Lost Hiker in the Beartooth's

In U.S. parks, many head out and never return
By Timothy Egan The New York Times

RED LODGE, Montana - He disappeared on Aug. 21, leaving behind no note or phone message, only a car packed with camping gear at the base of the Beartooth Mountains. For 10 days, searchers and dog teams scoured the hidden nooks along the roof of Montana, calling out the name, looking for Charles Matthew Thomson.And then, just after Labor Day, with the nights starting to get cold and the first snow up on Froze to Death Plateau only days away, the search was called off. One day he was a hiker with a camera, 34 years old, walking toward the glorious reaches of Montana's highest mountains. The next day Thomson was among the missing, leaving a hole in the lives of loved ones.

Nobody knows exactly how many people disappear in the woods, ravines, hollows, craters, creeks, deserts and bogs of the more than 500 million acres, or 200 million hectares, of public land in the United States. The federal land agencies say they do not keep such records. But more people are hiking than ever before; the number increased nearly 50 percent to almost 70 million from 1994 through 2002, according to the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment. Those who disappear, one survey found, are usually young men walking alone, or older men who overestimate their ability. In a typical year, about a dozen people disappear on this side of the Beartooths, according to the Carbon County Sheriff's Office. Usually, it is a man in his late 20s or 30s, deputies say, drawn to the tempting proximity of Granite Peak, Montana's highest mountain. Though it is 12,799 feet, or 3,901 meters, the mountain looks easily approachable from the trailhead to Mystic Lake, where Thomson disappeared, an alluring mark in the sky. "People get up there, they think they're getting closer to God," said Thomas Rieger, the Carbon County under sheriff. "We find most of them. People don't realize, your cellphone doesn't work up there. It can be sunny one minute, then a fiasco." Every season brings a different kind of lost hiker. In the summer, it is the lightly dressed, often from out of town, chasing a picture of Montana at its finest. In the fall, hunters fill the woods, taking horses and, many times, too much alcohol on steep trails. Winter is backcountry ski season, a time when lingering an hour too late can be fatal. Spring brings the horn-hunters, people looking for antlers after elk or deer shed their trophies just as the mountains turn green. "People fall off their horse, break something, have a heart attack," Rieger said. "Suicides are a big deal. We had a guy from Missoula not long ago, he loaded himself up with a hundred and fifty pounds of rocks and walked right into a fishing lake. Found his body at the bottom of the lake."

This time of year may the worst for mishaps, the deputies said, because daytime is so pleasant - highs in the upper 70s Fahrenheit, or about 26 Celsius - and then the temperature can plummet in a few hours. And snowfalls can happen suddenly. A few days after the search for Thomson was called off, a clue emerged, and the search was back on. A pair of hikers found Thomson's backpack in a boulder field close to the trail, about three miles, or five kilometers, up the most popular route to Granite Peak. Family members of lost hikers live for that kind of sign, the scrap of the missing that can jump-start hope. Three years ago, Brian Faughnan of Montreal took off on a day hike at Whistler Village, in British Columbia, during the warm summer months. He asked for directions to a trailhead and was never seen again. After a weeklong search, he became one of the missing. Faughnan's brother John started a Web site and pressed the authorities to keep searching. He tried to search on his own. "It's like trying to find somebody in a closet in Manhattan," said John Faughnan, who lives in St. Paul. "You get really discouraged. You go through this crazy phase, where you're really desperate, you consult a psychic, or think something really bad happened. After a while, you just resign yourself to the fact that he's gone." But the lack of resolution is particularly troubling, he said. "You wonder: Did he run off and join a cult?" Faughnan said. "Was there foul play? I have no reason to suspect he ran off and started another life. He was an aerospace engineer with a good job."

For two years, he posted updates, such as they were. But now he talks about his brother in the past tense. "I miss him," Faughnan said. "I really do. I think he probably went off-trail, and then something happened." The backpack in the Beartooths proved to be the break that searchers were looking for. They had many questions: Did Thomson fall? Was he taken by a bear, a cougar? Did a hunter mistake him for prey? "Not long ago a deputy was up there, hiking and taking pictures just like this guy in the recent case," said Rieger, the under sheriff. "And while he was walking back to camp, he spooked a moose. It horned him and killed him." The searchers for Thomson looked around gullies, cliffs and boulder fields in the immediate area where the pack was found. In a deep ravine, 200 feet or so below where the pack was found, searchers saw something. Mark Polakoff [of Absaroka Search Dogs and Stillwater County SAR], a volunteer rescuer, rappelled down the steep cliff, tall boulders all around. At the bottom, he found a body, later identified as that of Charles Thomson. He was no longer among the missing. Thomson, who lived in nearby Cody, Wyoming, died of head and torso injuries from a fall, the authorities said. "We suspect he was scrambling on the rock, maybe looking to get a picture, and fell," said Sheriff Cliff Brophy of Stillwater County, which covers the area where Thomson was found.

The elk-breeding season, called the rut, is on now in the Beartooths. Hunters and hikers are trying to get close, to hear the call of the bulls. The nights are frigid, the winds can be fierce. In the morning in this town, the jumping-off point for adventures in the Beartooths, a film of ice coats the half-drained municipal pool. The people who search for the missing are on heightened alert. "This is the high season," Brophy said. "People get caught up in the chase. We get calls from all over the United States, someone saying their loved one is lost in the Beartooth Mountains, and they want us to find them. Well, that's hundreds of miles of backcountry. Some of them we just never find."