The blizzard arrived early, battering the hikers’ tents and blowing snow inside that soaked their sleeping bags in the night. They were a group of three who’d met along the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,650 miles of unimaginable beauty, carved into the mountains of California, Oregon, and Washington.
They’d crossed wildflower-covered grasslands and ascended through stands of oak and pine, sometimes trudging through howling winds, ankle-deep in snow that took them by surprise; this was Southern California, after all, where the first 700 miles of the PCT is known as the desert section. Now, in the San Jacinto Mountains, above Palm Desert, they confronted yet another storm.
Over the eight days they had walked together, they often made a pact to set off before 8 a.m., and so they did on the morning of March 27 last year: Trevor Laher, a 22-year-old self-described computer nerd with cropped brown hair and a ready smile, from Fort Worth, Texas, and his two new hiking companions, Cody McMahon, a big, gregarious 26-year-old social worker from Australia, and Jannek Löffler, 23 and slight, an experienced snow hiker from Germany.
“The sun came out, the wind died almost completely, and it was perfect blue skies,” Cody recalls. “There was a very light snow on everything, maybe a quarter of an inch. It was quite a beautiful morning. But that also, I think, lulled us into a false sense of security.”
Journalist Louise Farr, Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit volunteer Cameron Dickinson, and Douglas Laher joined Alta Asks Live.
They climbed hard for four or five miles. Trevor, six foot three and 200 pounds, bounded uphill easily as they headed toward the small town of Idyllwild. There they would rest for a couple of days and pick up the ice axes and the microspikes for their shoes that they had considered too heavy, and unnecessary, to pack thus far.
“We were having a great time,” says Cody, “joking and carrying on about the night before, because the night was so terrible.”
At around 9:30 a.m., as they turned a corner onto Apache Peak, the trail disappeared under what, at this higher altitude, was two to three feet of snow. They checked their maps. If they crossed a small clearing and headed around another corner, they’d be fine. Jannek, about 10 steps in the lead, and the lightest, made it across the precipitous slope to a stand of trees. But as Trevor crossed, he slipped on ice hidden beneath the top layer of powder. He stopped and tried to stabilize his footing, then his feet went out from under him, and he fell onto the snowy trail. For the briefest time, he managed to stay in place. Then, suddenly, he began sliding feet first, gathering momentum until he hit a rock and began cartwheeling into an icy gorge.
“I tried to get to him,” says Cody, who was in the rear. “There was really no way that he could slow himself down. It was a funnel down a rocky chute, and once he started sliding, I started yelling. Jannek turned around, and we just watched him go down the chute, tumbling off the rocks.”
Cody dropped his bag and hit his emergency beacon to call 911. They had lost sight of Trevor, and for 10 to 15 minutes they shouted into the echoing silence, also trying his phone, which he didn’t answer. Frightened that he might slide too, Cody yanked the straps off his backpack and tied his wrists to the nearest tree branch. Across the clearing, Jannek pulled a length of cord from his gear and did the same. Then they waited to be rescued.
Head west on California State Route 74, along the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, up and away from the designer boutiques of Palm Desert, and it becomes a white-knuckle switchback. Drivers with the courage to take their eyes off the road can see, to the north, the rugged San Jacintos, an accumulation of Mesozoic granite dotted with distinctive formations of cream-colored rock.
The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, popularly known as the Pacific Crest Trail, intersects with the highway a mile from the rustic Paradise Valley Cafe, a favorite pit stop for hikers. In March, the first permit holders begin trekking north from the PCT trailhead in Campo, California, on the Mexican border. No one knows how many hikers step onto the trail each year; numerous spots are accessible for day use. But the Pacific Crest Trail Association records the number of permits it issues for those hiking 500 miles or more: 7,888 in 2019, more than four times the number in 2013, the year before the Reese Witherspoon movie Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir of the same name, solidified the trail’s mystique as a place of emotional healing as well as beauty and danger.
“It’s therapy. It’s church. The PCT saved my life,” one hiker posted on Facebook last year, contributing to the trail’s mythology, which only grows as each fresh crop of hikers arrives from around the world to romanticize its journeys with Instagram photos and YouTube videos. Perhaps part of the trail’s enchantment is the knowledge that early settlers crossed its punishing landscapes on foot and in wagons, to survive without today’s down sleeping bags, dehydrated food, and GPS trail locators.
Like many before him, Trevor Laher, a kid more interested in politics and philosophy than in material things, had first been inspired by the Pacific Crest Trail on a trip to Yosemite National Park. There the PCT converges with the John Muir Trail in a marvel of lush meadows, cliffs, and waterfalls. Trevor visited Yosemite in 2015 with a high school friend, then began backpacking with his father, Doug. The pair traversed the Great Smoky Mountains, the Ouachita National Forest, and Big Bend National Park. But the PCT, says Doug, “was just something Trevor became mesmerized by.”
