Search­ing for Pops When ROBERT WOODIE’s dad van­ishes in the Sierra Ne­vada, the long­time back­packer em­barks on his hard­est hike.

Ev­ery year, scores of hik­ers go miss­ing in the wilder­ness. What hap­pens when one of them is some­one you love? Robert Woodie joins the hunt for his fa­ther in the Sierra Ne­vada.

Backpacker - - CONTENTS -

Day 1: Mon­day

Pops was sup­posed to call late Sun­day night. Af­ter a three-day solo back­pack­ing trip in the east­ern Sierra, he had planned to fish Sun­day morn­ing, take the rest of the day to hike out, and ar­rive at the trail­head well af­ter dark. When noon rolls around on Mon­day, Oc­to­ber 17, 2016, and he still hasn’t called, my brother Tim and I are con­cerned but not alarmed. Pops, 74, is an ex­pe­ri­enced back­packer, and it’s not the first time he’s gone hik­ing alone.

We make some calls to the Bishop Ranger Sta­tion, try­ing to de­ter­mine if he’d changed his itin­er­ary, or maybe emerged from the wilder­ness with­out call­ing. We spend much of Mon­day wait­ing, and fi­nally hear back that Pops had se­cured a back­coun­try per­mit for the South Lake trail­head in­di­cat­ing he’d be out Sun­day, as we ex­pected. Our anx­i­ety grows as sev­eral more hours pass. At 10 p.m., a ranger calls to con­firm: Pops’s car is at the trail­head. He’s now more than 24 hours over­due.

Tim and I don’t need to dis­cuss our plan. We’ll grab our gear, get a cou­ple hours of sleep, and drive six hours to Bishop from our homes in the Los An­ge­les area. We should be there by the time Search and Res­cue teams are head­ing out. For­tu­nately, they know where to start look­ing. Pops had checked in with his SPOT bea­con on Satur­day night, so we have his co­or­di­nates. He camped at Bar­rett Lakes, in the back­coun­try west of Bishop. We’ll find him quickly, I think. I hope.

My two brothers and I started back­pack­ing with Pops as kids. We would of­ten be out in the Sierra for more than a week, fish­ing at least an hour a day. I re­mem­ber one trip dur­ing which Pops told us how he and his cousins used to hide rocks in each other’s packs. Nat­u­rally, we spent the week play­ing the same prank on each other. On the hike out, we were able to sneak a heavy rock into Pops’s pack. Af­ter a few miles, we fi­nally snick­ered a con­fes­sion. But the joke was on us: Pops hiked on with the ex­tra weight like it was noth­ing.

Back then we called him Dad. I started call­ing him Pops about 15 years ago; it just seemed to fit the ath­letic fa­ther of three and grand­fa­ther of five. Oth­ers know him as Bob Woodie. Ev­ery­one agrees he is a kind man, a great dad, an en­gaged grand­fa­ther, a dot­ing hus­band, and a lover of the High Sierra. He en­joys back­pack­ing with oth­ers, but if no one is able to go with him, he’s never hes­i­tated to go alone.

Day 2: Tues­day

Tim and I ar­rive in Bishop at 8:30 a.m. and meet with of­fi­cials of the Inyo County Sher­iff ’s Search and Res­cue di­vi­sion, who tell us that we can’t be a for­mal part of the search ef­fort. But they’re sym­pa­thetic to our sit­u­a­tion, and make it clear that we’re free to look on our own. They loan us ra­dios so we can stay in con­tact with the SAR teams.

We pore over the topo­graph­i­cal map and quickly de­ter­mine that,

from Bar­rett Lakes, there are only two likely routes Pops would have taken to re­turn to Bishop Pass and the trail­head. Both are off-trail, ex­po­nen­tially in­creas­ing the dif­fi­culty of pin­point­ing his track. He would have trav­eled as far as 6 miles from the near­est trail, and if he’d strayed from the log­i­cal routes . . . The thought makes me sick.

At the South Lake trail­head, my heart sinks to see Pops’s car parked there. It em­pha­sizes the sever­ity of the sit­u­a­tion.

If we can take con­so­la­tion in any­thing, it’s that, af­ter a win­try storm Sun­day, the late- Oc­to­ber weather is clear and calm. It’s the shoul­der sea­son, so I know the nights will be bit­ter cold at higher el­e­va­tions, but at least it’s dry.

