As Stephen Olshansky hiked south through alpine Colorado in the crackling beauty of autumn 2015, he knew he was playing chicken with the arrival of winter. He was almost past the highest peaks along the Continental Divide Trail as fall storms laid down the first sheets of snow—not enough to stop him in his tracks, but plenty to slow him. “I was postholing a lot, shin to knee deep above 9,000 [feet]” in southern Colorado’s San Juan Range, he wrote on his blog.
Olshansky, a veteran thru-hiker who went by the trail name Otter, knew snow. He’d often been a southbounder—a sobo, as hikers say—starting at the northern end of a long-distance trail in the spring, before the snow had completely melted, and covering the entire distance of the trail, rather than picking it off section by section. “He was a master, a top expert,” says Art Rohr, one of Otter’s thru-hiking friends. But what Otter had encountered in previous years was spring snow—compacted enough for him to cruise along on top of it.
By late October, fall was already sliding toward winter, but Otter was in no hurry. He rested with friends for days at a time. First he scarfed potato chips and watched the World Series with Dustin Partridge (trail name: the Pro from Dover) in Mancos, in the southwest corner of the state. Then he moved 80 miles east to Pagosa Springs to hang with Namie Bacile (trail name: LetItBe), his peer as one of the few hikers to complete three trips along each of the Triple Crown trails: the Appalachian (2,190 miles), the Pacific Crest (2,650 miles), and the Continental Divide (3,100 miles).
Before he set out on the CDT again, Otter called me. He and I were friends; we’d met in 2000, when I helped him navigate the deepening snows of late fall in the Sierra Nevada, and we’d stayed in occasional touch ever since. On the phone, Otter said that he was anticipating cooler weather and asked me to ship him a tent I had that was equipped with a woodstove crafted from titanium. The stove weighed 1.6 pounds and folded flat when you unrolled the stovepipe. I sent it along, and he tested out his new winter gear while camping in the snowy backyard of a couple of trail angels, Ben and Jill Witting, in Chama, New Mexico. He spent his nights studying the Wittings’s maps of his route south and watching the weather forecast—snowstorms, maybe a few big ones. “That’s pretty much all we talked about,” Ben Witting told me.
The land ahead was the rimrock country of New Mexico, the red sandstone of the Pueblo people, who a thousand years before had hiked hundreds of miles to knit together their far-flung empire of cliff dwellings. That part of the Divide is still high, beginning at 10,022-foot Cumbres Pass and topping out at more than 11,000 feet in places. The region is deceptively flat looking, sometimes heavily wooded and sometimes open, or rolling gently before suddenly dropping over a ledge. Otter had been through that landscape before, however, and was anxious to get moving, weather or not—once he was done hiking, he had a much-needed gig lined up, working as a golf pro. He refused Witting’s offer of a map.
On November 14, Witting dropped Otter at Cumbres Pass. It was a clear 50-degree day, and he asked Otter to call when he reached Ghost Ranch, 75 miles south. Otter was carrying a hefty two-week load of food—strictly grocery store, nothing freeze-dried. Witting’s young son, Wells, waved shyly goodbye as Otter disappeared down the snowy trail. Two weeks later, Witting was still waiting for that phone call.
Stephen Olshansky was born in 1956 and grew up in New Rochelle, New York. His love of the outdoors began in the woods around his home, a long stretch of trees that served as the main conduit to his friends’ houses. Otter—or Beebers, as his friends called him—thrived there. When his family moved a few miles away, he was cut off from that little wilderness. “Same town, same elementary school, same everything. Just no woods,” says his older brother, Neil. Something changed in Otter as a result—he seemed to turn inward, and to seek out ever more fervently the solace he’d found in the woods.
He started hiking at summer camp in New Hampshire when he was seven. The Appalachian Trail ran right by the camp, and for the next seven summers he devoured longer and longer sections of it. (His trail name came later; friends say “Otter” was bestowed on him by Native Americans he visited in Arizona.)
