A Pacific Crest Trail hiker last seen in Central Washington remains missing, but the ongoing search has been far from futile.
Over the past six months, Sally Guyton Fowler’s efforts to assist families experiencing the same pain she’s felt since the disappearance of her stepson, Kris Fowler, contributed to the discovery of two other missing persons. While keeping a sharp focus on finding “Sherpa” — Fowler’s trail name — Guyton Fowler also tries to be an advocate for others, including two hikers still missing in Olympic National Park after separate incidents last month.
“We just want some closure, and I want some closure for those families,” Guyton Fowler said in a phone interview from Ohio, where she lives. “I want future families that go through what we did to know more what to expect.”
She’s hopeful a renewed search will be made in June or July once warmer weather melts the snow around the area Fowler was last believed to be seen, near Blowout Mountain just south of Easton. It’s even possible he reached the North Cascades on his long journey that began near Mexico and should have ended about 9 miles into Canada.
A long, snowy winter limited searchers as Guyton Fowler stayed busy back in Ohio, raising awareness on social media and making sure no stone went unturned. She even spoke to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine when they both attended the same fundraiser, and she’s optimistic his support will be valuable after he received a positive response to a letter sent to his counterpart in Washington, Bob Ferguson.
Concerns about a lack of protocol for searches, especially in national parks, left Guyton Fowler and others wondering whether critical time is wasted in the hours and days after hikers go missing. She’s afraid more frustrations could be ahead as search and rescue teams move forward on an active case that no longer holds the same urgency.
The initial leader of search operations for the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, Sgt. Randy Briscoe, is on medical leave until July. Lt. Carl Hendrickson took over and said last week that he doesn’t know many details about next steps.
Kittitas County sheriff’s Cpl. Ellis Nale directed inquiries to Undersheriff Clay Myers, who didn’t return multiple calls for comment.
Thanks to plenty of posters and an active Facebook group with nearly 6,000 members, some hikers might be looking for Fowler when they head out to the trails this summer. The Pacific Crest Trail Association posted multiple items on its Facebook page and website last year, and spokesman Mark Larabee said a few southbound thru-hikers should start trickling through by July, then those taking the more popular northbound route will likely be in Washington by August or September.
“You’ll see a lot of week-long backpackers in there as well,” Larabee said. “Those areas are popular for your local hikers as well, so you’ll see a lot of hikers in that region through August and September.”
If the opportunity arises, some family members might head back out to Washington, where Guyton Fowler, her boyfriend, and her brother Rick Guyton spent 10 long days following leads in early November. Every day, a family member or old friend calls Guyton Fowler to say they’re thinking of Fowler, sometimes after they’ve seen some sort of reminder.
Lending A Helping Hand
She sees signs of Fowler nearly everywhere these days, particularly in the case of Jacob Gray, an avid hiker last seen April 5 in Olympic National Park near his grandmother’s Port Townsend home.
His mother, Laura Gray, said Jacob was starting a cross-country bike trip to visit his brother, Micah, in Vermont and had often talked of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Guyton Fowler reached out to the family and also shared the story multiple times in the Facebook group for Fowler, encouraging people in the area to help.
“For Sally to reach out and give a little of what she’s going through, (we’re) pretty touched,” Laura Gray said. “She helped us with the research.”
That included putting Jacob on the National Missing Persons List after authorities found his bike and camping gear off of Sol Duc Hot Springs Road. Laura Gray’s sister-in-law, Elise Brace, used her connections and social-media savvy to raise awareness while coordinating with Guyton Fowler.
At the same time on the other side of the park in the Lake Cushman area, rescuers searched for New Jersey native Zach Krull after he didn’t return from a weekend camping trip. Guyton Fowler spoke extensively with the 20-year-old’s father, Stewart, after officials found footprints leading into an avalanche zone that was too dangerous to enter.
That willingness to aid other searches produced a miraculous reunion earlier this year, when a confused English-speaking man found in Brazil turned out to be Canadian Anton Pilipa, who had been missing since 2012. Somoeone sent Guyton Fowler a picture in December thinking it might be Fowler, then she said a long investigation involving a valuable Pacific Crest Trail hiker from Brazil and conversations with the American embassy led to them contacting the Canadian embassy.
“I feel we played a huge role,” Guyton Fowler said. “I know that there is a female police officer that says she’s the one that reached out to the Canadian embassy, but that’s not what I know to have happened.”
Hikers in Snohomish saw the story of a missing man from Ohio that Guyton Fowler posted on the Facebook page in late December. On January 3, the search came to a tragic end when police found the man dead.
A Need For Change
The harrowing experience of what Guyton Fowler calls her “new normal” inspired her to work hard as an advocate for missing persons, in part to give back after so many others joined in the search for her stepson.
Once it began, the thoroughness of the search blew her away as seven counties came together for a collaborative effort not seen before by Briscoe or anyone else involved. Hendrickson said they exhausted all of their resources to try to comb an area of around 100 miles, accounting for multiple sightings, Fowler’s excellent hiking ability, and his goal to follow a long trail that winds back and forth through several counties.
“Quite obviously, when somebody calls in, they want us to mobilize right then and it’s always just not as quick as that,” Hendrickson said. “We get going as quickly as we can, but we have to do some legwork before we actually mobilize.”
Guyton Fowler acknowledges every missing person’s loved ones must feel like the search could start sooner, as she did, and she harbors no ill will toward the local groups. Jacob’s family waited much longer for a search to begin and still doesn’t understand why it took Olympic National Park nine days to bring out a dog, and even then they were upset the search dog was only searching for a corpse. Randy Gray, Jacob’s father, saw efforts intensify considerably when he made the 15-plus hour drive up with his daughter Mallory as Brace got the word out to the surrounding community. After officials suggested Jacob went to the river but said they couldn’t thoroughly search it until the water came down in July, Randy Gray and Dani Campbell went diving over what he estimates was 10-11 miles.
The family was impressed once the volunteers from Port Townsend and Clallam County finally got involved, even as the national park struggled with a lack of resources while also trying to search for Krull. It all left Jacob’s family, just like Guyton Fowler, wondering why a better system wasn’t in place.
A press release from Olympic National Park said rangers performed a “hasty search in the area of the bicycle” the day it was found and later widened the search to include the road corridor and areas around the river. It noted a search dog team searched the river bank on April 13, a week after Jacob was reported missing and one day before the active search was called off.
Different jurisdictions often create issues for large searches, whether it’s national forest land vs. national park land or multiple counties. Hendrickson said Fowler’s case was particularly unusual given the wide area and the way the Pacific Crest Trail winds in and out of counties.
Guyton Fowler said it’s absurd national parks publish counts on certain animals but no public database exists for persons who go missing within their boundaries. Along with the Gray family, she supports a petition with more than 8,000 signatures asking the Department of the Interior to create a centralized registry with the facts surrounding each case.
Spokesperson Penny Wagner confirmed Olympic National Park follows an 82-page search-and-rescue reference manual published by the National Park Service in 2011, which outlines detailed requirements for complete documentation of every search and rescue incident. It also notes personal and medical information of a missing person shall not be shared without that person’s consent in the absence of a medical or legal need.
Preventing hikers from going missing might be impossible given the human desire for exploration and solitude in remote areas, but Guyton Fowler and others believe finding them could be made easier.
“I think there needs to be some protocol on these hikers,” Guyton Fowler said. “For their sake, their family’s sake and the sake of those that do have to go search when they go missing, it just seems like there should be some protocol.”