Tim and I start up the trail and im­me­di­ately be­gin to feel the el­e­va­tion. Both of us have just come from sea level, and we’re climb­ing to 12,000 feet. We suf­fer from pound­ing headaches.

It’s 6 miles to Bishop Pass, and about an hour be­fore reach­ing it, Tim spots a tan- and rust-col­ored tent ex­actly like Pops’s about 50 yards off the trail. We no­tice the bear can­is­ter set well away from the tent just the way Pops would have done. We both rush to the site. The lo­ca­tion—in plain view, right off the trail and so close to the trail­head—doesn’t make sense, but maybe he got in­jured on the way out. What else could ex­plain his de­lay? We’re sure we are about to find our dad. A blue back­pack the same color as Pops’s lies next to the tent and my heart jumps. But then I see flip-flops he would never wear and a bot­tle of whiskey he would never touch. The un­oc­cu­pied tent is not his.

My fa­ther al­ways led a sim­ple life; nei­ther he nor my mom drank or smoked. I never even heard my fa­ther curse. His great­est vice is his sweet tooth. It’s one I in­her­ited from (and share with) him. We fa­vor the choco­late chip cook­ies from Sub­way.

At the pass, we meet three SAR vol­un­teers wear­ing bright-orange jack­ets. They haven’t found any clues; our con­ver­sa­tion is short but hope­ful. The sun is shin­ing and it’s still less than 48 hours since Pops went miss­ing.

We con­tinue a mile down the trail into Dusy Basin. Tan-and-gray gran­ite sweeps up the slopes. A dust­ing of snow from the pre­vi­ous day’s storm con­trasts against the deep blues of lakes and sky. Days are short this late in fall, and it’s nearly dark when we ar­rive. We find a camp­site but it’s hard to go through the back­pack­ing rou­tine—pitch a tent, cook a freeze-dried din­ner, get into sleep­ing bags—know­ing that Pops is out there some­where, in trou­ble.

Day 3: Wed­nes­day

Last night’s rest was fit­ful, a com­bi­na­tion of worry and alti­tude sick­ness. The tem­per­a­ture dropped to about 15°F, and I needed to wear ev­ery piece of cloth­ing I packed to stay warm. Tim and I try not to dwell on what Pops might be go­ing through if he’s with­out shel­ter and in­su­la­tion right now. In re­cent years, he’s been for­get­ting key items like a sleep­ing pad or long un­der­wear. I pray this is not one of those times.

For­tu­nately, we have plenty to do to keep our minds busy. Thanks to the ra­dios, we know that a he­li­copter on the west side of Knap­sack Pass had spot­ted tracks in the snow. Knap­sack and Thun­der­bolt are the two off-trail passes Pops might have tar­geted on his re­turn from Bar­rett Lakes. (A SAR team had al­ready checked the camp­site there, and Pops’s gear was gone, so we know he went astray while hik­ing back on Sun­day.) Tim and I de­cide to spend the day hik­ing to Knap­sack Pass and back.

It’s good to be in the back­coun­try with my younger brother again. I’m 53 and Tim is 51, and the de­mands of work and par­ent­ing have made back­pack­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties fewer and far­ther be­tween. Like Pops, if Tim is in pain he won’t show it on the trail. He was al­ways tough dur­ing our child­hood trips, when we used to hike off-trail as much as on. We ad­hered to the re­li­able phi­los­o­phy: The harder it is to reach a lake, the big­ger and more plen­ti­ful the fish will be.

I en­joy cre­at­ing my own route by scan­ning the ter­rain im­me­di­ately in front of me. This ne­ces­si­tates con­stantly lift­ing your head to check progress in­stead of sim­ply keep­ing your eyes on a path. It’s much slower than hik­ing a trail, but you’re con­stantly re­minded of the beau­ti­ful sur­round­ings.

Af­ter about 3 miles, less than an hour from Knap­sack Pass, the rocky ter­rain be­comes so dif­fi­cult that Tim and I need to store our trekking poles in our packs. Many times we have to use both hands to hoist our­selves up. I doubt that Pops would come this way with a full pack. Too cum­ber­some.