Despite his son’s backpacking experience, Doug, a medical association executive, was initially against Trevor tackling the PCT. When Trevor, always academically driven, mentioned to Doug the good news that he was on track to graduate six months early, in December 2019, from Ohio State University, Doug was thrilled. Only later did his son mention that he was planning this to give himself time to hike part of the PCT, perhaps stopping at Oregon’s Crater Lake. “I just thought that was the most asinine thing in the world,” says Doug. Graduation, he believed, was the time for Trevor to start working and paying off student debt. Trevor’s mother, Karen, an emergency room nurse, agreed.
Then Trevor, as consumed with computer coding as he was with hiking, landed a software engineering job he coveted at Microsoft. The company agreed to a July 2020 start, and his parents relented. For close to a year, Doug studied maps and watched YouTube videos, often late into the night, of hiking influencers promoting the newest gear or crunching happily along the PCT’s path.
“I would call it his PCT porn,” Karen jokes. “He did way more research, I think, than Trevor ever did. He was obsessed about this, and rightly so.”
“It became a passion of mine,” says Doug, almost as intense a passion as it was for Trevor.
On weekends, he and Trevor compared notes by phone, determining the most efficient, but also lightest, equipment. Doug’s main concern became the exhausting seven-and-a-half-mile climb from Fuller Ridge to the formidable 10,834-foot Mount San Jacinto. It lay immediately after Idyllwild, which was where he recommended that Trevor pick up his heavy snow gear. He would act as trail manager, Doug said, looking days ahead online for other hikers’ feedback, leaving Trevor free to focus on today and tomorrow. Meanwhile, Trevor prepared his body and mind by doing cardio workouts, running, and studying Buddhism and meditation.
IN THE WILDERNESS
Learning about a plan for a 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail inspired the outdoors enthusiast and Washington State educator Catherine Montgomery to first suggest, in 1926, an ambitious byway on the West Coast, reaching through mountains from the Mexican border to the Canadian one. But it was Clinton C. Clarke, chair of the Mountain League of Los Angeles, who organized the 1932 Pacific Crest Trail System Conference; 36 years later, the government approved the creation of the path, which winds through 26 national forests and seven national parks.
Joining the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, in a triple whammy for dedicated hikers, the remote, 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail passes through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Only about 150 intrepid hikers a year try to conquer its entire grueling length, while 953 completed the PCT in 2019, out of the nearly 8,000 who received a permit. In 2018, 1,128 finished the Appalachian Trail.
With trailheads close to Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle, the PCT may hold the most allure for travelers. But, as Trevor and his companions learned, like others before them, for all its beauty, the trail can be hazardous. PCT hikers responding to the blog Halfway Anywhere’s 2019 survey reported experiencing fear due to lightning, bear encounters, people shooting guns, and, for women, male stalkers. The Pacific Crest Trail Association website cautions that “snow covers sections of the trail in spring and early summer” in Southern California and advises long-distance hikers to prepare for the worst: “nasty storms with horizontal, wind-driven rain or snow, steep pitches of slippery snow, out-of-control snowy descents, horrifying whitewater creek crossings, snow-blindness.”
Still, many hikers are surprised by the advent of bad weather on the early sections of the trail. They mail the cumbersome snow gear that weighs their backpacks down 180 miles or more ahead, in anticipation of the upcoming Sierra Nevada. Even as far south as San Diego County, however, winter snowstorms occur; a month before Trevor hiked the Laguna range there, three immigrant women froze to death trying to bypass the official U.S. border crossing. Complicating Doug’s research, between 2013 and 2018, nearly 25 miles of trail in the San Jacintos were closed sporadically owing to forest fires.
Fewer trips equaled fewer updates from hikers; Doug found only one 2019 YouTube report on the Apache Peak stretch, which the man in the video declared too tough to finish. Had Doug known to browse online records kept by the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit, an all-volunteer group operating through the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, he would have learned about a flurry of harrowing accidents in March and April of 2019: enough in one spot on Apache Peak that rescuers from the unit posted themselves at the trailhead to warn hikers of safety conditions on the upper slopes.
In one incident, a male PCT hiker fell 120 feet down a slope; another broke an ankle at the same spot. To find a third stranded PCT hiker, rescuers risked their own lives, crossing creeks in below-freezing weather throughout the night, battling heavy snow and wind.
