Searching for Pops
Bob Woodie went missing in the Sierra Nevada high country in October. His sons, who’d grown up backpacking with their father, once again followed him into the mountains.
by Robert Woodie
All Photos courtesy the Woodie family
When Manhattan Beach resident Bob Woodie did not return from a hiking and fishing trip October 16, 2016, the National Park Service launched a massive search and rescue operation. Bob’s two sons, Robert and Tim, were among the initial responders who participated in the search. The weather was perfect for six days as 120 rescue searchers, 5 helicopters, and 6 scent-dog teams combed the Eastern Sierra backcountry. By the end of the day Sunday, October 23, the search was suspended due to bad weather. No evidence of Bob was found. Here, Bob’s oldest son gives his account of those six days.
Day 1: Monday night/Tuesday
I started calling my 74-year young father “Pops” about 15 years ago because it fit the athletic father of three and grandfather of five. He is a kind man, a great dad, an engaged grandfather, a doting husband and a lover of the High Sierra backcountry. He loved taking his family on backpacking trips, but if no one was able to go with him he wouldn’t hesitate to go alone as he did last week.
Pops was supposed to have made contact late Sunday night after three full days in the wilderness near Bishop, California. His wife Joanne expected him in the wee hours of the night, knowing he would fish that Sunday morning then make the eight hour hike out, arriving at the trailhead well after dark. However, my brother Tim and I are under the impression he isn’t coming out until Monday so I am not too alarmed by his absence at noon today, Monday. When I glance at the map of Pop’s Spot GPS beacon from Saturday night, Big Pine Campground looks like the closest road to his camp at Barrett Lakes. We call the ranger but they report his car is not to be found. I am growing concerned when Tim calls and reports that the Bishop Ranger Station further north recorded that Pops paid for a backcountry permit leaving the South Lake trailhead early Friday and returning late Sunday.
This news floors me because I realize we just checked the wrong trailhead for his car. I immediately call Joanne’s contact at the Bishop Sherriff Search and Rescue department and request they check the South Lake trailhead for his car. It’s now late Monday afternoon and if his car is there it means he is still in the backcountry and in trouble. That would make him more than 24 hours late regardless of any miscommunication within the family. It is early evening now and the Sheriff’s’ Department promises to do so. Their resources are tight and it’s not until 10 p.m. Monday we get the sobering news that his car is still parked at the trailhead.
Pops is still in the backcountry and is clearly in distress.
My brothers and I grew up backpacking with my Pops, starting at age 10. We would often be out for more than a week, hiking all day sometimes but always fishing at least an hour a day. As a kid I remember that hiking with a 30-pound pack was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. Often, at the end of a trip, I vowed to never go on another. But strangely, the supreme effort, the stark landscapes, and the time spent with family would germinate within us and come the following summer my brothers and I would be excited about the next trip.
I let the Sheriff’s Department liaison know that Pops is missing and that I’ll be heading up there shortly and arrive first thing in the morning. My brother and I will have about an hour preparation and about two hours sleep each before making separate six hour drives to Bishop, he from Orange County and me from Los Angeles. We arrive by 8:30 a.m. and meet with the folks of the Inyo County Sheriff’s Search And Rescue (SAR) division. It is a small but impressive outfit and Investigator Derr has been very responsive throughout the afternoon of the previous day until our arrival. He tells us that we cannot be a formal part of the effort but that there is nothing they can do to prevent us from going up and searching as well. He does let us borrow SAR radios that will enable us to stay in contact with the searchers that will begin to descend upon Pops’ possible backcountry routes over the next few days. We pour over the topographical map and quickly determine that after crossing Bishop Pass there are only two likely routes Pops may have taken. Knowing Pops’ backcountry habits the best, I debate with the team over his most likely route but it’s a difficult call. Both routes will likely need to be checked thoroughly.
A three-person volunteer team arrives decked out in bright orange jackets and is ready to go up with us. The search and rescue arm of the Sheriff’s office is nice enough to buy us sandwiches that we’ll take up with us. However, we will later rue the plastic packaging as bulky and difficult to carry around for the three nights out we have prepared for.