I’m not sur­prised when we find noth­ing at the pass or on the other side. On the way back to our camp in Dusy Basin, I take some com­fort in know­ing that Pops had likely fol­lowed through on his plan to fish Sun­day morn­ing be­fore head­ing back. It’s an ob­ses­sion with him. He takes pride in wak­ing be­fore dawn so he can make his cof­fee and cast a line by first light. Af­ter a hard hike, in­stead of re­lax­ing in camp, he will of­ten fish un­til dark. Iron­i­cally, our catches al­ways seem to be about the same de­spite all the ex­tra time he puts in. But I know for him it’s not about the num­bers; it’s his own form of spir­i­tu­al­ity.

Day 4: Thurs­day

Af­ter the scram­ble to Knap­sack Pass, I’m pos­i­tive Pops would not have taken that route if he could help it. This is his fourth year in a row hik­ing into Bar­rett Lakes, and by now he would have fig­ured out the fastest, eas­i­est, and pret­ti­est route. We de­cide to move our base­camp and search the route over Thun­der­bolt Pass, now the most likely op­tion. There are SAR teams criss­cross­ing the wilder­ness (at its peak, the ef­fort in­cludes 120 searchers and five he­li­copters) and we check in via ra­dio on the way to Thun­der­bolt.

We learn that a he­li­copter is on the way; the search lead­ers down in Bishop want us to re­turn to help iden­tify more of Pops’s cloth­ing and un­der­stand his back­coun­try habits. They also need ac­cess to his car for scent ar­ti­cles so they can de­ploy dog teams. It sounds plau­si­ble but I’m sus­pi­cious. Per­haps they want us out of the way of the pro­fes­sional searchers. Look­ing for Pops my­self—in­stead of wait­ing for word from oth­ers—has so far saved me from be­com­ing a to­tal wreck.

The flight down to Bishop takes barely 10 min­utes, but it’s a reve­la­tion. A dozen lakes you can’t see from the trail pa­rade by in rapid suc­ces­sion. I think of how Pops would love to be in the seat be­tween Tim and me. He has spent so much time ex­plor­ing this val­ley; he would be fas­ci­nated by the view of it from the air.

At the land­ing pad in Bishop, a Park Ser­vice em­ployee named Jes­sica, who is co­or­di­nat­ing the search ef­forts, sug­gests we get lunch at the air­port res­tau­rant while she ar­ranges a con­fer­ence call with the search lead­ers. Just then, our life­long bud­dies Steve and Danny show up. They’ve known Pops since we were kids. Af­ter hear­ing the news, they de­cided to drive up and help the search.

We’re drink­ing so­das, chat­ting with them, and wait­ing for food when I’m over­whelmed by the ab­sur­dity of re­lax­ing and en­joy­ing a hot lunch while Pops could still be alive and in trou­ble. I head over to the ranger of­fice and ask Jes­sica to get the con­fer­ence call or­ga­nized. We wait for the long­est 15 min­utes of my life.

Af­ter half an hour of an­swer­ing ques­tions about Pops, I get the of­fi­cials on the line to prom­ise that they’ll he­li­copter me and one other per­son back into the wilder­ness at the end of the call. I will re­gret not get­ting names to hold ac­count­able.

We de­cide that Tim will stay be­hind and help with the search from the Bishop of­fice, and that Danny will go up the moun­tain with me to con­tinue search­ing the high coun­try. That’s when the higher-ups re­nege on the he­li­copter ride, and we’re forced to ac­cept Jes­sica’s of­fer to drive us back to the trail­head.

I’m deeply an­noyed by the set­back. We’ll have to hike back up to the alpine zone to re­sume the search. Dur­ing the 20-minute drive, I let the scenery take my mind off the frus­tra­tion. I re­mem­ber mak­ing this same trip many times as a kid. Af­ter break­fast in Bishop, we would pile back into the car and Pops would steer us up­ward, from the wide Owens River Val­ley to the base of the high peaks. This time of year, as­pens along the South Fork Bishop Creek glow a vi­brant yel­low.

The road dead ends at South Lake, al­ready close to tree­line, but it still takes more than four hours to climb back to Bishop Pass. The alti­tude slows Danny, just as it did Tim and I on the first day. We make camp well af­ter dark, but I’m glad to be back in the wilder­ness. We lost two peo­ple search­ing for more than half a day. What might have been missed?

Day 5: Fri­day

The hike to Thun­der­bolt Pass is eas­ier than the first route we tried, but it’s off-trail, and still slow and dif­fi­cult go­ing. We nav­i­gate across 2 miles of talus; it feels more like 12. The ex­treme an­gle means any mis­step could lead to a long tum­ble.