In high school, Otter was easily bored, though he was a smart kid. (He once made his way to New York City, walked into a national chess championship, and won his age group; his friends didn’t even know he played.) He ditched school most days and watched movies or played golf. But it was America’s longest trails that called to him. Sometime in his early twenties, he did his first thru-hike of the AT, and his life settled into a routine: hiking all summer, then working through the winter as a golf pro in Florida, where the only thing in his bedroom when I visited him in 2001 was a tent, set up in the middle of the floor.
Otter picked off trail after trail, year after year, becoming one of the most accomplished members of a small but growing community of thru-hikers. I first met Otter on the Pacific Crest Trail, in the snow. It was his first sobo venture, in 2000. He had left the Canadian border that spring with hiking poles (innovative at that point) and an ice ax to cover 200 miles of solid snow blanketing the North Cascades. The firm snowpack gave him moments of slippery panic, but mostly it just slowed him down enough that by the time he reached the Sierra Nevada it was October. An early winter storm had dropped two feet and sent him postholing to the town of Mammoth, east of Yosemite, where he called me up to guide him. I brought snowshoes—I usually ski, but Otter didn’t, and timberline is no place to learn—and a climbing rope. Over the next 200 miles, we hiked over 13,153-foot Forester Pass, the highest, iciest stretch of the PCT.
Otter and I became friends. I helped him shoot a movie about his hike, before reality TV became big. He amassed countless hours of trail footage but never managed to get any producers interested. Still, he’d bring it up when I saw him over the years, often at remote trailheads, where we’d talk and hike and I’d resupply his weed stash.
By 2014, the Continental Divide had become his favorite trail, uniting the Rockies from New Mexico to Montana. Its footpath was only 70 percent finished, so some sections had to be strung together using game trails and logging roads. It was the wild west of thru-hiking.
Otter hadn’t planned on hiking the CDT in 2015. In March of that year, he told me he was going to backpack up the coast of California, then head east through Oregon to Idaho, where he’d heard about a proposed trail that would ring the edge of the state. He planned to follow the southern border to Montana.
Along the way, he joined up with a group of well-heeled hikers who had a motor home for a sag wagon and were hiking a portion of the CDT. Within a few weeks of traveling together Otter had outdistanced them. He made such good mileage that he decided he might as well keep heading south and hike the whole damn trail again. It was August—the latest in the year, as far as I know, that any hiker had ever launched onto the CDT toward Mexico.
As soon as Otter left Cumbres Pass and headed into the Carson National Forest that November, he realized that he was in trouble. “I immediately began to suffer from terrible weakness,” he wrote in the journal that he kept throughout his ordeal. “When I stood up I felt faint.” It’s possible he’d contracted the flu while staying with the Wittings; Ben was laid up for three weeks with it. Even after he’d recovered, though, the going was tough for Otter. “The snow was waist deep in places,” he wrote. “I saw one spot of ground and took it and pitched. It started snowing, ending Tuesday [November 17] late, well over a foot on top.”
Up Highway 17, not far from where Otter had set out, Troy Chambers was readying snowmobiles for another winter guiding tourists for Cumbres Adventure Tours when the storm hit. “There were two and a half feet of snow at least,” Chambers told me, a dose of cowboy in his voice. “That’s the earliest this company’s ever done a tour.”
Otter’s route was beyond the range of Chambers’s usual snowmobile tours. This was plateau country; in summer you were lured along over myriad small ridges. But summer was long gone, and the snow was already drifting along the trail, ending any ambition of mileage.
The storm soon cleared, but temperatures plummeted—highs were in the twenties, not even close to what’s necessary to melt or consolidate snow. “I tried to hike back on Wed, only made a mile of the 12, I turned back to my campsite, just barely making it,” he wrote. “I was sick and snow bound and without SPOT,” referring to the emergency messaging device.
Otter pulled out his phone—which he used to store maps and to make the occasional call to friends on rare occasions when he had service—and recorded a video.
