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October 2006

Lost & Found

John Donovan disappeared in a high-elevation blizzard, leaving rescuers and friends stumped. But his backpack contained a miracle clue.

Duane Steiner, a photographer from Lake Arrowhead, CA, likewise remembers Donovan as overconfident. “This guy was going to conquer the world,” says Steiner. “I said, ‘I know the area. You need to buy an ice axe to do Fuller Ridge.'” Donovan rejected the advice, a choice that wouldn’t have surprised his friends and colleagues. They recall him defiantly walking 4 miles to work even on frigid days, his face wind-burned and frozen when he arrived. As an ultralighter, he probably figured an ice axe was a heavy, extravagant tool he’d rarely use, and anyway he was too stubborn to change now.

Around 1 p.m. on May 3, Donovan likely began to have doubts. He climbed into Little Tahquitz Valley, just south of Saddle Junction, and found that the trail, partly visible until then, was now concealed by snow. The footprints amid the tall ponderosas were scattered, and the trees bore no blazes. Donovan sought help from two other hikers–a Canadian nurse named Connie Davis, 46, and her 20-year-old son, Alex, both of whom had extensive altitude experience.

Donovan had camped near the Davises the night before, and they did not hit it off. “He had no trouble speaking his mind,” Connie Davis says. “When we talked of how young men can ‘find themselves’ on the trail, he was dismissive. He said, ‘You find yourself living your life.'”

When Donovan began following the Davises through the snowfield, Connie told him, “We’re not going to take the most direct route.” He tagged along anyway as the Davises navigated with an altimeter, staying at 8,000 feet, hugging the contour line as it squiggled across both the landscape and their topo map. Donovan stayed about 30 feet behind them. He’d put on crampons, but the spikes didn’t work well with his lightweight trail runners, and he slipped and fell repeatedly.

“He was having a hard time,” says Connie. “But he seemed healthy, and it seemed to me that he was going to hike up Fuller Ridge if he wanted to. I remember thinking, he’s an adult. I won’t tell him what to do.”

The Davises kept gliding along, snapping photos and aiding their balance with trekking poles. Donovan kept falling–and cursing in frustration.

Eventually, the Davises followed a small creek uphill and turned northwest roughly half a mile south of Saddle Junction. “That’s where we saw him last,” Connie Davis later wrote in a letter to the PCT community. It was at about 8,080 feet on the afternoon of May 3. “He was very close to Saddle Junction. There was patchy snow at this point, and you could see hints of the trails.”

No one knows exactly what Donovan did next. No one ever saw him alive again.

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