On Thun­der­bolt Pass, we meet five dif­fer­ent SAR teams, three of which came up from Bar­rett Lakes and the sur­round­ing Pal­isade Basin, where search ef­forts are con­cen­trated. This area has likely never seen so many peo­ple at once, and I can’t help but think how Pops would be ap­palled by the hordes.

By his own ad­mis­sion, Pops is a shy per­son. As a butcher, he was happy to work out of sight in the re­frig­er­ated con­fines of the su­per­mar­ket’s meat depart­ment. How­ever, his work ethic earned him pro­mo­tions, and in the new roles he needed to en­gage more with cus­tomers. When I was in high school, he helped me land a job as a box boy, and I would sneak up and sur­prise him as he chat­ted with peo­ple. Watch­ing him, you wouldn’t have known he was shy at heart. But for Pops, I al­ways knew that the great­est ap­peal of the back­coun­try was the soli­tude.

Danny and I eat lunch at the pass with the other searchers. See­ing all of them gath­ered in one spot like this, and hear­ing about all the other teams spread across the area, starts to crack some­thing inside of me. Too many days have gone by, too many teams have looked in too many places. Pops is gone.

I don’t know why, but the re­al­iza­tion makes me tell Danny that if Pops had a mean bone in his body, I never saw it in five decades. Danny hugs me and I cry for the first time.

When we re­turn to camp, I know what I want to do. I will make the trek to my Pops’s last camp­site at Bar­rett Lakes, where I will camp ex­actly one week af­ter he did. I tell Danny that I need some time alone to memo­ri­al­ize my fa­ther and that he should head home to his fam­ily. I help him pack his gear and watch him dis­ap­pear down the hill.

For the first time on this trip I am alone. An­other round of sob­bing hits me. The Tim McGraw song “Hum­ble and Kind” has been stuck in my head since Pops went miss­ing, and now I lis­ten to it on my phone. I know you got moun­tains to climb but al­ways stay hum­ble and kind. It brings com­fort as I re­flect on how lucky I am that the most hum­ble and kind per­son I know is my fa­ther.

As an adult, I be­came keenly aware of his char­ac­ter when I went into real es­tate at the same time Pops re­tired from his ca­reer as a butcher. He started his own handyman busi­ness, and from the be­gin­ning just about all of my clients used Pops. Over the last decade, he spent more time with them than I did. Many of these cus­tomers are

el­derly, and while his vis­its usu­ally in­volved plumb­ing or elec­tri­cal work, they were as much so­cial calls as re­pair jobs. He made a point of drop­ping in on older clients who lived alone, just to check on them.

Day 6: Satur­day

I wake up feel­ing light, ag­ile, and as ca­pa­ble in the back­coun­try as I ever have. To­day I re­al­ize I’m no longer search­ing for Pops. I’m ex­pe­ri­enc­ing first­hand why he chose to re­turn here four years in a row.

I pack up camp early, be­fore the sun hits, just like Pops would. Even with gloves my hands are numb from the early-morn­ing cold. The hike to Thun­der­bolt Pass warms me up, and I ex­plore the most di­rect route, which is not the eas­i­est. There are signs of three re­cent rock­slides. But the tra­verse goes well, even with a full pack, and I’m con­vinced this is the way Pops would have gone. But then how did he dis­ap­pear?

If only he hadn’t been alone. In re­cent years, I have hiked with Pops in Yosemite, Glacier, the Grand Canyon, and Yel­low­stone. But in that time I never joined him at Bar­rett Lakes. I see now that his reg­u­lar spot has a beauty to ri­val its big-name com­pe­ti­tion. Gran­ite benches ter­race down to the wa­ter, cre­at­ing an am­phithe­ater be­low Thun­der­bolt Peak and Knap­sack Pass, with views of the toothy Pal­isades. It’s stun­ning, and with each step I re­gret never shar­ing this area with him.

As I come up to the first and largest lake, I sense the ex­cite­ment Pops would have felt ar­riv­ing af­ter such a long and dif­fi­cult hike. He would have been giddy at the prospect of six beau­ti­ful lakes full of trout and set against a panorama of 14,000-foot peaks, an im­pos­si­bly blue sky, and clouds straight from an artist’s easel.