We arrive at the parking lot around 10 a.m. Tuesday morning and our hearts sink to see Pops’ car still parked there. The seriousness of the situation sinks in further. Tim finds dad’s keys in his usual hiding place, the recess of the back bumper, and we rummage through his car. We find items that are consistent with his plan to sleep at the trailhead Thursday night, then hike into the backcountry before dawn Friday morning. Fortunately, I brought my foul-weather bag of clothing and let Tim borrow some long underwear, gloves, socks, and a watch. The trips Tim and I grew up making in the backcountry were always during the height of summer. It’s now late October and it is clear Tim’s gear hasn’t kept up with the demands of “shoulder” season camping at high elevations.
There are certain factors that minimize your chances of being found if you run into trouble in the backcountry. My dad picked a route that travels at a very high elevation, over 10,000 feet. At this elevation temperatures are more extreme and the brain, starved for oxygen, doesn’t function as well. In addition, it’s mid-October and, while a great time for fishing, this puts Pops in a shoulder season when temperatures and weather can be summer-like one day and winter-like the next. And perhaps the most difficult element for the upcoming search is that Pops’ route takes him about 6 miles from the nearest trail. For a search and rescue effort, this will effectively create a needle-in-a-haystack challenge. And Pops compounded all these factors by going alone. If he has injured himself there is no one on the spot to help or to get help.
Tim and I start up the trail and immediately begin to feel the high elevation. South Lake is well above 10,000 feet and both of us have just come from sea level eight hours ago and are working on just two hours of sleep. We both obsess about hydration but the 6 miles from the trailhead up to Bishop Pass is some of the most difficult hiking I’ve done. I stay in good shape but this change in elevation negates it. With heads pounding, what should be an easy hike becomes three hours of misery.
About an hour before reaching Bishop Pass, Tim spots a tent exactly like Pops’ about 50 yards off the trail. We notice the bear canister set well away from the tent just the way Pops would have done. We both rush off the trail. This set up with his tent in plain view right off trail so close to the trailhead doesn’t make sense but we’re sure we are about to find Pops. Looking inside the tent, the first thing I see is a blue backpack the same color as dad’s and my heart jumps. However, on closer inspection, I realize the pack is much too fancy to be Pops’. There are also flip-flops in the tent and a bottle of whiskey that Pops would never be drinking whether in the backcountry or not.
My Pops led a simple life and growing up neither he nor my mom drank or smoked. In the 70s this was very unusual and I remember returning from friends’ houses and feeling lucky that I could breathe smoke-free air at home. In fact, I have never heard my father use profanity or drink more than a glass of wine. Pops and I ruminate often about how his greatest vice is sweets, one I have inherited from him and we indulge together often.
At the pass we meet the three SAR volunteers who set out just ahead of us from the trailhead. They haven’t found any clues or information of any use. Our conversation is a short one but one still full of hope. It’s still less than 48 hours since Pops has gone missing. The weather up here is beautiful and the sun is shining but now at an elevation of 11,900, we’re all dressed in insulating clothing.
We find a campsite about a mile down the trail into Dusy Basin. Tim and I are both exhausted with headaches that haven’t abated so the opportunity to make camp before dark is a welcome one. Our first night we eat a freeze-dried dinner and bed down so exhausted we are certain sleep will be easy.
Day 2: Wednesday
The night’s rest for Tim and I was a fitful one. Despite the exhaustion from the lack of sleep Monday night and the torturous 7-mile hike, the pressure change on our bodies from ascending so fast makes deep sleep impossible. On top of this, the temperature during the night is bitter cold. I brought my sleeping bag rated for 25 degrees and I still need to wear every piece of clothing I brought to stay warm. Tim and I try not to focus on what Pops might be going through if he’s in a situation of bearing that kind of cold without proper shelter and insulation. In his later years, Pops has a history of forgetting key items like sleeping pads and long underwear. I pray this is not one of those times.
We heard from the volunteer team yesterday that a helicopter on the west side of Knapsack Pass spotted tracks, a route Pops might have taken. Tim and I decide we will spend the day hiking to the pass and back, and on the way also check footprints reported near a lake not far from us.
