Two Parents Call for Safety Preparation as Thru-Hiking Season Nears

By Doug Laher and Sally Fowler

The PCT is challenging and passes through more miles of designated Wilderness than any other National Scenic Trail. The trail, and wilderness itself, exists in part as a rare place to meet untamed nature and experience great physical challenge and accomplishment. Self-reliance is one of the key tenets of backcountry travel, and the PCT is a place to hone your primitive travel and survival skills.

While thousands of people set off to travel the entire PCT each year, the reality is that only some of them will finish. There are many more who won’t. Some will quit, some will be forced off-trail because of injury, some will quit because they weren’t emotionally prepared, and others may require evacuation by search and rescue. Most all will return home to friends and family and live another day to plan their next adventure.

But there are a small number who won’t return home—either from a fatal accident, or they simply disappear into the landscape surrounding the trail—never to be seen again. The bottom line? The PCT is filled with danger. Hikers must acknowledge this, and plan for it—not only for themselves, but for their loved ones who stay behind.

Our names are Doug Laher and Sally Fowler. Here are our stories and our plea for proper safety planning as you prepare for your 2022 thru-hike of the PCT.

Trevor “Microsoft” Laher

Trevor “Microsoft” Laher was an experienced hiker. Admittedly though, his mountaineering experience was limited. He was a talented computer coder and graduated college early with a job waiting for him at Microsoft. It was his dream to hike the PCT and he embarked on his journey of a lifetime on March 16, 2020.

On March 27—less than 200 miles into his journey—Trevor crawled out of his tent near the trail junction of Fobes Saddle and the PCT just south of Apache Peak in the San Jacinto Mountains. A dusting of freshly fallen snow covered his tent.

Trevor and his “tramily” headed north, leaving a trail of footprints in their wake. As they approached Apache Peak, they were unable to see the icy conditions ahead, hidden by the snow that had fallen the night before.

In a split second, Trevor lost his footing, and soon started cartwheeling out of control down the mountain into an ice chute—nothing to stop him but an occasional boulder or sapling growing out of the mountainside. By the time Trevor came to a stop, he had fallen nearly 600 feet. He succumbed to his injuries before a search and rescue team could get to him.

Since Trevor’s accident, I have committed my life to advocating for hiker safety. Last year I published a PCTA article begging hikers to use lessons from Trevor’s experience to stay alive. My family also partnered with the Fowler-O’Sullivan Foundation, Kahtoola and Nomad Ventures to from the Trevor Spikes program, offering a 20% discount on MICROspikes for northbound PCT thru-hikers.

As Trevor and I prepped for his trek of the PCT, he dismissed conversations about safety and felt they were unnecessary. Prophetically enough, those very same conversations I initiated with my son came from a “call for safety preparation” on the PCTA Class of 2020 Facebook page from my now dear friend, Sally Fowler.

Kris “Sherpa” Fowler

Kris ” Sherpa” Fowler is a missing PCT hiker from the class of 2016.  Kris started his hike on May 8 and planned on arriving at the Northern Terminus in September. Kris ended up loving the trail so much that he took more side trips and down days than he planned, just to see it “all” and photograph as much as he could.  Because of that, Kris did not reach Washington until October.

“Sherpa” was last officially seen on October 12, 2016, at the White Pass trailhead. None of Kris’s gear has ever been found. If Kris would have been in possession of a satellite messaging device, and we had known more about his gear and his trip agenda, the outcome may have been much different.

Sally’s Tips for Safety Preparation

  • Carry a SPOT, InReach or whatever satellite messaging device that fits your needs. If you do nothing else, please carry one and keep it charged.
  • Sign all the trail registers along the way. It’s a badge of honor to be in those books. It can also help narrow the search area based on the registers you have and have not signed.
  • Tell someone where you’ll be. Leave behind your itinerary. If you shipped supply packages, leave a list of addresses, the ETA and phone numbers to each location you shipped your packages to.
  • Leave behind a detailed list with pictures of your gear. Include colors, name brands, even the brand and color of your toothbrush. Include a photo of your boot/shoeprint, color, and type of phone you have, and your cell phone provider.
  • Tell someone how you are navigating (paper maps, Far Out, etc.). It will help search and rescue.
  • Tell your designated support person back home your trail name once you get one.
  • Decide on a contact frequency with your support person and loved ones.  Such as texting, posting online or calling every two weeks. Whatever plan works for you, stick to it. Make an “in case they do not hear from you” plan. Let your loved ones know what they need to do if you do go missing. Inform family when you are getting ready to go into areas that have poor cellphone coverage so they know they may not hear from you for an undetermined period of time.
  • In a sealed envelope, leave all your passwords to your phone, computers etc. especially your Google account. Law enforcement can often find someone from their Google account quicker than they can from a ping on your phone. Include bank accounts and passwords so that law enforcement may track where your last financial transaction took place.

It is important to make out a will and testament, even if your hiking gear is the only thing you own.  Be sure to include a beneficiary.  Appoint a medical power of attorney and an Advanced Directive. This may be tough to think about but be reminded that you are heading into some extremely dangerous terrain. Things happen. While this may not be a priority for you, please know you’re not doing this only for yourself but for those left behind in the event the unthinkable happens. Privacy laws prevent loved ones from serving as your medical proxy without the proper paperwork. Here’s a great online resource by which you can complete an Advance Directive based on your state of residence.

A few hours of planning are all it takes.

In closing, we’d like to think that if you are capable of planning a five-month, 2650 mile hike, you are capable of preparing for the unthinkable. A few hours of planning are all it will take.

We can only hope that the stories of “Microsoft” and “Sherpa”, along with missing PCT hikers Chris Sylvia and David O’Sullivan, help reinforce the need for proper safety preparation. Something good must come from these tragedies.

“Microsoft” chose not to engage in these conversations about safety. Instead, he tried to reassure his parents by rattling off statistics about deadly accidents on the PCT and how infrequently they occur.

Sally’s “invincible” son Sherpa wouldn’t have taken all of this advice, (maybe some, but not all). After all, as he reminded Sally, he was a “grown ass man.”

Our stories are proof that bad things do in fact happen to good people. When “Microsoft” and “Sherpa” left the Southern Terminus, neither had visions of the unthinkable.

We wish you an amazing journey. Be safe and have the greatest experience of your life.  Oh, and by the way, when you get to Apache Peak? Say a prayer for “Microsoft”. And once you make it to Washington, please keep an eye out for “Sherpa”. He would want to be found.

Check out the Fowler-O’Sullivan Foundation page for more details on safety and prevention and to see stories of other missing hikers.