In the clip, he doesn’t look bad, and his voice is thoughtful. “I’m in big trouble,” he says. “I tried hiking out yesterday.” Past the edge of his tent—the tent I mailed to him—you can see tracks postholing into the woods. Otter was equipped with a down jacket, a fleece pullover, and long underwear, some of it threadbare and all of it ultralight. True to thru-hiker practice, his clothes were warm enough only while he moved fast, though he did have a minus-20-degree sleeping bag for cold nights. Otter was wearing running shoes instead of his custom-made Limmer boots, which were warm but heavy and therefore stayed in his brother’s basement in Connecticut. “Between the crotch-deep snow and the altitude … I could not keep my toes warm either,” he says in the video. “I really rolled the dice and I lost.… I need a miracle right now.”
It was November 19, his sixth day out, but on top of other problems Otter was now nursing the first stages of frostbite on his toes. It was nearly Thanksgiving, closing in on the shortest day of the year, and all along the Divide the mountains were deep into winter. He lay marooned in his tent. Then “the wind picked up and a big system blew in. It snowed and blew for a full week, and during that time I tried to build snowshoes, made a big ‘Help’ in the snow and hoped someone would fly over. I really thought they would and cannot figure out why they didn’t. It’s disappointing. The days ticked by, no snowmobiles, no planes.”
Otter was stuck there for 17 days, until December 1. (It’s easy to lose track of time in the backcountry, and it’s possible that Otter’s journal entries were off by several days.) Foot after foot of snow accumulated. Chambers was busy leading snowmobile tours, though he said he almost never took anyone beyond a broad meadow eight miles north of where Otter had pitched his tent. A few backcountry skiers took powder laps close to the Pass, but it’s rare for anyone to venture deep into that country in winter.
When help failed to arrive during those first two and a half weeks, Otter faced a choice—“the biggest decision of my life,” he called it. Option one: he could stay put and hope to be rescued. Option two: he could head east or west, though his field-made snowshoes—stout branches lashed with strips of cloth torn from his meager wardrobe—probably wouldn’t hold up long in the Divide’s famously light powder. Option three: he could push south to lower country and, just maybe, less snow. He remembered seeing a campground—Lagunitas—three miles to the south on a map before his phone died. “There is a bathroom there I slept in once,” he wrote.
In the end, the prospect of shelter in a latrine won out, and he packed up his tent and continued south.
“Took a lot of courage to pack up that day.… I hiked 200 yards and bent over from total exhaustion in the waist deep snow, I looked back to the place where I had spent 17 days… Safe, but a coffin.… A few steps, bend over, it took all day. I could not go one step further and was about to just sleep in the snow and I looked to my left and saw the bathroom.… I squeezed inside the icebox shivering. Got into my sleeping bag cranked up the wood stove for a hot drink.”
The first inkling of concern about Otter’s whereabouts came from Ben Witting. On November 29, he logged onto CDT 15, a thru-hiker Facebook page. “Anybody hear from Otter in the last week or so? He left here (Chama) headed towards Ghost Ranch on the 14th of Nov.”
Peter Gross, Otter’s best friend, hadn’t heard from him either, so he called Dustin Partridge in Colorado. “This doesn’t seem right,” Gross said. A light went on for Partridge. “I was like, ‘Oh, my god. Otter is missing.’”
Otter’s friends Lynn Udick and Art Rohr (combined trail name: TwoBadDogs) were growing anxious, too. Though they’d never met Partridge, they knew of him from frequent exchanges on CDT 15. The trail community is tightly knit, with top hikers developing a rapport. Udick and Rohr drove to Mancos, arriving just an hour after Gross and Partridge hung up the phone. They knew that Otter had a SPOT, because Rohr had helped him load maps into it. What they didn’t know was that Otter had ditched it months before, putting its small monthly service charge toward food and weed instead.
They hesitated to call search and rescue for someone as experienced as Otter but decided to do so anyway, even if he might later be mad at them. They reached Bob Rodgers, head of SAR for the New Mexico State Police, in Albuquerque. Rodgers had yet to hear anything about Otter. They talked for almost an hour. (Soon after, Rodgers got a call from Otter’s brother, Neil, as well.)