Trevor often assured Karen that only 11 PCT hikers had died along the trail since it had been officially declared finished in 1993, but exact figures are difficult to pin down. The number could be as high as 20. At least 5 hikers have disappeared and not been found. In fact, there have been 11 deaths on or near the trail in California, 8 of those in the desert section.
The Idyllwild-based volunteer wilderness ranger Jon King, known as Sanjacjon, hikes or runs trails daily to produce his San Jacinto Trail Report. On March 20, 2019, he noted that ice at Apache Peak’s mile 169.5 had led multiple PCT hikers to turn back. “I tell PCTers it’s the most dangerous section of the PCT,” says King. “Everyone’s putting out these YouTube videos, or they’ve got their blogs or whatever, and they make it sound like it’s fun and easy, but it obviously isn’t for a lot of people.” Climate change has not only meant more dry periods; it’s also caused more rain, more snow, more ice, adds King. “It’s just getting much, much more complicated and much more unpredictable.”
While Mark Larabee, the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s associate director of communications, advocacy, and government relations and the author, with Barney Scout Mann, of The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail, doesn’t believe the San Jacinto Mountains are intrinsically more dangerous than other ranges, he does stress that hikers need to keep their guard up. “The mountains can befuddle you. They can do their best to make it difficult,” he says. “You have to be prepared and assume the worst could happen and hope for the best. Don’t make the PCT your first hike. It’s called ‘wilderness’ because it’s wild.”
A DIFFERENT WORLD
A few weeks before Trevor left for the hike, his girlfriend, Elise Harmon, told him she was afraid he’d die. “I don’t want to die, and I really don’t think I’m going to,” he told her. “But if I do, I’m not the only one here on this earth for you, and I’ll still be there with you.”
Trevor’s 18-year-old sister, Olivia, had always considered her fearless brother to be her protector. Now it was her turn to worry about him. “Please carry bear spray,” she begged in mid-March in Arizona, where she, Doug, and Trevor were visiting with Doug’s parents, Dave and Marilyn, who were to drive Trevor to the PCT’s Campo trailhead. By the eve of Trevor’s departure, Olivia and Doug had returned to Texas. In a video chat with Trevor, Karen and Olivia cried. “I’ll be OK,” Trevor insisted.
Earlier that day, as news about COVID-19 simmered on her hotel room TV, Marilyn Laher considered trying to talk her grandson out of his trip, then decided against it.
And so, on the overcast morning of March 16, she and Dave drove Trevor to the trailhead, where they posed for pictures at the gateway monument. “I said something like ‘You can always back out,’ ” Marilyn says. “He just smiled.” Eyeing the federal agents patrolling in ATVs along the metal-and-barbed-wire border wall, Trevor commented dryly, “Donald Trump would be proud of that.” Then he set off alone down the dirt path.
Dave and Marilyn drove on a parallel road for a mile, watching Trevor appear and disappear between bushes. They honked the car horn and waved, and he clicked his hiking poles, grinning in acknowledgment. “That was the last time we talked to him or saw him,” says Marilyn. Then the world changed.
COVID case rates were escalating, California governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order, and the Pacific Crest Trail Association asked long-distance hikers to leave the trail, lest they carry the coronavirus to small towns ill-equipped to cope. Travelers from around the world who had quit jobs and sublet apartments to hike the PCT were canceling flights or booking new ones to return home. Those who stayed on the trail faced fierce online criticism; false rumors spread that hikers might be barred from entering towns or even arrested.
“I pleaded with Trevor to come home,” says Doug, who told his son that he was being selfish. He didn’t want to have to call Elise if Trevor contracted the virus on the PCT and died. Often Trevor wouldn’t answer his phone. “I don’t think he wanted to have a verbal argument with me in front of his hiking friends,” says Doug. He talked to Karen about cutting Trevor off financially.
“Then he’s going to ghost us, and we’re not going to know where he is,” she told him, which caused a rift between her and Doug. She had come to understand Trevor’s obsession and assured him she’d support him no matter what.
Doug’s arguments with Trevor continued, and at last Trevor conceded: his grandparents could pick him up in the small tourist town of Julian, at mile 77. Within an hour, he texted Doug to say he’d changed his mind.
Early on the evening of March 22, Trevor and his companions arrived at the 101.2-mile mark, at the Barrel Springs trailhead in Ranchita, where Montezuma Valley Market co-owner Mike Pavlocak packed a dozen hikers into a U-Haul truck and drove them to his tiny store, happy for the business as the COVID crisis worsened and the PCTers he depended on dwindled in number.