It’s good to be in the backcountry with my brother again. In the last ten years the demands of work and parenting have made backpacking opportunities fewer and farther between. Like Pops, if Tim is in pain he won’t show it much on the trail. He also has a pace that syncs nicely with mine. As I think back on those trips together growing up, I am somewhat surprised to remember that we used to hike off-trail as much as on. We were always searching for lakes that promised great fishing and theoretically the harder it is to get to the lake, the bigger and more plentiful the fish are.
In the past decade I have done most of the trip planning for the backpacking trips Pops and I have taken, and that hiking has been almost exclusively on trail. As I hike with Tim today, I will remember the satisfaction of being able to see a point in the distance and create my own “trail” towards it by scanning the easiest route immediately in front of me. This necessitates constantly lifting your head to check your progress. The going is much slower than being on a trail. However, a benefit of always lifting your head is that you are constantly reminded how beautiful your surroundings are. On trail, it is easy to be focused on the trail and making good time and not bother to look up and appreciate the reason you are there.
The going is hard work but surprisingly takes us less time than one would guess when first looking up at the pass. About 40 minutes from Knapsack, Tim and I need to store our hiking poles in our packs because the going is so difficult. There are many times we have to use both hands to hoist ourselves up or down and poles just get in the way. I doubt that dad would come this way with a full pack because it would be too bothersome to have to stop, take off your 35-pound pack, store your poles, and then climb on in such a manner.
At the pass, we are able to make radio contact with a team who was dropped by helicopter earlier that morning in the opposing basin near the GPS coordinates of Pops’ campsite on Barrett Lakes. They inform us that none of Pops’ gear is to be found at his campsite. This is important and comforting information. My biggest fear up to this point has been that he might’ve fallen while fishing. If so, Pops would have been separated from his gear and it would be very unlikely he could survive one night in these freezing temperatures. My own readings combined with what I hear from searchers suggest temperatures at night are reaching 15 degrees.
We can now safely assume that Pops was done fishing, had packed up his camp, and was on his way back to his car when he disappeared. It will mean that the search can focus on the most likely route back to the South Lake trailhead. As the search drags on it will also bring comfort to know that Pops had been able to catch his share of big fish and drink in his fill of this grand landscape before disappearing.
Pops is an interesting study of obsession in the backcountry when it comes to fishing. He takes pride in waking before dawn so he can make his coffee and be fishing by first light. Instead of relaxing or even napping in camp after a hard hike he will choose to fish and he will often fish until dark. Interestingly, our fish counts always seem to be about the same despite all the extra time he puts in. But for him it’s never about the numbers; he draws spirituality from the endeavor.
Tim and I make it back to camp that night utterly exhausted. The combination of two nights of poor sleep, the elevation, the cold, and another day of fruitless searching has left us both with little energy. Tim goes off with the radio and when he comes back he tells me he has had a good cry. I have purposely not allowed myself to focus on my swelling emotions while there is still a chance we can find Pops alive. I am determined to save all my energy for the physical challenges ahead.
Just after dinner, two searchers walk up to our camp. There are now three separate two-person search teams in the Dusy Basin where we are camped and we talk for a while. This is our first face-to-face encounter with employed (vs. volunteer) searchers and we chat about Pops and make sure that we thank them for their help.
Day 3: Thursday
We wake up from a real sleep at last and it feels like we may finally have worked through the altitude sickness. But it’s still bitter cold. Tim and I decide to make our way back to Bishop Pass so we can set up a base camp and search the alternate route Pops might have taken via Thunderbolt Pass. After the previous day’s trek to Knapsack Pass where we had to do a lot of boulder hugging, I’m positive now Pops would not have taken that route if he could help it. This is his fourth year in a row hiking into Barrett Lakes and by now he would have figured out the fastest, easiest, and prettiest route. On our way, we check in with the local searchers on our radios and learn that coincidently a helicopter is on its way to Bishop Pass and they want to take us down to Bishop. We ask why and they say they need our help in identifying more of Pops’ clothing and backcountry habits. It sounds plausible but I’m a little bit suspicious. Perhaps they want us out of the way of the professional searchers even though they’ve told us we are within our rights to be up here.
