As the first snowstorms of October began to hit the Cascades, only a small trickle of northbound Pacific Crest Trail hikers remained on the approach to the high and exposed ridges of the Goat Rocks in southern Washington.
So Aaron Murrow and Chelsea Hampton were pleasantly surprised when they met Kris Fowler, a tall, skinny, athletic 34-year-old.
All three were thru hikers, meaning they’d started at the Mexican border. But Murrow could immediately tell Fowler was an even more experienced hiker.
“He seemed like someone that I would like to get to know,” Murrow would say later. “I just wish we had spent more time together.”
Known as “Sherpa” to fellow hikers, Fowler left that kind of impression on most people he came across during his journey thanks to an amiable kindness and outgoing personality.
“He’s just smiling and we were kind of beat up and feeling down,” said Hadley Krenkel, a thru hiker who started two weeks before Fowler and spoke to him briefly on the trail and at a hostel in California. “He was really calm. The guy was a hell of a hiker.”
Having negotiated the Goat Rocks — where the trail runs along the spine of the Cascades reaching elevations as high as 7,500 feet — Fowler and the others safely reached U.S. Highway 12 at White Pass and met up again in the nearest town, Packwood. Because of the deteriorating weather, Murrow and Hampton decided to skip the next 300 miles of trail and jump ahead to the North Cascades Highway to resume their trek to Canada.
But on the morning of Oct. 12, Fowler hitched a ride back to White Pass. Over coffee at a small store there, he said he was undecided about whether to brave the bad weather he was likely to encounter ahead on the trail.
At 5:43 p.m. that day, his cellphone signal disappeared from satellite view. It has never returned.
A search, possibly unprecedented in its scope, was launched. Almost seven weeks later, authorities are no closer to finding him.
“I just think that we’re doing what we can do,” Yakima County Sheriff’s Sgt. Randy Briscoe said. “I think that if he’s on the trail, the odds of his survival are fairly low at this point. Do I know for sure he’s on the trail? I don’t know for sure.”
Sally Guyton Fowler remembers that even when he was youngster, people were drawn to her stepson, who always preferred to be outdoors.
His mother died while he was young, and Guyton Fowler met him when he was 10 before marrying his father, Mike, two years later. They have since divorced.
Her brother, Rick, often went camping with the family and said Fowler always brought his camera. He posted several beautiful photographs from the Pacific Crest Trail that Guyton Fowler recently added to the Bring Kris Fowler/Sherpa Home Facebook group.
“He was easy to get along with,” Rick said. “If I didn’t see him for a month or two on end, it was really easy to catch up with him.”
In his hometown of Beavercreek, Ohio, Fowler excelled at baseball and joined his high school’s first-ever hockey team. Guyton Fowler recalled how even though he never played football, Fowler decided on a whim to try the local Punt, Pass and Kick competition and twice advanced far enough to compete at Riverfront Stadium, home of his favorite team, the Cincinnati Bengals.
Guyton Fowler said Fowler maintained strong friendships from elementary school and formed new ones while in a fraternity at Wright State University, where he earned a degree in marketing and business. He also picked up a love for disc golf, always stayed in shape, went to the gym often, and hiked.
“He’s a nature nut,” said a cousin Jim Fowler. “Always loved to hike and even be in the woods and do anything that was outdoors.”
In the 12 months before setting off on the Pacific Crest Trail, Kris and his wife, whom he met in college, divorced. Then he lost his job when the Cincinnati company where he worked folded.
Guyton Fowler said the marketing he did there never really felt like a good fit, so with some money saved, he seized the opportunity to follow his passion.
Initial nervousness quickly gave way to understanding for Guyton Fowler, especially since her stepson spent a few months training for the approximately 2,650-mile trail. He even went to Colorado last spring to hike in the snow with sandals and no socks.
“After I talked to him I trusted him completely,” Guyton Fowler said. “I really felt like he was really prepared mentally and equipment-wise.”
Friends and family offered nothing but support as Fowler made the trip west with promises to contact someone at least once every two weeks, including updates on Facebook. Plans for after the trail included possibly finding work and staying near the Pacific Ocean, but that wasn’t a big concern when he set off from the U.S. border with Mexico just south of Campo, Calif., on May 7.
Hiking in bliss
Fowler never seemed to be in any hurry while making his way along the trail. Guyton Fowler said hikers or others he met remembered him as welcoming and energetic.
Armed with half-mile maps to help identify sites of interest, Fowler took plenty of detours and photographs to share on Facebook with admiring friends and family. He even spent a week on the sand dunes near the Pacific Ocean in Oregon with another hiker. The two planned to do more exploring together after he finished the trail, Guyton Fowler said.
“He would do offshoots and he would end up in some little town for a couple of days,” Guyton Fowler’s nephew, Jim Guyton, said. “That’s probably what put him behind a couple weeks towards the end.”