Russ Hepton, a 32-year-old British solo hiker, found the U-Haul ride such an adventure that he posted a video of it on his website The Trail Hunter. “It was just like, Wow, we’re doing this, and it’s fun,” remembers Hepton, who would come to regret the video. “We were in the trail bubble.”
Outside the market, a statue of a yeti loomed, and one of John Wayne stood inside near hiker grub like nuts and fruit, jerky, and wildflower honey. To hikers anticipating hostility, the place felt like an oasis, not only from the cold but also from COVID worries.
In a party atmosphere, after downing microwaved pizzas and craft beer, the hikers set up their tents in a park for the night. Trevor and his new friends wanted to get ahead of a storm. At 4 a.m. on March 23, Patty Miller, a local retiree who dropped bottled water at trailheads and offered rides to weary hikers, rose, baked two blueberry cobblers, and delivered them, with coffee and hot cocoa, to the group. Then she and her husband, Gary, ferried them back to the trail in the rain.
One of the hikers, 22-year-old Leo Bohlmann, had hurt his knee and was planning a couple of rest days at the next trailhead, in Warner Springs. Trevor, caught up in the camaraderie of the Montezuma Valley Market evening, turned down Leo’s invitation for Trevor to join him. “We’re just going to keep going till someone tries to stop us,” Leo remembers him saying.
When Trevor arrived at the Paradise Valley Cafe on March 26, there was no warning about Apache Peak; on that rainless day, there seemed no need. By then, Leo had watched television news about the virus and had gone home to Milwaukee. Jason, another hiker in the group, planned to hitch into Idyllwild after breakfast. The others would meet him there the next day. Meanwhile, they dried their tents and sleeping bags in the sun and devoured breakfast burritos.
An afternoon hike took them toward Idyllwild, with views of the Coachella Valley. After a 3,000-foot climb, they camped on a ridgeline, and Trevor spoke to Doug, telling him they’d reach the village the next day. “Physically, I’m doing fine,” he said. “My body’s just tired because we’ve been doing 20-mile days for eight days in a row.” It was their final conversation.
Early in the morning on March 27, Hepton was heading for Apache Peak, using his microspikes and ice ax, when he heard cries for help. A man had slipped and fallen down a slope. “He managed to claw his way back up,” says Hepton. “He was shaking. He’d been there all night in this storm, with no shelter, under a boulder.”
Hepton called 911 and escorted the man toward incoming rescuers. Then he hiked on to Idyllwild, unaware that Trevor, Jannek, and Cody were behind him.
Later that morning, Eric Holden, a burly volunteer with the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit, was helping a PCTer who’d gotten lost overnight in the rocks when he heard that a male hiker had fallen 600 feet near Apache Peak and that his companions were stuck on the slopes. A California Highway Patrol team in a helicopter had already hovered over the mountain looking for the hiker in the remote terrain, then dropped a paramedic near a gorge after spotting a figure. It was Trevor. As he’d plummeted down the mountain, bouncing off rocks, he’d suffered multiple blunt-impact injuries to his head and torso. By the time the medic pronounced him dead, it was 1:20 p.m.
If Holden could avoid helicopter missions, he did. “It’s a risk-versus-reward thing,” he says. Nonetheless, at a nearby takeoff site at Lake Hemet, he was strapped into a lightweight climbing harness clipped to a lengthy cable and hoisted by CHP helicopter to meet the medic. The two placed Trevor’s body in a rescue basket, which was lifted from the gorge. Holden then took off in a sheriff’s department STAR 9 helicopter to attempt a hoist rescue of Cody and Jannek.
The STAR 9 flew up the mountain, Holden feeling like a pendulum. The wind rose, the helicopter drifted, and the pilot made a sharp, necessary turn away from the slopes. The crew hauled Holden up into the helicopter and then, soon after, lowered him for a second try. At the mountain peak, another gust sent the copter drifting. After a third attempt, the mission was aborted.
Shivering in the cold, still tied to a tree, Cody was on his phone to emergency services when a Facebook notification popped up: a hiker had died in the San Jacintos. Cody hoped the report was mistaken. Instinctively, devastated, he sensed that it was true.
Meanwhile, a group of rescue unit members gathered down the mountain, about an hour and a half away on foot. During a break in the wind, a sheriff’s department helicopter managed to lower rescue unit member Cameron Dickinson to a spot 200 yards from Jannek and Cody. Dickinson’s plan, still, was to hoist them. “The wind picked up right after I was lowered,” he says. “I made the decision to reach them myself and try to walk them out to safety.”