The helicopter lands and I grill the pilot but she convinces me that they truly do need more information on what Pops might be wearing. They also need access to his car for scent articles so they can deploy dog teams shortly. We are given suits to wear and high-tech helmets so we can communicate during the ride. Our backpacks are put in a cage attached to the outside of the helicopter and we begin what is only the second helicopter ride of my life.
The pilot is a very nice woman whose friendly voice I recognize from the radio over the last couple days. The ride from Bishop Pass back into the town of Bishop via helicopter takes no more than 10 minutes but it’s one of prettiest experiences of my life. We fly down the South Lake Valley and a dozen lakes you can’t see from the trail parade by in rapid succession. I think of how Pops would love to be in the seat between Tim and I sharing this experience. He has spent so much time exploring this valley and the backcountry it accesses that he would be fascinated by the view of it from the air.
We finally angle out of South Lake Valley by hugging a rocky ridgeline and 30 seconds later the grand landscape of the Owens River Valley comes into view. Sitting right in the middle is a little postage stamp of development that rapidly grows bigger and turns into the town of Bishop, California.
We land and are met by Jessica, a nice representative from Sequoia National Park who is coordinating the search efforts with the Inyo County side. She seems very relaxed and suggests we have a bite to eat at the airport restaurant because it’ll take a little while before they can arrange a conference call with the search leaders of the Park Service. We are ordering some food when our buddies Steve and Danny show up. They are Tim’s and my lifelong friends and they grew up knowing our Pops well. After hearing the news they took the initiative to make the drive up and help search for Pops. They were getting their backcountry permits when they met Jessica, who invited them to join us.
We are drinking sodas, chatting with them, and waiting for food when I am overwhelmed by the absurdity of relaxing and enjoying a hot lunch while Pops could still be alive. I make it known to Jessica and we leave an order of Pad Thai at the restaurant while we hurry over to the search and rescue office where it takes the longest fifteen minutes of my life to organize the conference call.
For 30 minutes they ask us questions about Pops’ attire and his habits in the backcountry. Everything from what his camping gear looks like to questions about whether he would be climbing peaks for the fun of it. In the middle of a conversation I get the powers-that-be on the other end of the line to promise that at the end of the call they will helicopter me and one other person back to Bishop Pass. They promise, but I will regret trusting their word and not getting names to hold accountable.
We decide that Tim will stay behind and help with the search from the ground and that our buddy Danny will go up the mountain with me to continuing the search in the high country. We are tending to miscellaneous preparations when Jessica informs me that her bosses decided not to helicopter us back up to the pass. She will be happy to escort us back to the trailhead where we’re welcome to hike back up. I’m not in a mindset to argue which I will regret later when I can’t sleep. Jessica, Tim, Dan, Steve and I head up in two different cars to the trailhead for a second time at South Lake. The entire drive up Jessica tries to talk me out of hiking back up.
The drive from Bishop up to the South Lake campground takes about 20 minutes and has a magical quality to it. I remember making this drive many times as a kid. Typically after breakfast in Bishop, we would pile back into the car for the quick trip that set the stage for the hard hiking and otherworldly experience that is the Eastern Sierra high country. The drive gains elevation almost the entire way. You are whisked from the wide expanses of the Owens River Valley into the foothills and finally to the base of the tallest mountain range in the continental United States. This time of the year, aspens along the South Lake River are vibrant yellow. A quaint camp, a small grocery store, and a small fishing outfitter are the only developments to be found here. The road terminates at South Lake, actually a reservoir, and one of the largest in the Sierras. Here you are already above 10,000 feet and the trees are stunted, a sign that you are close to the timber line.
There are quick preparations, and Dan and I are back on the same trail that I was on two days prior heading to the 11,900-foot Bishop Pass. From the get-go it’s apparent that Dan is more affected by the elevation than Tim and I were. What took us three hours will take well over four hours this time. The last half of the journey we will do in the dark with headlamps thanks to the broken promise of the search and rescue leaders. We lost two people searching for a half day each because of the escapade. But the information we passed on will help add more searchers on the mountain and better concentrate them along Pops’ likely route.
