Missing in the Sierra

 

October in California is different than anywhere else in the nation. The weather extremes can include scorching heat and parching Santa Ana winds in the lowlands and windstorms, rain, and blizzard conditions in the mountains.
 
Weather or not— Every year, backcountry travelers in the Sierra receive an October surprise of the season’s first winter-like storm. A hike to enjoy solitude on the trails after the summer trekkers have dispersed can easily turn into a life-threatening venture if caught unprepared when the first snowstorm of the season arrives. 
 
Already twice since Bob Woodie, 74, of Manhattan Beach has been in the Kings Canyon high country during what was meant to be a four-day solo backpacking trip there has been inclement weather. It snowed on the Saturday night after he provided an all’s-well message via his satellite messenger. And the fast-moving storm earlier this week stopped the ground search due to low visibility, freezing temperatures, and snow that could erase or blanket potential clues as to the missing man’s whereabouts.
 
Those search teams returned Tuesday only to be ordered out again Wednesday, Oct. 26, due to more impending storms.
 
Although Zach Behrens, acting public information officer for Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks wouldn’t reveal if any clues have been found regarding Woodie’s travels or whereabouts, he did say searchers “are evaluating the data to figure out our next steps.”
 
Solo venture— Bob Woodie is an experienced hiker and fisherman. He was reported overdue on Tuesday, Oct. 18, when he failed to return as planned the previous Sunday from the backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park.
 
Bob Woodie is described as a white male with brown hair and brown eyes, 5’5” in height, weighing about 150 pounds. Authorities are requesting that anyone who has been in this area since October 13 to contact them (call 559-565-3117). Even if someone did not see Woodie, that, too, is important information because it assists in narrowing the search area.
 
On Thursday, Oct. 13, Woodie left from Inyo National Forest’s South Lake, a popular hiking and fishing hub on the east side of the Sierra. His vehicle was located near the trailhead.
 
He began his excursion by hiking southbound for five to six miles to cross from the east side of the crest to the west side via Bishop Pass, at nearly 12,000 feet elevation and a 2,000-foot on-trail climb from South Lake. This is where he would have entered into Kings Canyon National Park. 
 
What is known after this is that he accessed the Barrett Lakes region, because this is where he sent his message via GPS. 
 
Kings Canyon’s remote backcountry— There is no maintained trail that leads from the Bishop Pass trail southeast to Barrett Lakes, which is in the remote Palisades Basin and surrounded by the Palisades peaks, some of the highest mountains in the Sierra range. This area is accessible only by cross-country hiking and would require leaving the trail at the northern edge of Dusy Basin and negotiating the off-trail Knapsack Pass, which is over 12,000 feet elevation.
 
Place names such as Inconsolable Range, Cloudripper, Disappointment Peak, Thunder and Lightning Lake, and Thunderbolt Pass describe the isolated, stark topography.
 
Which way did he go? Thunderbolt Pass is another off-trail saddle that provides access to Barrett Lakes, and it’s possible Woodie may have tried to exit the lake basin over this high ridgeline if trying to outrun a storm. Searchers have looked in this area as well to see if Woodie attempted to reach the trail that extends to within a cross-country mile of the Palisades on the east side. However, that pass, too, would have required some extreme up and down climbing in slippery, cold, wintry conditions.
 
Another scenario is that Woodie headed back over Knapsack Pass to the Bishop Pass trail  and headed west to the John Muir Trail in LeConte Canyon. There is a ranger station at this trail junction, but it has been unmanned since the last weekend in September.
 
If Woodie did indeed check in via satellite from Barrett Lakes on Saturday, then he would have had a hard time attempting to negotiate this terrain following the wind, snow, and freezing temperatures that arrived later that night, creating hazardous travel conditions. And since the region is mainly granite, once that snow melted, so did Woodie’s footprints.
 
Searchers en masse— The search efforts have been concentrated on both the east and west sides of the crest, straddling two jurisdictions of public lands: National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service. More than 100 people from the Army National Guard, Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team, and Yosemite Search and Rescue, as well as from Tulare, Inyo, Fresno, and Monterey counties have been looking for Woodie. This past week, dog teams joined the effort.
 
But it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, which succinctly describes how it is to search for one person amid the immense expanse of granite landscape along the remote Sierra crest. 
 
Another disappearance— This recent search is eerily similar to another that occurred in October four years ago about 20 miles south on the John Muir Trail. A 53-year-old solo male backpacker, Larry Conn from Pacific Palisades, was also on a four-day outing when he went missing following a storm that left behind a foot of snow. 
 
On Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, Larry started his hike at the Taboose Creek trailhead in Inyo National Forest with plans to travel over Taboose Pass toward the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park. He planned to return  Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, but was never heard from again.
 
Search efforts involved eight days, 56 personnel from multiple agencies with 10 ground search teams, three dog teams, and five helicopters, covering 48 square miles of mountainous terrain in challenging environmental conditions, but no trace of Conn was found. 
 
In June 2013, the search resumed, and a shoe was located near Taboose Pass. A few days later, a windblown tent and several other items were discovered off the Taboose Pass trail at 11,400 feet elevation.
 
Possible human remains were then located as was a cellphone that was determined to be Conn’s. Additional body parts consisting of teeth and small bones were found in September 2015 in the same area.
 
But what happened during Conn’s last days and hours remains a mystery that only the Sierra knows.
 
Lieutenant Steeves— Another Dusy Basin mystery took 20 years to solve. In May 1957, David Steeves, 23, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant and experimental aircraft test pilot, was flying from San Francisco to Alabama in a Lockheed T-33A trainer when engine problems forced him to eject and parachute out.
 
He landed in the remote Dusy Basin in Kings Canyon National Park, which was still snow-covered and experiencing some volatile spring storms. He had injuries to both his legs but for 15 days he reportedly crawled nearly 20 miles without food in freezing weather down the Middle Fork of the Kings River. 
 
Steeves eventually came across the patrol cabin at Simpson Meadow that contained some canned food. Almost two months after the accident, Steeves was found by a packer near Granite Basin about 10 miles north of Cedar Grove and brought out of the mountains on horseback.
 
No trace of the plane was found at the time so suspicions abounded that Steeves was not telling the truth about his ordeal. But in the summer of 1977, some Boy Scouts on a hiking trip in Dusy Basin stumbled across an aircraft canopy. The serial number was determined to match the jet that Steeves had been piloting. Unfortunately, Steeves had died in 1965 still under a cloud of suspicion.
 
October 1846— The most well-known group of Sierra travelers to get waylaid by an early-season snowstorm is the Donner Party. They began their cross-country trek from Independence, Mo., two to three weeks later than the traditional mid-to-late-April departure date, then took an untested shortcut that caused even further delay.
 
They arrived at Truckee Lake (today infamously known as Donner Lake) in the Sierra about October 20. Travel routes through the Sierra that were navigable just a day earlier quickly became covered with two to three feet of icy snow, stranding the travelers. And the rest of the story, sadly, is easily found in history books.

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