Authorities resorted to a low-tech way to warn Mount Rainier campers about the presence of dangers: coffee cups.
The backpackers awoke from a cozy night in their tents to a helicopter buzzing a few dozen feet above.
The chopper was so close there could be no mistake: The pilot wanted their full attention.
It was Monday morning, Jan. 2, and the four Seattle hikers were more than halfway through a beautiful weekend of winter camping at Mount Rainier National Park (which remains closed until Saturday).
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Now someone in a chopper was barking a garbled message through a loudspeaker.
“We thought we heard ‘A ranger has been shot and killed, shooter at large,’ ” camper Brian Vogt wrote in an email exchange with The Seattle Times. But it wasn’t all that clear.
That’s when the pilot let fly his backup plan. He dropped a coffee cup with a warning scrawled in ink: “A ranger has been shot shooter at large. Call on cell if able to Pierce Co Sheriff.”
While the world followed the search for the man suspected of fatally shooting Park Ranger Margaret Anderson, 34, on Sunday morning, another hunt was unfolding nearby in the park’s backcountry. Searchers were racing to track down and warn outdoor visitors that a suspected armed killer was on the loose.
It was an unnerving task. Authorities had found guns and survival gear in suspect Benjamin Colton Barnes’ car after Anderson was gunned down when she used her vehicle as a roadblock. The park was open to backcountry skiers, climbers, snowshoers and campers, all unaware of the violence.
The command staff coordinating the hunt for Barnes sent tactical teams into snowdrifts around Paradise, close to where Anderson was killed. They included special agents from the U.S. Forest Service’s law-enforcement branch, dressed in camouflage and wearing snowshoes and carrying rifles, handguns and supplies for a weeklong outing.
Their first job was to try and find the shooter. If they contacted anyone else, they were to escort them out.
But tracking on foot through 2 feet of fresh snow was so time-consuming, the searching started by air.
Helicopters hadn’t scoured long for stray visitors when pilots figured out how hard it was to communicate with campers and hikers they spotted on the ground.
“People head out to the mountains to get away from the news and the noise and everything,” said Al Matecko, director of public affairs for the Forest Service’s Northwest regional office. “They saw all these helicopters flying around and people thought it was some sort of training exercise.”
Among the parties authorities feared for most: Seattle resident Brian Vogt and his three friends, who had permits to camp not far from where Barnes had slipped into the woods carrying multiple weapons.
Vogt and his partner, Natalia Martinez-Paz, live near Skyway — the neighborhood where Barnes, an Army veteran who’d served in Iraq, was involved in a New Year’s Eve shooting before fleeing to Mount Rainier. They’d left home Saturday with another couple, headed to the Narada Falls parking lot for a pleasant camping holiday.
They pitched tents at Reflection Lakes, strung a makeshift tarp for a kitchen, and spent a quiet New Year’s Eve sipping rum and chatting. They spent a glorious sunny Sunday, New Year’s Day, snowshoeing to Louise Lake. The campers were unaware that Anderson was dead or that 200 people had gathered to hunt for Barnes.
Throughout the day they noticed airplanes and helicopters circling, often swooping as low as 50 feet above. The campers even exchanged confused signals with the pilots, but ultimately concluded rangers must be searching for a missing climber.
“We knew where we were, we were on schedule, permitted, safe, warm, dry, fed,” Vogt wrote. “We mostly assumed it didn’t concern us, which seems silly in hindsight given the amount of air traffic and the focus on our camp.”
He and his friends had no radio and their cellphones had no service, but they were experienced backcountry travelers, and they were barely a mile from their Toyota 4Runner. Plus they had clothes, food and fuel for several days more than needed — just in case.
They had no reason to think anything was wrong until the helicopters returned early Monday.
Matecko, with the Forest Service, said his tactical teams had heard from other visitors that people couldn’t grasp the orders from helicopter loudspeakers. They shared that fact with the manhunt’s command staff and someone — he’s not certain who — suggested sending messages written on coffee cups.
“It was a brilliant idea,” he said. “Very innovative.”
So the pilot Monday morning stared directly at Vogt and then opened his door and dropped out a paper cup, warning them that a ranger had been shot.
“I think I’ll always remember making eye contact with him not through a window but eye-to-eye, so to speak, through an open chopper door,” Vogt wrote.
His friends were saddened by the news, but not overly worried. Rainier is huge, and they still had no clue that Barnes might be close.
Still, they wanted to be helpful, so they fired up their cellphones but got no signal. They canceled breakfast and started breaking camp, talking about what might have happened. An hour later, the chopper returned, and this time dropped a second paper cup with a more alarming message:
“Take road to falls and sheriff. We will keep an eye on you. Do not drive from Paradise w/o armed escort.”
This time Vogt and his friends worried for their own safety. Someone needed to watch as they hiked a mere mile to the parking lot? They grew somber and packed faster and stopped talking.
They hustled out of camp, as three choppers rotated in and out to keep watch. They hadn’t gotten far when they met six members of the Forest Service tactical team. Later the team got a call that Barnes had been found dead. The location gave Vogt and his friends chills.
“We had everything (Barnes) needed to survive at least a week on the lam, longer if his bushcraft was any good,” Vogt wrote. If Barnes had followed a slightly different path, “we were certainly the only thing between the shooter and all the supplies he would need to make a chase of it.”
Vogt and his friends earlier this week posted a report about their trip on www.nwhikers.net under an anonymous handle. Out of respect for the victims of this weekend’s tragedy, they’ve declined interview requests, but answered detailed questions via email.
The campers were chastened to learn how serious an effort had been made to look out for them — and horrified by the events that took place in a park that Ranger Anderson by all accounts had come to love.
“We were shocked to find out the full extent of this tragedy once we were out of the park,” Vogt said. “It wasn’t clear to us at the time how much had been done to keep an eye on us and protect us. We would like to express our appreciation for the professionalism of the folks who had our back.”
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @craigawelch.