The final mile of the trail is entirely switchbacks in the snow. Danny’s head is splitting because of the elevation. And though I’ve convinced myself I have beaten altitude sickness, the quick trip down the mountain in the helicopter and now back up seems to have resurrected my suffering. Dan is also exhausted and wants to stop with each turn of each switchback. It is only with empathy and encouragement that I convince him the best course of action is reaching the pass where we can get water and a level campsite. He soldiers on and we make the pass at about 8:45 p.m. It is very cold as we are hiking well after sundown now making even the simplest of efforts more difficult. We make camp at a small lake on the other side of the pass near the spot the helicopter picked up Tim and I just ten hours ago. Dan immediately wants to go to sleep once we get the tent pitched, but I convince him to stay up, eat a hot salty meal, and hydrate. These efforts should make for a warmer and more comfortable night.
Day 4: Friday
The night’s sleep rivals the first night with Tim for sleeplessness. Despite all our efforts, we are restless the whole night. At around 10 p.m. Dan complains of a migraine and takes his pill. Hours later, he gets up to relieve himself and starts shouting. After I call to him and he doesn’t answer, I get out and ask him what’s wrong. He says there’s someone standing over near the shadows against the rock. I shine my headlamp in that direction but there is no one there. He is clearly still wrestling with the altitude and I convince him it is best we return to the tent before getting too chilled.
Despite feeling horrible in the morning, I resolve that today I will make the trek between Bishop Pass and Thunderbolt Pass, which I feel is the more likely route Pops would have taken to Barrett Lakes. Much to my surprise Danny rebounds from the night’s lack of sleep and resolves to come with me, proving to be a worthy companion for the day.
It’s slow and difficult going. There is no trail here and we are forced to find our own way across rock falls for what turns out to be two miles but looks more like twelve. The slope is extreme and any misstep could mean a long and perilous tumble. We split up to cover more ground but ultimately we both take fairly high traverse lines tucked under massive peaks.
We don’t see any searchers on the way but when we arrive at Thunderbolt Pass we meet five different teams. All but two have come up from Barrett Lakes where they were dropped off by helicopters. My previous day’s phone conversation in Bishop seems to have doubled the search efforts with more focus now on the Barrett Lakes basin, properly known as Palisade Basin. There’s no new news. This area has likely never seen so many people at once.
Pops by his own admission is a shy person but one who overcame that shyness out of the necessities of his work. As a butcher, he was happy to work at his craft back in the refrigerated confines of the supermarket’s meat department (he worked at Food Giant, which eventually would become Albertson’s, first at the Sepulveda store near Marine and later at locations throughout the Beach Cities). However, his work ethic quickly won him promotions and in these roles he needed to be more engaging with customers. I remember showing up at the meat department and ringing the bell, then enjoying watching the smile come over his face as he walked up and recognized me. In high school his influence landed me a job as a box boy, and I would sneak up and surprise him as he chatted with customers while stocking the meat cases. By this time you wouldn’t know he was shy at heart. His customers loved him and he ended up marrying one. However, one of the great appeals of the backcountry for Pops remained its solitude. Perhaps this appealed to the shyness still in him. Whatever the reason, solitude recharged him.
Dan and I have a relaxed lunch at the pass under cobalt-blue skies and make the acquaintance of search teams from different organizations. The effort has enlisted the help of several agencies now from Inyo Kern County, where Pops entered the backcountry, to Sequoia National Park, where Pops went missing, to neighboring Yosemite National Park as well as other agencies further south. The next two days will see the effort reach its peak with over 120 searchers in the field and five helicopters trying to find evidence of Pops before a storm hits Sunday.
After enjoying lunch with the teams at the pass, Danny and I have a nice hike back under perfect skies. As we approach our camp the reality hits me hard that Pops’ loss is now permanent. Upon reflection, I tell Danny that I just realized that if Pops had a mean bone in his body I never saw it in 53 years as his son. Danny stops, turns, and gives me a hug and I have my first real cry of the whole trip. It will be the first of many to come but having a friend share my pain at 12,000 feet makes me feel like a lucky man.
