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Trailside cliffs on Table Mountain. Pic: Summitpost.org
After a week and a half of intense searching by helicopter, canine, and ground teams, two ATV riders found the body of missing Portland hiker Katherine Heuther (24) on Saturday afternoon. She was discovered at the base of a cliff face on Table Mountain, north of the Columbia River Gorge in southern Washington. Our condolences go out to Huether’s family and friends.
Table Mountain (3,417 feet) is a 15-mile round-trip hike with steep and exposed trail sections. From the PCT trailhead near Bonneville Dam, where Huether set out about 1 p.m. on March 4th, it is considered a stout day-long endeavor.
The two local four-wheelers, a father and son who were intimately familiar with the area, went out specifically to look for Huether because they felt the most probable mishap site, a rugged region bordering an ancient landslide, had not been combed extensively. According to Skamania County Undersheriff Dave Cox, they “parked their 4 wheelers and…hiked some distance before finding Ms. Huether wedged behind rocks at the base of an over-800-foot cliff.” She was clad in dark blue clothing and difficult to spot even at close range.
The trail up Table Mountain involves steep terrain and narrow cliff-brink track. The last 1.5 miles climbs nearly 1,700 feet. Muddy ground, spotty snow and sporadic ice existed at the time and altitude of the accident, which probably occurred toward dusk on the same day Huether disappeared.
As the search lengthened without results, various theories arose as to what might have happened. Commenters and the news media began to seize on possible murder, sexual assault, or kidnapping. In the end, however, Huether succumbed to the most common scenario in backcountry accidents: A fall.
The search for Heuther also illustrates several themes I believe are important to realize in SAR scenarios.
 Even the most intensive searches often miss victims. The rugged terrain of many wilderness areas, the large areas covered, and the volunteer nature of most search teams means that only so much ground can be examined in ‘fine search’ mode. Many missing victims don’t reappear until years later, eventually found by somebody who was simply wandering off the beaten path.
 Aerial searches are overrated. Choppers and planes allow a lot of ground to be surveyed in rapid style, but it’s very common for actively signaling victims to be missed, even by low-flying craft. Dark or earth-toned gear is much, much harder to spot.
 Canine searches prove invaluable in many cases, but they are far from magical, especially in windy weather, on popular trails where scents become confused, or on rainy, snowy terrain.
 When someone goes missing suddenly, and clues are absent despite an intense search effort, the problem is usually a sudden, fatal fall. Lost or stranded hikers wander, leave tracks and clues, or create signals.
No one will probably ever know exactly what happened – and there’s no proof that Huether was actively making for the summit of Table Mountain – but I suspect she was drawn on by her experience, fitness, personal confidence, and nearness to the peak. Setting out late, and then extending your goal, is a common predisposing factor in backcountry emergencies. Unfortunately there’s little room for error if something goes wrong near nightfall.
Only the simplest, wide open trails can be traveled efficiently in darkness, even with a headlamp. On March 4th, the weather was good in Columbia Gorge, although footing would still have been wet in upper elevations. The moon was four days past full, meaning it would have been bright, but didn’t rise until at least three hours after dark.
In other words; An active person with a busy life, a long drive to trailhead, a fine day, and a scenic hike with a worthy goal. Sound familiar? It could have been any of us. Rest in peace Katherine. Hike safe readers. –Steve Howe