Another thru hiker from the Bay Area, Tanner Machon, met Fowler at Big Lake Youth Camp in Oregon and hung out with him at a few other stopping points near the Washington border. He could tell Fowler shared similar ideas and goals, along with a fierce determination to reach the finish in Canada.
By the time Fowler got to Washington and crossed paths with Murrow, the weather was changing to rain and snow.
Still, Murrow couldn’t help but be impressed watching Fowler move confidently and quickly away from a watering hole with wet socks, sandals and bloody ankles.
The next morning after a heavy snowfall, Murrow and Hampton found Fowler again under his stack of gear he used to keep warm during the night. This time, he decided to hike with them since they had GPS, preferable to his paper maps along the Goat Rocks, where sometimes steep embankments were covered with snow and thick fog.
But when they reached the rocks of lower altitudes, Fowler sped ahead again and Murrow figured he would beat them to Packwood. Instead, Fowler ended up waiting a day in a hunter’s cabin and helped clear a path through snow for some other hikers behind him, all while wearing socks, sandals and microspikes.
Murrow and Hampton met Fowler again at a hotel in Packwood, where he stayed from Oct 10-12. Murrow gave Fowler his tent, which Fowler had the next day when he told a clerk at the Kracker Barrel store on White Pass he planned to hike to Snoqualmie Pass.
Like Morrow and Hampton, Krenke also ended up skipping high elevations in Washington where weather threatened. But he acknowledged after coming so far, the decision to give up on the goal of a full thru hike can be extremely difficult.
After not hearing from Fowler, his family grew concerned enough to start making phone calls on Oct. 19. They’ve since found far more questions than answers.
Guyton Fowler last heard from him in text messages on Sept. 30, so it wasn’t unusual that he didn’t contact her or his father, Mike, while in Packwood, particularly since his cellphone charger had stopped working. But a week later, his father started contacting Pacific Crest Trail checkpoints to see if his son had picked up any packages mailed to him along the trail.
Credit card charges also stopped after Oct. 12, when Fowler would have been the last known northbound thru hiker to start the relatively easy 29-mile section of trail from White Pass to Chinook Pass. But sheriff’s Sgt. Briscoe said another hiker who knew Fowler well from earlier in their journey took the trail south during the same time frame, and he saw no sign of Fowler.
His family began contacting local authorities on Oct. 28, and on Nov. 1 Guyton Fowler, her brother Rick and her boyfriend came out to begin a 10-day search. She said they drove more than 2,500 miles, checking leads as far north as the Mazama Store on State Route 20, east of the trail almost 300 miles from White Pass.
Rick Guyton said the 18- to 20-hour days scouring the eye-opening vastness of the Washington wilderness with no new credible leads persuaded him to finally convince his sister she could do more back in Ohio, where she continues to converse with officials multiple times every day. Family members praised the work of volunteers, who Briscoe said have spent hundreds of hours searching the trail and surrounding areas on the ground and even via thermal imaging from a National Guard helicopter.
Longtime SAR Snohomish County Sgt. Danny Wikstrom said “that in his experience he’s never seen counties work together like this,” Briscoe said. “So everybody really came together. We discussed everything we could.”
Two hunters who exchanged small talk with Fowler on Oct. 22 at Blowout Mountain offered the most credible sighting, when they correctly described him to Briscoe in early November even before they saw a photo. The assumption that Fowler remained in good health and made it more than 63 trail miles from White Pass and 36 miles from Snoqualmie Pass opened up a host of new possibilities.
Briscoe and Fowler’s family find it hard to believe he would act so out of character as to start a new life or intentionally disappear without contacting someone. Guyton Fowler and several others said no one who knew Fowler questioned his mental or physical health, including a fraternity brother who is a mental health specialist and happened to speak to Fowler over the phone on Sept. 30.
“He’s an upbeat person,” Guyton Fowler said. “There was no drama back here for him to be running from.”
Pacific Crest Trail information specialist Jack Haskel expressed sympathy for the family and said Fowler will always share a unique bond with thousands of others as a thru hiker. The trail’s popularity has spiked since Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir “Wild” and the 2014 movie it inspired, with northbound permits ballooning from 988 in 2013 to 2,486 in 2015.
In response, Haskel said the organization increased its efforts to encourage safer and more responsible use of the trail. Although he said it’s “somewhat common” for hikers to get lost or injured, he noted the length of the search for Fowler is rare. Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Ellis Nale said he doesn’t recall seeking out many thru hikers.
Fowler will be sorely missed by his family this weekend, not only for Thanksgiving, but also for his presence during the annual football rivalry game between Ohio State and Michigan. Guyton Fowler said while most of the family supports the Buckeyes, Fowler has always been willing to endure the good-natured teasing that comes with being a Wolverines fan.