VANCOUVER, Wash. — When Jessica Tran began the return trip from the summit of Mount St. Helens on the last Saturday in May, she thought she was taking a well-worn hiking trail.
But as the 30-year-old Portland resident became more and more disoriented in the boulders and woods around the mountain, it hit her: She had no idea where she was or which way to go, and she had no way to figure it out — she had no map.
Tran and her hiking partner, her cousin Steph Nguyen, 27, had made it to the top by following the footsteps of people who’d set off from Climbers Bivouac earlier that morning. Both had experience trail hiking, and Nguyen went on a guided trip to Machu Picchu a few months prior.
“In all honesty, I’ve never had to hike where my own sense of direction was needed,” she said.
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They glissaded partway down the mountain, as they had seen other climbers do, and trekked for a while until they came upon giant boulders. It didn’t look right. No one else was around. Looking at her watch, Tran realized it was nearly 6 p.m., the time they expected to be back at the bivouac’s parking lot. Stranded on an enormous mountain on a clear day, Tran didn’t know which way was north, south, east or west.
Getting lost hadn’t crossed Tran’s mind as she set off on the mountain. The possibility seemed as remote and distant as the very wilderness she trekked. Yet, for the number of people who get discombobulated in the local backcountry, the ramifications can range from mild to deadly.
Calling for help
Things worked out for Tran and Nguyen. They scrambled down the unstable rocks, “which was terrifying,” Tran said. “I would say both of us held it together pretty well.”
After picking up spotty cellphone service, they called 911 and eventually, through a series of calls and texts, got ahold of Tom McDowell, who heads the Volcano Rescue Team. As they described where they went and what it looked like — past the boulders in a wooded area with unsettling pairs of bear tracks — he figured out where they were.
Although it was nighttime already, Tran and Nguyen knew help was on the way. They just had to stay put.
Eventually, they spotted the flashlights of rescuers and were able to get down the mountain. Except for being covered in mosquito bites, they were unscathed.
The Volcano Rescue Team told them people frequently get confused and lost on their way down Mount St. Helens. Tran said she naively thought they could go back down by retracing their steps.
The pair, who joked about overpacking, were put at ease by the fact they had plenty of food, water and warm layers. If they had to stay the night, they would be OK.
“It was definitely more of an experience than we asked for,” Tran said. “I think one day we will go back up, and hopefully not have to call search and rescue.”
Next time, though, she plans to pack a map and a compass, and know how to use them.
Uptick in missions
Last year, there was a record number of search and rescue missions in Skamania County — the rural area containing Mount St. Helens, along with other popular outdoor destinations such as Beacon Rock, Silver Star Mountain and the vast Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
With a population estimate of just over 11,000, the people who get lost in Skamania County are primarily from out of town, said Undersheriff Dave Cox. They’re hiking trails, searching for mushrooms and exploring creek beds — all hoofing it in the outdoors — when something goes amiss.
Search and rescue coordinators have no clear-cut theory for why more people got lost last year than in years past. It could be that more people took advantage of dry days in 2013, or simply that more people are adventuring into the outdoors.
Sales data from the Seattle-based company Green Trails Maps supports that theory. President Alan Coburn said that sales of hard copy trail maps consistently increase 9 percent to 12 percent each year. The maps are created using a combination of U.S. Geological Survey data and boots-on-the-ground mapping, meaning they’re more up to date than a screenshot of a trail from Google maps.
“Getting good data is important for them as well as us,” Coburn said.
Though the Washington Trails Association doesn’t keep hard numbers on how many people hike, spokeswoman Susan Elderkin said the trails appear to be more crowded than they used to be.
The WTA has about 3,400 volunteers who maintain and build nearly 200 trails statewide, making access to the great outdoors easier than ever. An estimated 90 percent of people in Washington consider themselves walkers, Elderkin said.
Most new routes that novice hikers use are likely to be clear and well-marked.
“It’s not something to be scared of,” she said. “We have such a great bounty of outdoor richness to explore here.”
People run into trouble when they’re not prepared. They didn’t check the weather forecast before they left. They didn’t tell someone where they were going and when they expected to be back. They didn’t pack necessary supplies.
Caught in the elements
Safe outdoor recreation starts at home, before lacing on those hiking boots. When planning a trek, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. That way, if you don’t return, somebody will alert authorities and searchers will know where to start, according to Deputy Jordan Spencer, search and rescue coordinator for the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office.
Mobile phone apps, such as Bugle, do this for you by notifying a designated list of emergency contacts when you’re overdue from an outdoor activity.
Taking these precautions means it’ll take less time for someone to find you, Spencer said.
It’s important to check the weather before heading out, according to Rick Blevins, president of Washougal-based Silver Star Search and Rescue. Though it may be sunny and clear when you leave, it could rain in a few hours while you’re on the trail. Those hiking Mount St. Helens, who find pleasant conditions at the trailhead, might assume the climate is the same at the mountaintop. It often is not.
Portland resident Kristopher Zitzewitz went missing in the lava-bed fields Sept. 28, 2013, when unseasonably bad weather brought record amounts of rain to the region and snow in the mountains. The 31-year-old became separated from his hiking partner in the Big Lava Beds near Goose Lake.
“It was the most torrential downpour I think I’ve ever seen in my life,” Blevins said. After a few hours in the area, a trash can set next to the command post was filled with rainwater, he said.
Searchers fanned out, using GPS to walk to search points and back because the visibility was so poor. More than 100 searchers used vehicles, motorcycles and K-9 teams in a concerted effort in the Big Lava Beds area approximately 10 miles north of Cook in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. A helicopter flew at treetop level, looking in crevasses and tree wells.
