandoned pair of rain pants that she found hanging on a bush proved useless—they were far too large for her small frame. She kept changing her mind as to what would be the best strategy to save herself. The horrifying part to imagine is having to make those decisions. How do you know whether to go overland or to follow a river? What makes one deer trail more attractive than another? Is there something you're not thinking of? And worse, were there signals warning you away from danger that you'd ignored?
Late in the day Wysocki saw a helicopter. It passed loud and low over her head four times. She thought she was saved for sure until it flew away and didn't come back. Then she thought she was going to die.
"After the helicopter passed over my head the fourth time I thought that... that was it," she said. "Like, I was going to die. Like, 'I'm totally screwed. I'm going to die. I'm soaking wet. I'm so weak.' I was shaking like crazy because I was so cold. And, I remember, I just, after the helicopter stopped flying, I just kind of curled up in a ball. I was just shaking."
Eventually she decided that she might as well keep going, and crawled through the darkening forest until the night made progress impossible.
"I had crossed another couple streams or rivers, and I climbed up on this kind of ledge above the river, and that's where I spent the second night. And um," she said, clearing her throat, "that night was really difficult. I got really angry. And I was up most of the night, and I didn't move too much, just a little bit. And, um, you know, there were a lot of animals that came down to drink at the stream. I could see all these eyes in the night, and these animals."
"I have no idea what they were. Some of them were definitely big. Because their eyes were pretty high off the ground."
There is something particularly gripping about the deaths of Jeff Graves, James Kim, those Mount Hood climbers, and the couple from Puyallup who drowned in Ipsut Creek. Part of it, I think, is the idea of the hiker, the backpacker—a figure awash in Romantic individualism. Against the unsympathetic backdrop of neutral wilderness, the lone hiker's body seems symbolic and personal.
But a bigger part of the explanation is the fact that when these stories first break, the main character isn't dead yet. The search-and-rescue narrative is intensely suspenseful—and it can be interactive. A growing number of people are beginning to blog about these incidents. And they're not just writing about their feelings. They're using maps and weather reports and sharing information in an attempt to augment on-the-ground search efforts.
Amateur attempts to help were particularly interesting in the search for the Kim family because massive communication failures plagued the authorities. According to the Oregon State Sheriff's Association's review of the case, the formal search effort had a fractured chain of command, standard practice was violated left and right, command and control was overwhelmed, and personal squabbles created extra levels of confusion. From the report: "Josephine County Search Coordinator [Sara] Rubrecht states she has been reluctant to call Jackson County because she feels that the search and rescue manager, Pat Rowland, 'takes over' even when it is someone else's county."
Following the search effort from home, a blogger who goes by the name Joe Duck complained on his blog that the official search was focusing on the wrong region.
"I read that highway 42 appears to be the top area now," he wrote on December 3. "I simply don't understand why the Kims would have passed up 38 to take 42, but it makes sense that they would have passed up both to take this Merlin route because it looks so short and easy on the map.... I'm not clear the search is exhausting the obvious first-choice area, which [is] the mountain logging roads up from Merlin. I'm heading that way tomorrow on my own or as part of the organized search if they contact me."
Joe Duck's instincts turned out to be correct. The Kims were stranded in a maze of logging roads in exactly the area he predicted. In fact, the official search did begin to focus on that area on December 3, but only after a couple of cellular-phone technicians conducted a private search of the Kims' mobile-phone transmissions. The engineers had contacted an official search hotline, but got lost in bureaucratic limbo, so took matters into their own hands. Their findings, when they finally reached the authorities, reduced the search area from 5,046 square miles to 531 square miles.
And in the end it was a private helicopter pilot who spotted Kati Kim waving a pink umbrella beside her Saab 9-2X.
The Kim family tragedy called attention to the opportunity the web provides to streamline search efforts, and afterward Joe Duck began a website called DangerData to "share data, leads, and perhaps even harness the power of the collective intelligence of the huge online community" in search-and-rescue cases.
Similarly, a blogger by the name of Ian wants to use open-source wiki technology to create a synergistic search-and-rescue web community. "While it may seem ambitious," he writes, "it's my hope that one day when this kind of thing happens, the rescuers will be able to come to RescueWiki and find out step-by-step what they need to do."
At dawn on the third day, Cindy Wysocki awoke yet again in the woods.
"It [had] rained for most of that night. And then, um, in the morning I was so weak. My legs were shaking when I tried to stand up, like, I could barely stand up, and I just thought"—she said, scoffing audibly now in the coffee shop where we were sitting, channeling the mixture of disbelief and resignation she must have felt out there in the forest—"'This, this could be the end here.' But again, I told myself, 'Just keep going until you can't move anymore. That's what you have to do.'"
So she hobbled toward the roaring sound coming through the trees, which told her a river was nearby. Her plan was to get to the river and out from under the trees so that she might be visible to search helicopters. When she finally made it to the riverbank and sat down, there was a break in the clouds. She could see blue sky.
The river she had reached was the Pratt, meaning she'd trekked more than 10 miles in the last two days—not exactly the sit-tight-and-wait-to-be-found course favored by searchers. In fact, the Pratt River marked the boundary for the search zone. She had already crossed several waterways, and had she crossed this one, too, she probably would have died that day.
It wasn't too long before a helicopter showed up. But it passed over a bunch of times, seeming not to see her.
"It seemed so close," she told me. "It's not like you're seeing the little airplane over the sky. It's big and it's loud."
She started throwing things in the water, trying to get her rescuers' attention, but they still didn't see her and they kept passing over her head. Finally she climbed out onto some rocks in the middle of the river and began waving the pair of bright-yellow rain pants that she had found the day before and had been carrying with her. She was spotted almost instantly.
"I saw it turn and come, and it was hovering right above where I was standing. I looked up, and this guy put his hand out the window, and I was just like—!" she told me, making a face, unable to articulate exactly what it was like when the rescuer waved at her. Perched out there on the rocks, the feeling hit Wysocki like a punch in the face, and she fell backward into the Pratt River.
Wysocki scrambled out of the icy, slow-moving water onto the rocky shore, dripping and shaking. Then there was more wind and more noise. There were ropes and harnesses. There was the spectacle of people in uniform operating adeptly.
Peak hiking season is now upon us, and given the trashed state of countless trails and roads all over Western Washington, more of these scenes are inevitable. Search and rescue, if it were a business, would be booming.
After so many highly-publicized cases in the last year, the Oregon State legislature introduced a controversial bill months ago to make specialized electronic locator beacons mandatory on the upper reaches of Mount Hood. Some people have called for forcing cellular-phone companies to provide complete coverage everywhere in the U.S. as a condition of their licensing so that people can always dial 911. Some people think rescuees should pay for being rescued, and some people say tough shit—don't bother rescuing anybody.
But search-and-rescue service continues to exist and continues to be free. To someone who's been rescued by a helicopter, the hostility implicit in many of the more angry responses is offensive in the most personal way. In every one of Wysocki's post-rescue interviews, she was confronted with the question of public expense, and she never knew what to say except that the people who do the rescuing aren't among those clamoring for retribution. No one has asked her for a cent.
If the search part of search and rescue is boring, the rescue part exists to excite and reassure us. There is almost never footage of the actual rescuing act because, of course, no one knows where it's going to happen. And rescuers don't carry TV cameras.
In other words, the most climatic moment is left to our imagination: Wysocki being lifted through the air up to the belly of a chopper, the man-made fix with its buzzing, whumping email@example.com