By Gene Johnson
The Associated Press
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The National Park Service said it will be up to the Pierce County medical examiner to confirm that the body found Saturday afternoon was that of 70-year-old Karen Sykes of Seattle. It was discovered in an area where searchers were looking for Sykes, and they ended the three-day rescue effort after finding it.
“For a lot of local hikers, it’s an extreme loss,” said Greg Johnston, who edited a “Trail of the Week” column she wrote for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
“For decades, she showed us the way, and now that’s gone.”
Sykes was prominent in the Northwest hiking community for her trail reviews and photographs, for her book on hiking western Washington and for leading group outings.
Friends said she found sanctuary in the wilderness.
“It was a real healing thing for her,” Johnston said. “Once she found hiking, she never stopped.”
She had been hiking with her boyfriend, Bob Morthorst, on Wednesday in the Owyhigh Lakes area east of Rainier’s 14,410-foot summit when they encountered snow on the trail at about 5,000 feet. He stopped and she went on, friends and park officials said.
When she didn’t return as planned, he made it safely down the trail and reported her missing.
The body found Saturday was off-trail, about halfway down a steep hillside above Boundary Creek, park spokeswoman Patti Wold said.
She didn’t know whether it was apparent that the woman had fallen or what caused the death. It remains under investigation.
Among the dangers of hiking on snowfields in the summer are falling through snow bridges caused by melting water beneath the surface and sinking into tree wells, where deep, soft or unsupported snow accumulates around tree trunks.
A searcher was hurt Thursday when he punched through a snow bridge and was airlifted out of the area.
“It’s a time to be cautious when you’re in the backcountry on snow, but we don’t know if that was a contributing factor or not,” Wold said.
Michael Fagin, a meteorologist who specializes in mountain weather forecasts, said Sykes invited him on the hike, but he had to work.
Often during hikes with Sykes and her boyfriend, she’d continue walking around and taking pictures when Fagin and Morthorst stopped to eat or rest.
“Bob and I would stop and eat lunch, and she’d be crawling in the dirt taking pictures of flowers,” Fagin said. “She couldn’t sit still.”
Fagin said he would typically take the lead on their walks; Sykes, who was also a distance runner, would get too far ahead if she led.
Much of Sykes’ recent work had been for the website of Visit Rainier, an organization that uses local lodging taxes to promote tourism at the mountain.
She often tried to write about lesser-used trails, Fagin said.
“After lunch on the ridge we continued, climbing from one high point to the next facing the mountain,” she wrote in a piece about snowshoeing on Mazama Ridge.
“As much as we love the forest there is something that stirs the restless soul to go further, to go higher.
“One has to be careful to establish and stick to a turnaround time. The siren will tempt you with another high point along the ridge, then another, then another.”