As we approach base camp I let Danny know I have decided to break camp tomorrow. I will make the trek to my Pops’ campsite at Barrett Lakes where I will camp exactly one week after he did. Given his struggles with the altitude, I suggest that Danny consider heading back out tonight. He says he doesn’t want to bear the responsibility of leaving me alone, but I convince him that I need some time these next two days to memorialize my father. I will be safe since I will be in radio contact with the army of search teams that surround us now. After more resistance Danny relents and I help him pack up his gear. I hike with him back to the trail to ensure he finds it and is well under way before heading back. He’ll have an hour of daylight to get through the trickiest part of the trail and then an hour in the dark. But with his powerful headlamp and the well-established trail he won’t have any problem. He will enjoy a warm bed and a hot meal tonight and be able to get back to his girlfriend and baby by Saturday night.
When I arrive back at my camp another round of sobbing hits me. For the first time on this trip I am alone. I need this time for reflection and my backed-up grief finds easy expression. I use some of my phone’s battery to listen to “Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw. The song has been stuck in my head since Pops went missing. It brings comfort as I reflect on how lucky I am that the most humble and kind person I know is my father.
I had the good fortune to go into real estate sales 13 years ago right at the same time my Pops “retired” from meat cutting and started his own handyman business. From the beginning just about all my clients used Pops. Being able to recommend my own father to clients turned out to be the best marketing I could do. People only rarely need an agent but they always need a handyman. Clients constantly tell me what a nice man Bob is and that he does great work and doesn’t charge enough. Pops often tells me that the best part of his work is being able to visit with nice people on a daily basis. His customers give him free access to their cabins in Mammoth, sports tickets they can’t use, you name it. Pops loves his clients and they love him back.
Day 5: Saturday
Mercifully I am able to sleep 12 hours in the night. Unlike the previous morning, this morning I don’t need to use a rock to break through the ice on the lake to fill my canteen. There is a little ribbon of water that was stubborn enough not to freeze last night and while I am thankful it makes getting water a little less fun.
The accumulated physical conditioning these last four days coupled with the therapy of spending time with my brother and a good buddy has given me the strength I will need for today. Indeed, these next two days I will feel light, agile, and as capable in the backcountry as I ever have. I dedicate this time to remembering Pops and gaining a first-hand appreciation of why he chose to come back to his camp four years in a row.
At 11,900 feet in late October the mornings in the Sierras are bitter cold until the sun hits. I will start hiking well before this, and even with good gloves the effort of packing up my camp numbs my hands to the bone.
The previous day’s traverse with Danny helps me pick the most direct route between Bishop Pass and Thunderbolt Pass. It’s more difficult today because I’m wearing a 35-pound pack versus an 8-pound daypack but my rejuvenated body responds and the traverse goes well. I register now that there are three recent rock falls within the half-mile approach to the west side of Thunderbolt Pass. Most of the stones are loose underfoot and there are small stones and sand-like debris, likely the by-product of large boulders crashing into each other.
I arrive at the pass again but this time don’t linger. I started much earlier today and for this reason I haven’t seen any searchers yet. One of the teams yesterday pointed out that the easiest route between the pass I am now on and Barrett Lakes is out of the way. After surveying it a second time, I decide that Pops wouldn’t bother. I pick the most direct route and am pleased to discover it’s relatively easy going with my full pack and hiking poles and I make quick time. I recall that Jessica from the Sequoia team had mentioned she had been along this route and that the going was relatively relaxed. For some reason it’s comforting to know this piece of information is consistent with my own experience.
The Barrett Lakes sit in the Palisade Basin and with each step I am in awe of this place’s splendor. I have backpacked so many times in the Eastern Sierras I now realize that I have come to take its beauty for granted. In recent years, I have dragged Pops to Yosemite, Glacier, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone. But in that time I never made it with Pops to Barrett Lakes. I see now that his regular spot has a beauty to rival its big-name competition. With each step I regret never sharing this area and its fishing with him.
As I come up to the first and largest lake, I can feel Pops’ presence. I can also sense his excitement as he approached his destination after such a long and difficult hike. It brings me back to our trips as kids when we would hike off-trail in search of fish. Approaching he would have been giddy at the prospect of six beautiful lakes full of large trout set amongst a panorama of 14,000 foot peaks, an impossibly-blue sky, and clouds straight from an artist’s easel.