It was late afternoon, the temperature dropping and the soft snow hardening to ice. Even with crampons on his boots, Dickinson’s only course on the 45-degree-
angle slope was to cut a path with his ice ax to where Cody and Jannek stood, waving hiking poles from behind the trees. Dickinson attached crampons he had packed in his gear to Cody’s shoes and escorted him to a safe spot on the trail, then returned for Jannek.
“That’s when I finally lost it,” says Cody about his emotional reunion with Jannek.
Cold and traumatized, they walked five and a half miles down the mountain, Dickinson distracting them with small talk from the horror they’d witnessed. Not until they were being interviewed by sheriffs did they learn for certain that Trevor was dead.
A FATHER’S NEW OBSESSION
Doug, feeling sick that Friday, March 27, and working from home, was resting on the couch in the family’s large brick house. It was five o’clock in the evening when a friend contacted him: a Palm Springs Desert Sun news item had mentioned a death on the PCT. Doug tried calling Trevor. There was no answer. Doug texted his GPS and phone. No response. Trevor had his driver’s license on him, Doug reassured himself; if anything had happened, someone would have contacted him. By six, Karen was preparing for her hospital shift. It seemed so unlikely that the dead hiker could be Trevor that Doug decided not to worry her.
“I was blowing up his phone with texts,” Doug remembers.
Six turned to seven.
Finally, he reached the Riverside sheriff’s department, and the coroner’s office, which requested a photo of Trevor. “I figured they’re just doing all this stuff so they can rule it out, tell me, ‘It’s not your son, don’t worry,’ ” Doug says.
But when the coroner’s office called back, the message was “I’m 90 percent sure this is your son.”
At work, Karen dropped the phone and collapsed when Doug called her. Olivia, driving home from her boyfriend’s house, pulled over and refused to keep going until Doug explained why he had summoned her home. In Arizona, Dave Laher had burgers ready for the grill, and Marilyn, shredding potatoes into a skillet, was puzzled to see Doug’s name on her phone when they had already spoken that day. “It was, of course, the worst moment of all of our lives,” Marilyn says.
In Idyllwild, Russ Hepton learned about Trevor from Cody and Jannek and felt a rush of panic. He had planned for four years to hike the PCT and loved its smooth path and the vastness of the American West. But after posting the U-Haul video, he had received online death threats for staying on the trail amid COVID. There was the fallen hiker. Now Trevor was dead. Within a week, Hepton was back in London.
Over the fog of the next few days, Doug beat himself up. Why hadn’t he known more about the PCT section around Apache Peak? His grief was so intense that he wondered whether it would have been better had he himself not been born. Then he would not have been experiencing this suffering. But that, he decided, was too disrespectful to Trevor. The only thing he could do to cut through the pain was write about Trevor and warn other hikers to prepare for danger in the San Jacintos. By April 1, his remembrance, “Trevor’s Eternal Trail,” was posted on The Trek, a website that follows hiker journeys.
“Trevor was not a statistic,” Doug wrote. “He was handsome, responsible, and smart. He was going to make this great world a better place. He was convinced he would someday write a computer program that would change the world.” Doug was interviewed for two podcasts, and he contacted Atlas Guides, the maker of the Guthook Guides GPS hiking app, which added a red alert to its map of the Apache Peak area, noting its extreme danger in the early season.
In tearful conversations with Cody and Jannek, Doug told them to go home, that the trail was cursed. He wasn’t thinking of the evil spirit of Tahquitz, a banished shaman of the Cahuilla tribe, believed to live in the San Jacintos’ rocky depths: “It was COVID, it was the danger of the trail, it was the snow, and then it was the accident.”
Cody and Jannek thought they were safer from COVID on the PCT than in an airport. After four days in Idyllwild, they carried on. Cody, mourning Trevor and concerned that he would become emotionally paralyzed on some snowy mountain, received phone counseling from psychologist colleagues in Brisbane. He and Jannek detoured to conquer the 14,500-foot Mount Whitney peak, where Cody built a stone cairn in Trevor’s honor. Both made it to the end of the PCT—it took them 23 and 24 weeks, respectively, to complete. And Doug changed his mind. Seeing their Instagram photos kept him connected to Trevor. “It was almost as if he was on trail with them,” he says.
In his new quest to promote safety in the San Jacintos, Doug has planned a trip for this spring. With his father, a cousin, and a high school friend, he’ll retrace Trevor’s PCT route from the Paradise Valley Cafe to mile 169.5, where Trevor fell. Doug’s friend will record the journey for a video Doug hopes to post on hiker websites.
“I’ve told him I don’t want you to hold anything back,” Doug says. “If I’m sitting there bawling my eyes out, that’s what I want you to capture. I just feel it’s my job.”