Rodgers immediately alerted state police officers, who began to hustle. They had AT&T ping Otter’s phone, but there was no return signal. Early the next morning, patrolwoman Jolene Jones went to Chama and interviewed the head of the Chama visitor center, who was aware that Otter had stayed with Ben and Jill Witting and that Ben had dropped him at Cumbres Pass. She also knew that Otter’s destination was Ghost Ranch, in Abiquiú. When Jones called there, a staffer told her that a care package for Otter had arrived in early November, but the food inside had started to rot, so the staff had opened it. Rodgers went to Ghost Ranch to double-check. He called Udick to say he was looking at the empty box. “He didn’t make it to Abiquiú,” he said.
In Chama, Jones spoke with Witting, the last person to see Otter. He told her that Otter planned to deviate from the trail on his hike southward, possibly by following one of the “spaghetti mess of [dirt] roads” in the area. Both Otter’s personal Facebook page and the group page for the season’s CDT hikers began buzzing with updates. I chimed in, too, from California, relating that he’d told me his plans to hike dirt roads instead of the trail.
“I tried to build snowshoes, made a big ‘Help’ in the snow and hoped someone would fly over. I really thought they would and cannot figure out why they didn’t.”
Bob Rodgers announced an aerial search, scheduled for December 10. Three Cessnas from the Civil Air Patrol faced 40-mile-per-hour winds and below-freezing temperatures as they flew over 300 square miles of the Carson National Forest between Chama and Ghost Ranch. Lagunitas Campground was on the northern fringe of the search area, but spotting a person in the wild and varied terrain from above would have been close to impossible. Wind riffs scooted powder around, creating illusions of motion. The sun glared off the snow. Reports from the plane’s crews stated a probability of detection between 25 and 30 percent. That was probably optimistic. Indeed, flying in those conditions, the northernmost plane never noticed that it passed right over Otter.
By December 10, Otter had been stuck for 27 days. He decided to try and ski out, though he hadn’t been on skis since he was a kid flailing on groomers. “I gave up on being rescued,” he wrote. “Built a pair of skis to hold me up off the snow. Determined, I skied out to a cloudy sky.”
Otter made his skis out of sheet metal, likely from the roof of a wooden shed where campers could shelter their horses. Otter had burned it down in an attempt to be noticed. He fashioned two long strips of metal into skis and used twisted bailing wire for bindings. Though he didn’t detail his objective in his journal, it’s likely he went east. Heading that direction from Lagunitas on Forest Road 87, the plateau breaks and the landscape begins to slope downward; 27 miles away, the road empties onto heavily traveled Highway 285. It’s not clear that Otter knew any of that, however. And each hill and hollow would have been a daunting challenge, especially for a novice. “I had a bad fall. Getting all tangled up with my razor sharp metal skis I could have really gotten hurt. Took me several tough minutes to get up in the deep snow.”
But then a chance at salvation: “Just as I was at the end of the entrance road along comes search and rescue plane directly above me and I was out in the open. They flew over the campground and might have seen the building I burnt down after the storm ’cause it was not snow covered. Couple of minutes later they turned around and flew back over! Wildly waving at them. They had a perfect view as I was out in the open. My only chance left is that they saw me.”
In the meantime, Otter stuck to his plan. The conditions were challenging. The powder in those early storms was dry and light, and Otter’s floppy shoes afforded him tenuous control in his homemade bindings. “I skied a couple of miles collapsed in the snow made camp in the deep snow and wind. No sleep all night long.… That night I knew I wouldn’t make it so I made the tough decision to ski back. I would have died out there.”
Otter returned to the campground latrine, a six-by-six foot structure made of cement blocks with a vault toilet in one corner. The wood shelter, before he torched it, had yielded not only metal for skis but a stash of food: a couple dozen pounds of horse feed. Cracking oats on the cement floor of the latrine with a stone, he could cook oatmeal. So he stayed put, eating and resting his hopes on the plane. “My gut says they didn’t see me.… If they don’t show up I’m doomed. There’s been a day between with snow and wind where they couldn’t get in. Snowed last night. Hoping for clearing. Hoping.… Come on rescuers.… This is the most agonizing day. It’s all come down to this.”