“It’s the roughest, nastiest terrain possible,” Blevins said.
He said it’s possible that Zitzewitz fell down one of those fissures. The Portland man is presumed dead. Blevins plans to look for his body again this summer.
Unprepared in the wild
When you’re literally walking away from easy access to food, water, shelter and emergency medical services, it’s important to pack the essentials you need to survive in the wilderness.
“Having the equipment is great, you just need to know how to use it,” said McDowell of the Volcano Rescue Team.
Each year, he said, he sees climbers make the same mistakes and get turned around on their way down the mountain or overcome by darkness.
“It happens so frequently we know exactly where they’re going to be,” he said.
Generally, searchers find those people in a couple of hours, he said.
When the team set out to find a lost Japanese man last year, they couldn’t find a trace of him. Investigators believe the man, who possibly ascended Mount St. Helens on the morning of Nov. 30, was not wearing proper winter clothing. In fact, they’re not sure what he had with him.
Yosuke Onishi, 26, came to the U.S. from Saga Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, and he was traveling alone. This wasn’t his first trip to the States or his first time mountaineering, but it was his first venture to Mount St. Helens, his family told police.
He was traveling from hostel to hostel and would find people to travel with temporarily, including a woman he had met at a hostel a few days prior, said Detective Cory Robinson.
After borrowing snowshoes from an employee at the Lone Fir Resort in Cougar, he got a ride to the mountain early that morning from the Lakeside Country Store across the street. Although he’s believed to have set out to hike the mountain from Climbers Bivouac, no one is certain where he started.
The couple who gave him a ride returned to the convenience store later that morning and told workers that he was still on the mountain; they were worried about him. Although police reviewed surveillance footage from the store, they weren’t able make out the license plate on their car. Despite several attempts to identify and reach out to the couple, police never got in contact with them.
“It’s likely the people who picked him up don’t know he’s missing,” Robinson said.
People from all over the world sign the Mount St. Helens visitors’ log. The couple in the car were likely from out of town, like so many others, he said.
Later, a woman who met Onishi at a hostel called police. He was supposed to call her when he got off the mountain and never did.
“At this time, we believe he’s probably missing on the mountain, deceased,” Robinson said.
If he took a designated hiking path, it’s likely another hiker will discover his remains when the snow melts. But, if he wandered from the trail or fell off a ridge, his body may never be found.
Cold and alone
On the evening of June 9, 2013, Maureen “Anu” Kelly left Gifford Pinchot National Forest’s Canyon Creek Campground, where she was staying with friends, and never returned. She embarked on a “spiritual quest” barefoot and naked, wearing only a fanny pack that contained a knife and compass.
She was reported missing early that Monday morning. After several searches in a 4-square-mile area, she was not found.
Since Kelly had few things with her when she left the campground, she didn’t leave behind many clues, according to the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office. She also wasn’t protected from the rough terrain or the weather. Nighttime temperatures dipped to the mid-40s, and there was drizzle in the area. She had no fire starter or any way to keep warm.
Exposure to the elements is the most dangerous thing about being lost, said Gary Walker, climbing and programs trails manager at Mount St. Helens. The area where Kelly went missing was rough and steep with some areas covered in thick underbrush and wet moss.
“Things can happen, and it’s good to have a backup plan in the event that something does,” he said.
She left in the evening with a few hours of daylight left. Trail officials encourage early starts that offer room for adjustments and more time if hikers need it. Regardless, carrying a head lamp can help people navigate in the darkness.
Police determined that Kelly crossed Canyon Creek and headed north toward a Forest Service road, according to Cox, Skamania County undersheriff. They don’t know where she went from there. Her footsteps were fainter than they would have been with shoes on.
The sheriff’s office hasn’t received any new leads about her whereabouts. Her DNA was submitted to the national missing persons database.
People still post on a Facebook page created for the search effort, wondering what could have happened to her. How could she just vanish? The “about” section was updated to read: “If you are looking for answers, you will not find them here.”
Family and friends have raised money to try and find Kelly, but no search efforts have been successful.
Use common sense
Overly ambitious beginners might set themselves up for failure by taking on a hike that’s beyond their physical limits.
People — set on finishing a hike or getting to a viewpoint — can get destination-oriented. They might ignore a change in the weather, looming darkness or their own sense of apprehension.
“Give yourself permission to turn around,” Elderkin said.
What do you do if it all goes wrong? What if you find yourself confused or injured, and alone in the middle of the nowhere?
“The best thing you can do is stay put,” Spencer said. A stationary object is easier to find than a moving target. Since searchers are several hours behind you, the less you wander the better off you are. Searchers start wherever the person said they would be.
While you’re waiting, find shelter and build a fire to warm you and help searchers find you.
The biggest worry for searchers is not knowing how the missing person is doing. Will they be able to respond to someone calling their name? Or walk toward them? That depends on whether they’re immobile with a broken foot or unconscious after falling down a ravine.
Blevins recommends bringing a personal locator beacon anytime you’re adventuring outdoors. These devices, which send out an emergency signal, particularly come in handy if you’re injured and immobile.
Cellphones may otherwise be pinged to find someone’s general location. Though pings are not precise, technology has helped searches a lot, Spencer said.
Those with a compass, map and a sense of the area may be more inclined to “self-rescue” and could head toward a road.
“We like to get people back home one way or another,” Blevins said.
Although the majority of people who get lost are found or rescue themselves, the stories of people who went missing in the local wilderness last year and never came out serve as an ominous testament to the dangers of the wild.