My Pops didn’t keep the fish he caught to eat. We used to eat them when we were younger on our trips but in the last 15 to 20 years fishing for Pops was more about the excitement and reset that came with time spent in the backcountry. I get to the edge of the first lake and out of habit look down for fish. In my mind, I am suddenly standing in this fishing spot, Pops is about 50 yards away, and both of us are casting our bobber and fly. I know now those days will only be a memory and I am racked by a round of grief. When it passes I take the time to visibly drink in this spot on the lake. There are granite shelves that cascade down the basin and set the blue lakes in a gray and tan frame, which are then accented by dark peaks. Add wispy clouds against the deep-blue sky and this place looks like it could have been created on a computer for the next action and adventure blockbuster. Overlay outstanding trout fishing and I am surprised Pops came here only once a year.
As I reach the second lake, I encounter at least five different search teams who are fanned out over the area. The amount of manpower the park service is now putting into this search is immense. One can fully appreciate the logistics of marshaling large-scale resources on very short notice. However, as much as I appreciate it, it strikes me as a shame that massive resources can only be commanded when the cumulative chance of survival is the least. There have now been five nights with temperatures near 15 degrees that Pops would have had to survive for these searchers to have a chance of finding him alive.
I run across the first scent-dog search team. While encouraging to see the four-legged helper and her handler cover ground quickly, they are quickly lost from view in the vast landscape and I am unable to introduce myself. I do run into a group of eight searchers together and take their picture. I thank each and every one individually. I tell them a little bit about Pops and how he loved this area.
My objective for that night is to reach Pops’ last known campsite and I find it at about 3 p.m. It is located on an amazing granite “bench,” flat as a board, jutting out and circled on three sides by a ribbon-like Barrett Lake that is the prettiest one I’ve seen. The water on the west side is a vivid green and reflects the snowfall and majestic Knapsack Pass in the background.
I set my pack down, look around for a while and envision Pops here. Just one week ago he camped here and that he could feel so near and yet be so far away fills me with sadness. My objective now is to honor my father and a plan has hatched in my mind. I’m going to build a simple yet sturdy rock memorial away from the campsites but easily seen from them. The ledge that Pops camped on could house up to a dozen tents at one time but given the difficulty in reaching the lake I doubt more than one group ever camps here at a time.
I also want to take a picture of myself with a sign that says “Pops.” After much trial and error I discover that packing snow into the shapes of letters is much easier and more legible than using rocks. I take a few pictures with my phone in self-timer mode while it is precariously wedged onto a nearby boulder. I have a ton of people to reach out to when I get home and I’ve already worked out during my hike what I want this picture to look like. I will post it on Facebook before I can reach people personally with the news.
I take a good hour finding the perfect spot for the memorial stones and hoist a series of 40-pound stones onto a little rock shelf overlooking the camping area. After considerable wrestling, I am able to erect a small stone structure with a long triangular stone as a cap. I’m happy with the work up close but will not be satisfied until I see the result from many vantage points below. With my proclivity towards perfectionism I will certainly have many adjustments to make. However, my first evaluation from afar suggests that the stone memorial is just right on the first try. And surprisingly I am pleased with the result from each of three vantages I scrutinize.
I have also decided during that day’s hike that for at least the next two years I will journey back here during the summer to honor Pops’ life. If people or the elements have disturbed the stone memorial my companions and I will make needed repairs.
It is difficult to explain the power of this simple man I call Pops. I never heard him say a mean thing about anybody or anything. The closest he ever came to criticizing someone was to marvel at how people didn’t want to learn how to fix things around the house. He was the type of man that would immediately help you with what you were doing without being asked. I had him help me with several home fix-up projects over the years and we made a good team. I am slow to start because I am constantly thinking through the order in which a project should proceed. Pops, on the other hand, likes to jump right in and often seems to be half done before I lift a tool. His proclivity to waste no time and mine to think through potential roadblocks made for many successful undertakings.
The weather at the middle Barrett Lake is a bit warmer than my last camp. I climbed to near 13,000 feet to go over the pass and then dropped back down to 11,150 feet. Tonight will be another restful one. However, after starting off warmer the night quickly chills down to the same 15 degrees of the previous nights. I quickly put back on clothes I shed inside my sleeping bag just an hour ago.