Otter didn’t know that a false sighting had turned all attention away from northern New Mexico. The report came in on December 10—the same day the planes flew their search pattern—in Grants, nearly 200 miles southwest of the Lagunitas campground. Otter’s sister, Miranda, had helped create a missing-person flyer. Pictures of a smiling Otter with a full, curly beard had gone up on Facebook and in all down-trail towns from Chama to the Mexican border. Soon after they appeared, there came a false sighting: a bearded guy with a backpack had walked into the Forest Service station in Grants. He’d asked for directions to the post office and a motel, and said that he’d started hiking in November. Though the ranger manning the front desk didn’t ask the hiker’s name, he had seen the flyer and thought it must be Otter.
Rodgers raced down and talked to two motel workers who said they had also seen the bearded man. But nobody knew where he’d gone. Carol Mumm, a trail angel in Grants, took to Otter’s Facebook page: “OMG I just heard from local rescue that you are safe and you are in our area. We are so grateful and if you need our help in any way just call.” Up to that point, Otter’s case had been classified as search and rescue, used when a subject’s whereabouts are unknown and the person is believed to be in immediate danger. Soon, however, it was wrongly reclassified as a missing-person case, used when the subject is assumed alive and their location is simply unaccounted for.
Bob Rodgers had already shifted his focus south of Lagunitas. Told that Otter usually hiked 15 miles a day in the absence of snow, Rodgers reckoned that would have put Otter beyond the high country when the first storm hit. Calculating the distance, he checked Hopewell Lake Campground, 17.7 miles south of Lagunitas. When that turned up nothing, Rodgers figured that Otter might have skipped Ghost Ranch, which is south of the CDT, and, without calling anyone, continued hiking toward Grants.
Flying in those conditions, the northernmost plane never noticed that it passed right over Otter.
Otter’s wilderness-savvy friends were unconvinced. “The successful search and rescues, at least around here,” Witting told me, “are informal.” Witting had seen the snow when he dropped Otter at Cumbres Pass, knowing full well how drastically it would slow him down. Teresa Martinez, the head of the CDT Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and promoting the trail, she had a private chat going with Witting, Namie Bacile, and Mary Steuver, a local forester. Martinez ended up being a pivotal liaison between trail friends, Otter’s family, and SAR. “I just got off the phone with Search and Rescue…I’m considering putting a call out to local trail community. Do you know anyone who may [want] to head into area?” she wrote to the group on December 9.
The next day, Witting responded that a snowmobile might be the best way to conduct the search, given the terrain. “He was planning on taking (and we dropped him off at) FR 87 toward Lagunitas Campground and then from there towards Hopewell Lake. If he was cruisin’ and the snow wasn’t too deep he could have made it all the way to the campground before the storm. Anybody want to go for a snowmobile tour or have one to loan?”
But no one reached out to Troy Chambers, the snowmobile guide who runs the only snowmobiling outfitter in the area. “It’s a shame,” he says now, “because we were here, right near the campgrounds in Lagunitas. It’s a pretty half-day or better on the snowmobiles.”
After the false sighting was reported in Grants, attention had turned away from the backcountry. The difference between searching the wilderness and leafleting towns is profound. It can be distracting but also comforting, in an odd way, to shift from staring into the mute mystery of a white wilderness to scanning the roadside. But for Rohr, Udick, and Otter’s other hiking friends, the Grants sighting didn’t figure. Rohr drove three and a half hours from Cortez to Grants and talked to the ranger who first reported seeing the bearded hiker. “It took about three sentences before I realized that absolutely could not be Otter,” he says. “The ranger described the guy as kind of evasive. I mean, Otter’s gregarious.”
