Trail of the Lost; The Relentless Search to Bring Home the Missing Hikers of the Pacific Crest Trail

Previous article
Next article

By Andrea Lankford

When producers developing a television series about lost hikers asked Andrea Lankford for research on possible episodes, she learned of the baffling story of 28-year-old Chris Sylvia.

Four days after he started hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), Chris called his roommate to ask for a ride home. He didn’t show up at the pick-up point. Four days after that, a hiker found his gear — sleeping bag, sleeping pad and backpack — laid out alongside the trail. His identification was found 13 miles off of Highway 79, north of Warner Springs.

Fifty professional searchers, some with dogs, some in the air, searched the area for five days and found no sign of him.

Could he have gotten lost and died? Did an animal attack him? Was he murdered? Did he commit suicide? Did he join a cult operating at the southern end of the PCT? Did he go off the grid like Christopher McCandless, 24, who after college graduation abandoned his family, savings, possessions and car and vanished on a journey that ended with his decomposed body being found in the Alaskan wilderness by moose hunters.

There are no answers to these questions because other than his abandoned gear, no signs of Sylvia have ever been found.

Lankford, a former National Park Service ranger, had led numerous search operations for lost hikers in Zion, Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks. She knew the research done by William “Bill” Syrotuck into the behavior of lost hikers showing that 75 percent of lost persons are found within a 3.75 mile radius of where they were last seen.

But Sylvia wasn’t.

When she looked further, she found two other hikers who had gone missing in the successive two years after Sylvia did.

Kris “Sherpa” Fowler, 34, had gone missing a day after entering Washington’s North Cascades. He had nearly finished the 2,650-mile trail.

David O’Sullivan, 25, had saved his money back home in Cork, Ireland, to make the hike. He hiked into California’s San Jacinto Mountains on April 7, 2017, and was never seen again.

In all three cases, no bodies have been recovered, a fact that nags at Lankford. These mysteries led her to spend four years with a group of amateur searchers looking for the them.

In 2013, 1,879 people applied for permits to hike the PCT, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA)

Cheryl Strayed‘s book, WILD: FROM LOST TO FOUND ON THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL (2012) and the movie made from it have helped boost popularity of the trail. By 2019, there were 7,888 permits requested.

This has lead to an increasing number of inexperienced hikers following in Strayed’s footsteps on the PCT seeking to find themselves. “The trail is now seen as less a test and more a cure, and Strayed’s lack of hiking prowess when she embarked on her thru-hike is viewed as inspiring as opposed to foolhardy.”

But as Lankford notes, “Alas, beginner’s optimism can take us only so far. Less than 12 percent of wannabe thru-hikers will successfully trek the PCT’s entire length in one go.”

Many dangers wait for PCT hikers: extreme heat and cold, lack of water, floods, snow storms, treacherous terrain, wild animals, aggressive marijuana farmers and human predators taking advantage of hiking culture and “trail angels” who leave food, clothing and camping items for hikers.

Lankford’s exquisitely written book is heart-wrenching in its reporting of the suffering of families enduring what Dr. Pauline Boss calls “ambiguous loss.” The term describes the grief of not knowing whether a loved one is absent or present, dead or alive.

Families tracing a loved one lost on the PCT face a multitude of law enforcement districts, often understaffed and underfunded. They encounter so-called “witnesses” who either innocently and inaccurately think they have seen a missing hiker — or lie for attention.

At the same time, there are tireless and dedicated volunteers such as Cathy Tarr, who got involved in the search for Fowler and in late 2020 became head of the Fowler-O’Sullivan Foundation, the Menifee, CA-based organization created to help families find missing hikers.

This tragic story has the suspense and thrills of an outdoor adventure story with a wealth of information and fascinating facts about the wilderness, search and rescue operations and case histories of other lost individuals.

As Lankford writes, “On the trail of the lost, you may not find what you’re searching for, but you will find more than you seek.”

For more stories of adventure and misadventure, check out WHERE THE MOUNTAIN CASTS ITS SHADOW.

The Author: Andrea Lankford

Andrea Lankford is a former National Park Service (NPS) ranger who has performed firefighting, law enforcement and life-saving wilderness medicine in Cape Hatteras, Zion, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.

After leaving the NPS, she worked as a private duty concierge nurse, primarily in Los Angeles.

She is an experienced hiker who completed the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, cycled from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean and, with Beth Overton, was the first to mountain bike the 800-mile Arizona Trail from Utah to Mexico.

In addition to TRAIL OF THE LOST, she is the author of RANGER CONFIDENTIAL: LIVING, WORKING AND DYING IN THE NATIONAL PARKS and HAUNTED HIKES: SPINE-TINGLING TALES AND TRAILS FROM NORTH AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS. She has also written articles for High Country News, Arizona Highways and Backpacker.

She currently lives in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada.

#andrealankford #trailofthelost #jeannettehartman


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here