Day 6: Sunday
This morning I start by taking a couple more photos with Pops’ snow sign that I need to refresh with new snow. As I take my last shot my phone’s battery that I have been nursing for the last five days finally dies. There are new clouds in the sky that suggest coming weather unlike any I have seen this whole trip. The promise of foul weather arriving today will hold true.
I find a nice scramble path back to Thunderbolt Pass and make it there in about an hour and a half. As I stand on the pass for the third time, two different waves of sobbing over take me as I look back down on Pops’ beloved spot for the last time. It’s so windy now that I don’t bother wiping my eyes and simply wait for the wind to dry them before continuing on. However, I start up too soon and immediately slip. Startled, I quickly refocus because now I have the most difficult part of the hike in front of me.
I take the highest traverse line yet between Thunderbolt Pass and Bishop Pass. Now my fourth trek between the two passes, I am completely certain this is the route Pops took. It’s not an easy scramble but doable with hiking poles and one doesn’t lose elevation just to gain it back again. There are sweeping views with every step and Pops always loved vistas. However, as I encounter the rock fall areas, this path suddenly feels very ominous. Right below massive peaks, a hiker would have little time to react to rockslides. I stumble a couple times on the loose stones and think of how easy it would be to fall here or be instantly crushed by an avalanche of boulders calved from these overhanging cliffs.
There are at least 12 rescue searchers within earshot as I work my way between the two passes. When I reach the end of the traverse, I encounter a search team leader who asks me to stick around for a second. He wants to check in with headquarters to see if they need to speak to me. He makes contact but they do not. They have no leads or clues. This will be the final punctuation mark on six days of fruitless searching just an hour before the search is officially called off due to bad weather.
I have paid close attention to the wisdom of my father during my life. One of his most recent refrains was that there was nothing that the ingenuity of mankind couldn’t solve. He repeated this during our last few trips together and I had a tough time arguing with him. When I was an adolescent I remember being worried about something as we played a game of horse on our driveway basketball court. He told me that the only thing you should worry about is doing your best. When you know you have done your best the rest is out of your control and silly to worry about. hat advice has stuck with me for 40 years now.
I make my way down the trail from Bishop Pass and I might as well be flying. With the storm about to start my work here is done and it’s time to get home to the comfort of my family. I have more purpose than I’ve had in several days and decide to just wave to a group of searchers who call out my name as I race past. They are waiting to be picked up by the first Chinook helicopter of the day, which has been enlisted to shuttle searchers en masse out of the backcountry ahead of the weather. I get 50 yards down the trail before remembering my promise and take 10 minutes out of my hike to backtrack and personally thank each of the eight waiting searchers. One is at least as old as Pops. This is another wonderful group of kindred spirits Pops would have loved.
I make it back to the trailhead to find two posters announcing the missing hiker Robert “Bob” Woodie. It started snowing an hour ago and visibility at South Lake has diminished to half of what is was when I set out with Danny four days ago. It’s time for me to build a second stone memorial here off the parking lot where Pops last parked. The wrestling match with 40-pound stones in the snow and rain doesn’t go well and the memorial doesn’t have any of the magic of the one up at the Lakes. But it may bring some comfort for others struggling with the loss of this wonderful man. It is alternating weather now and I am alone in the parking lot before finally leaving Pops for the six-hour drive home. I have a lot of phone calls to make. However, I will keep my phone off for the first hour. I will dedicate this time to remembering as many details as I can about Pops. I will also reflect on how lucky I was to have shared this beautiful drive with him so many times.
A memorial for Bob Woodie takes place Saturday, January 14, 2017 at 2 p.m. at the Kiwanis Center located 2515 Valley Dr., Hermosa Beach. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you consider a contribution made out to the Bob Woodie Memorial Endowment for Inspiring Connections Outdoors and mailed to the Sierra Club Foundation at 2101 Webster Street, Suite 1250 Oakland, California 94612 or to PO Box 696 Hermosa Beach CA 90254. Each year, this endowment will help fund the Sierra Club’s efforts to connect children with the wilderness, a passion of Bob’s throughout his life. For more information visit http://expertlandtripper.com.