Otter’s friends knew that he had hiked through Grants before and not only knew where to find the post office, but would probably stay with trail angels instead of at a motel. “If that’s Otter, he got hit on the head by a tree falling in the woods and he doesn’t know who he is,” says Udick.
People who were not as close to him, though, were coming to other conclusions. Martinez, from the CDT Coalition, e-mailed Lynn Udick. “I was the first person to speak with the USFS,” Martinez wrote, referring to the Forest Service ranger. The ranger described the man as having Otter’s clothing and pack. Rodgers wrote to Udick on December 14. “Assuming that the person spotted in Grants was Otter, I cannot authorize any further search activities and turned over my actions to Law Enforcement for the missing person case.”
Even as his case was being reclassified, Otter’s friends were anxiously awaiting footage from the Grants Forest Service security camera in the hope that it would convince Rodgers to relaunch the search. But on December 16, they found out that the hard disk it was stored on had been damaged. The state police officer investigating the missing-person case included a note in his report: “There is no specific information stating the subject is in danger.” Otter’s friends felt defeated. It had been a month since he’d set out, and they began to lose hope.
Right after Christmas Partridge and two other hikers drove to Cumbres Pass. “We got there, and we hiked a few hundred yards down the trail or road. And there was five feet of snow on the ground,” he said. “It just didn’t feel like he could possibly be alive out there.”
Otter couldn’t know for certain that he’d been abandoned, but as days passed without any sign of the searchers, he grew more and more concerned. “I feel so bad right now.… I am powerless.… No chance anymore.”
His thoughts turned to suicide. All his life, Otter had said “hike your own hike,” an admonition to not get caught up in what others thought. Now he began preparing to die his own death. He was matter-of-fact about it. “My intention is to bring the stove inside later and asphyxiate myself. Prolly won’t work. Nothing else I’ve tried has. ☺ I’m completely at peace with it as it’s so much better than the alternative. I intend to enjoy my last day, eat my remaining food, stay warm, and focus on the beauty and good things that were my life, especially my friends.”
He listed them in his journal, writing a personal goodbye to each one. He began with Peter Gross: “you were the best friend anyone could ever have.” Then he addressed each of his childhood friends, a tight band who had mostly migrated to Florida and had taken him in repeatedly between hikes. Then his friend Chas Bolling, a golfer on the PGA Tour who hired Otter as his coach and caddy every year: “I so enjoyed you—love ya and thanks for everything—Sorry I didn’t get to caddy.”
Otter had a message for me, too: “What can I say? I fucked up. You were so nice to me over the last few years.” Then he came to his trail friends: “TO ALL OF YOU—Get as much joy out of the rest of your lives as you can.”
Having said his goodbyes, Otter attempted to asphyxiate himself by lighting the stove, hoping it would burn up the oxygen in the outhouse. It didn’t work. The latrine wasn’t airtight, and gale-force winds kept a steady stream of air moving through it.
“Dec 17th. Clear but frigid. I’m still here and fighting. Gonna try to melt water by body heat.… Actually don’t feel too bad. Have to stay in sleeping bag all day eating one oat at a time. Don’t want to waste any. Must have about 20 [pounds] left. Wonder how long I’ll last.”
Snow continued to drop, a few inches at a time, smothering the bathroom. Between storms it was piercingly cold, with temperatures plummeting below zero. Otter stayed in his sleeping bag, as it took him too long to warm up once he returned to it. He daydreamed of food. “Think of pizza all day long,” he wrote. All he had was his dwindling supply of oats. He decided he felt best when he allowed himself to eat three times a day. “How long can a human last in these conditions?” he wondered. “I once heard 3–5 days without h2o and a month without food. But what if 3 meals a day of horse oats? Dunno.”
Otter had been at the campground for over a month and missing for six weeks. He spent his days pinned down inside the cinder-block bathroom. He slept diagonally on the cement floor. If there was one luxury, it was the steel door, an upgrade from a flimsy tent flap when blizzards raged.