At the edge of the first lake, out of habit, I look down for fish. In my mind, Pops is about 50 yards away, and both of us are about to cast. I now know those days will only be a mem­ory and I am wracked by grief anew.

At the sec­ond lake, I run into a group of eight searchers. I thank each one in­di­vid­u­ally, and tell them a lit­tle bit about Pops and how he loved this spot.

In the late af­ter­noon, I reach Pops’s last known camp­site. It’s lo­cated on a gran­ite bench, flat as a board and big enough for a dozen tents, bor­dered on three sides by wa­ter. The rib­bon-like lake is the pret­ti­est one I’ve seen in the basin. The green wa­ter re­flects the snow and Knap­sack Pass.

On the way here I thought about what to do once I ar­rived, and now I have two tasks. First, I write “Pops” on the gran­ite by mak­ing let­ters out of snow and take a self-por­trait with the sign. I have a ton of peo­ple to reach out to when I get home, and this will help.

Next, I set about build­ing a memo­rial out of stones. It takes an hour to find the per­fect spot, on a lit­tle rock shelf over­look­ing the camp­site. Af­ter wrestling 40-pound boul­ders into place, I’m pleased with the re­sult: a 4-foot-high struc­ture with a long tri­an­gu­lar stone as a cap.

Day 7: Sun­day

It’s time to re­turn home. The weather is chang­ing, win­ter is com­ing. The search is over.

It only takes me an hour and a half to reach Thun­der­bolt Pass. As I stand there for the third time, waves of sob­bing over­come me as I look down on Pops’s beloved spot. It’s so windy now that I don’t bother wip­ing my eyes; the gusts dry them.

I take my high­est line yet be­tween Thun­der­bolt Pass and Bishop Pass. Now on my fourth trek be­tween the two passes, I am com­pletely cer­tain this is the route my dad took. It’s not an easy scram­ble, but it’s doable with hik­ing poles and you don’t lose el­e­va­tion just to gain it back. There are sweep­ing views with ev­ery step and Pops al­ways loved vis­tas. But it’s not with­out haz­ards. Pass­ing right be­low mas­sive peaks, a hiker would have lit­tle time to re­act to fall­ing rocks, and I note again the signs of re­cent slides. I en­counter a dozen more searchers be­tween the passes, but they have no news ex­cept this: The SAR ef­fort has been of­fi­cially called off due to storms in the fore­cast.

On the fi­nal des­cent to the trail­head, I think about my fa­ther’s quiet wis­dom, and what he might have said now. I re­call a time when I was a teenager, and I was wor­ried about some­thing as we played a game of H- O-R-S-E on our drive­way bas­ket­ball court. He told me that the only thing you should worry about is do­ing your best. When you know you’ve done your best, the rest is out of your con­trol and silly to worry about.

I play the week back in my mind, re­call­ing all the searchers, all the miles hiked. There will be much sor­row to come. But as the snow starts fall­ing, I think, We did our best, Pops. We did our best. Ed­i­tor’s note: On July 8, 2017, hik­ers found Bob Woodie’s body 100 yards from the trail near Bishop Pass. It ap­pears he had taken shel­ter from ex­tremely strong winds—gusts of 100 mph were recorded that day—among boul­ders. He had his gear with him but suc­cumbed to hypothermia. Wind­blown snow likely cov­ered him and his tracks, con­ceal­ing his lo­ca­tion from searchers. The Bob Woodie Memo­rial En­dow­ment, es­tab­lished in part­ner­ship with the Sierra Club, will sup­port ef­forts to con­nect un­der­priv­i­leged kids with na­ture. Do­na­tions can be made at sier­r­a­­ieMe­mo­rial.

Clock­wise from left:Bob Woodie with sons Robert (mid­dle) and Tim (left) at a Sierra trail­head in 1988; Woodie passed through Dusy Basin on the way to Bar­rett Lakes; Woodie fish­ing in Yel­low­stone in 2016.

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From left:The au­thor cre­ates a fleet­ing memo­rial; view from Bob Woodie’s camp­site at Bar­rett Lakes, look­ing to­ward Knap­sack Pass; a he­li­copter searches the ter­rain around Thun­der­bolt Pass; the tracks of all the SAR teams (at its peak, the ef­fort in­cluded 120 vol­un­teer and pro­fes­sional searchers).

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