“Has only been one or two sunny days in a month. I’ve done a great job of prolonging things as I am over 6 weeks now,” he wrote. “Besides water and oatmeal my biggest problem is my toes.… I am trying to never let them get cold in the first place cause if they do it’s painful and it takes hours to warm them up.”
“Hoping for clearing. Hoping.… Come on rescuers.… This is the most agonizing day. It’s all come down to this.”
Otter’s only chance at living longer was getting food and water. He set his sights on the two lakes just beyond the outhouse and the fish and fresh water beneath the ice. “I saved wood gonna try to burn a hole in the ice. Have line can fashion some hooks… Might not be fish, might not bite. But, if it works it’s a game changer.”
If I could just get some protein, Otter thought, I might be able to get on the skis and head back to Cumbres Pass. But he was too weak to even collect wood anymore, let alone wallow down to either of the two lakes, clear the snow, and try burning a hole in the ice.
January brought even more storms. “Biggest storm yet. Dumped more than a foot so far, big winds.” The snow piled as high as the doorway. He journaled through the day, sounding upbeat at some points, despondent at others. “MY LIFE IS OVER!” he wrote. “No opportunity to change things. Very sad.”
He decided to make another attempt at ending things. He took his saw to his left wrist and cut through the skin. Blood poured from his veins, heartbeat by heartbeat. Otter guessed he lost a liter before the wound clotted. That night he shivered through the whole evening. The next morning he sewed up his wrist, probably with fishing line.
His destitution went on for weeks, if the timing in Otter’s journal can be believed. By his account, he still had food into February. “Gonna try to keep up with the water for a few days, but I know I can’t,” he wrote. Although snow surrounded him, he was too weak to stand, let alone venture out to gather snow. So he lay there, almost motionless, as the snow continued to pile up around him.
In his final days, perhaps hours, he began summing up his life in his journal:
“I NEVER EVER fit in! Not from 4 years old till now. Nowhere, except maybe hiking community.”
“5th grade bullied terribly left scar for life.… I was crushed beyond words.… So unhappy we moved away from woods.… I ran away and hitchhiked across the country. I discovered another world that forever changed my life.… Got stoned first time at 16 was best thing ever, escaped reality pain for first time. Went hiking out west on PCT! Got laid first time.”
“Looks like I am going to die of dehydration, no flowing water can’t keep up. This is so intense and so sad.… I’m powerless, getting weaker.… Been 50 below just laying around in the sack… Losing track of days. Dream of food all day.”
“Boy do I have regrets.”
On April 7, 2016, Ian “DirtWolf” Crombie headed north from the Mexican border on the CDT. It was hot and dry in the New Mexico desert. “Highlight of the day, besides the views, was some trail angel water,” he recalls. Like most CDT aspirants, Crombie was a veteran hiker, having already completed the PCT. Nearly a month after he set out, Crombie encountered snow at just 2,000 feet of elevation—still 30 miles south of Lagunitas. He trudged onward through slush. “I stopped caring about wet feet,” he says. On May 10—six months since Otter left Chama—Crombie woke up before dawn and hiked over the crusted snow into Lagunitas Campground.
The front porch of the bathroom was overlaid by the dried dust and scattered pine needles left by snowmelt. A pair of homemade skis looked incongruous out front. Crombie wondered if a hiker had made them the previous year. “And then I saw the door,” he says. Scratched into the paint was the word “WARNING.” A faded paper note was stuck to the door:
There is a Dead Human Body Inside Bathroom Locked In.
It is that of
Please Notify Authorities
Crombie had seen fliers with Otter’s face the whole way north, in every trail town. He tried the latrine door and found it locked. He raced northward to deliver the news. “My first instinct was that I need to tell someone: this is Otter. I kept postholing, I kept walking. It was wet, boggy sort of stuff, and I kept losing the trail.” A couple of days later, he reached Chama and alerted the state police.
They had a grim assignment. Spring is a no-man’s-land in the mountains. Snowmobiles have been languishing in backyards; creeks are too swollen to fish. Fallen trees lie athwart deep, lingering drifts. “Officer Faulkner attempted to get to the location with his patrol unit, however was unable to reach the camp area due to the large snow drifts in the roadway,” reads a police report. Faulkner went for reinforcements. More officers convened, along with criminal investigators and a Forest Service ranger, all on ATVs and side by sides. Even then the snow was so deep that they had to posthole to reach Lagunitas, where they were able to pry open the restroom door.
Inside, Otter lay in a badly decomposed state. That afternoon, May 15, he finally made it down Forest Road 87, where he had tried to ski out to Highway 285. His body was taken to the mortuary in Espanola and cremated.
Later that month, Otter’s trail friends gathered in New Mexico and, at his request, threw a celebration. On June 2, his family and oldest friends gathered back east where the AT crests Mount Greylock in Massachusetts and held a quiet memorial for Beebers, as many of them still knew him. I joined them, as he requested. His “Last Will,” as he labeled his journal, had been found tied to a railing in the restroom. The state police gave it to Otter’s brother, Neil, who transcribed it and sent it to me.
I’ve spent over two years reading it and talking to SAR experts, his family, his trail friends, and his oldest buddies in Florida, looking for answers. It is easy to cast blame for Otter’s death. For me, a single element hung in the air from our phone call two days before he disappeared: Otter was smoking more weed than ever. “I was so stoned on cookies, weed ETC in Chama I went on anyway,” he wrote in his journal.
One SAR expert I talked to said that airplanes are ineffectual for wilderness search, and the initial operation was almost immediately waylaid by the false sighting. Despite vigorous protest from Lynn Udick and Art Rohr, Bob Rodgers suspended the wilderness search even without confirmed sightings in civilization. And when Rodgers asked if the Forest Service could conduct a ground search near Lagunitas, they ultimately decided the weather made it impossible.
Ben Witting thinks the Forest Service may have been able to find him had they tried. The national forest district that neighbored the one in which Lagunitas campground was located had rangers with snowmobiles, but they weren’t the ones tasked with the search. “They’re badass!” Witting said when I visited him in Chama. A nimble search might have been able to jump such political divisions.
Troy Chambers was the closest, and he had intimate knowledge of the terrain. He could have found Otter within hours had anyone asked. But Chambers was based just over the state line in Colorado, out of Bob Rodgers’s jurisdiction.
I gave up on my friend too quickly, because I imagined he was already dead. Otter told me he would avoid the alpine peaks, so I never thought about snow. Instead, I pictured him walking a dusty rimrock edge where crumbling sandstone sent him into the talus below. Namie Bacile also thought he probably slipped and fell. Others thought avalanche. Lynn Udick feared that all those potato chips led to a coronary.
It’s easy for me to think that I could have done more, that I was perhaps the only one who could: Dustin Partridge wasn’t as comfortable on skis; Ben Witting had the flu; Otter’s family and friends back east didn’t know how to travel in the wilderness.
All these months later, though, I prefer to think of the moments near his end when Otter’s thoughts and words strayed beyond death and pizza. One calm morning in January, he propped open the door of his borrowed room, slid his sleeping bag halfway outside, and simply laid in the warmth, grateful for the sun on his cheek. I imagine him reflecting on how full a journey he’d had since those first youthful strides on the Appalachian Trail. The invitation of his life is to follow him, even on days when pizza isn’t assured and death is near, by recognizing that all our rooms are borrowed and every step outdoors opens onto the eternal now.
Otter, for his part, was remarkably lacking in vindictiveness. “Life is a hike,” was his customary signoff on his blog entries; the hike was simply over. His journal, backed by a lifelong habit of self-reliance in the wilderness, places the blame mostly on Otter himself, his actions and omissions. “This is a situation of my own doing, from a life I led,” he wrote. He did not blame others or wish that they had done more. Instead, in his very last entry, he simply wished to be remembered. When his friends recalled him, he wrote, he wanted them to think of him as he lived, not as he died:
“This is for Stephen Beebers,
a good man, a good soul, a good friend
and I wish he were here now with us.”