Looking for Steve

Stephen Michael Morris

I went to bed Saturday night (August 2nd) thinking about getting up on Sunday morning and having an early brunch with my wife Anna, my brother Jon (visiting from Illinois) and my parents. Our plan was to eat at a nice place where our son, Justin, works. That plan changed when Anna woke me a little after midnight on Sunday morning. Her tone was urgent — “Steve is missing in the mountains.”

She was on the phone with her sister Carrie, and they were trying to figure out how to locate Steve’s iPhone with the Find My iPhone app. We tried several Apple ID and password combinations without success. Carrie had been in touch with the Trinity County sheriff, and they intended to start searching for Steve on Monday morning. The friends Steve had been camping with (near Stoddard Lake in the Trinity Alps) had already been back to the peak they had climbed earlier that day, looking for him. As we grew increasingly frustrated at being unable to find Steve’s phone (as it turns out, even if we knew the right Apple ID and password, there is no AT&T coverage anywhere near Billy’s Peak where Steve got separated from his friends) Anna and Carrie began to make their plans to drive up to the mountains.

Anna drove to Carrie and Steve’s house on Sunday morning, accompanied by our son Nate and his girlfriend Katherine. From there Anna and Carrie drove to Weaverville where they checked into a gloomy, dirty little motel that I had booked for them. (The motel had a 3.5 star rating on Tripadvisor. Apparently Tripadvisor isn’t a reliable rating service for little, off-the-beaten-path motels. When they first checked in they discovered that the sheets were dirty from the previous guests.) Fortunately, after a couple of nights they found a place to stay in Coffee Creek — a small house just up the road from the search command center.

Steve MorrisInitially we had been given a story about how Steve got separated from his friends that was both confusing and misleading. We were getting information that was passed to us third and fourth hand. By Tuesday, after talking with Steve’s friends, Anna was able to share a clearer narrative of the events. Steve and three friends had hiked to the top of Billy’s Peak on Saturday morning from their campsite at Stoddard Lake. It took a couple of hours to climb over the rocky path from the lake up to the summit at about 7,300 feet. They reached the summit in the early afternoon. The smoke from the nearby Coffee Fire is visible in some of the photos taken at the summit. The men who were with him reported that Steve was in his element on the top of this mountain.

The climb up had been challenging and Steve thought there might be an easier, safer way down. Two of the hikers felt that they would feel safest returning by the same route by which they came, so they started back to camp. Steve and the other hiker, Bob, began looking for an alternate route, and they began to circle the peak, moving gingerly and carefully to look for another way down. Each of the men looked in a different direction, but they were never more than a short distance apart. Because of the terrain and jagged rocks they could not see each other. After a few minutes Bob returned to where the men had separated, expecting to find Steve, but Steve had not returned. Bob called out, but the wind and noise from the helicopters fighting the fires just a short distance from the peak seemed to drown out his call, nor could he hear any response from Steve. He continued to look, and call, but never again saw or heard Steve. He returned to the camp by the original route arriving there a short time after the other two hikers. It was still early afternoon so the group returned to the peak, and for a couple of hours continued looking for Steve, returning to their camp as the night grew dark.

Knowing that he had some water and a Power Bar, they might have hoped he would hunker down for the night, and find his way to camp in the morning when the sun came up. Two of the men walked out on the trail to a location where they could use their cell phones to contact the sheriff and report Steve’s situation. They also contacted the pastor of Steve’s church. (The men who were camping together were all members of the congregation’s men’s fellowship.) The men continued their search on Sunday.

By Monday morning the sheriff had activated a full scale search. A California Highway Patrol helicopter made several flights and searched in the areas where the men thought it was likely they would find Steve. (Mostly along the Southwest side of the ridge.) As the Coffee Fire on the other side of the valley (further to the South and West) continued to grow, the Forest Service asked the men in Steve’s party to leave their camp and return to the search command center in the tiny community of Coffee Creek at the eastern base of the mountain where Carrie and Anna had stationed themselves. The Marin Search and Rescue team was onsite and they and other searchers deployed to the mountain with dogs in search of Steve. The Marin Search and Rescue team is one of the most experienced and respected high mountain rescue teams in the state and they were led by Michael St. John, a battalion chief with the Mill Valley Fire Department. Initially they were approaching the mountain on foot, but by Tuesday the California National Guard had deployed helicopters to airlift the search teams to the top of the mountain so they could search more effectively and for a longer period of time each day. Searching with the assistance of trained dogs, the team covered all the terrain between Billy’s Peak and Lake Stoddard to the South West side of the ridge and the Minnehaha Creek drainage to the North-east, on the opposite side of the ridge from Lake Stoddard.

The search continued on Wednesday and into Thursday morning, with Matt Shargel (a middle school science teacher and member of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team) taking over the leadership of the search team from Mike St. John. Mike had to return to work. Anna’s respect and admiration for these two men is boundless. She speaks of their intensity, clarity, and sensitivity. Of their drive and passion for the work they do, and of their deep, heartfelt compassion. Working alongside the Trinity County sheriff’s department, the search teams are comprised of volunteers who take time away from their families and other work to respond to the call for searches like these. They gave selflessly and bravely to scour the mountain, and despite the many hours spent looking and calling, the searchers (numbering around a 100 altogether) turned up no evidence of Steve. A blue UC Berkeley Nalgene bottle and a nylon cap were the only things the team found — items left behind by other hikers, not by Steve. The rocky terrain along the ridge at Billy’s Peak did not reveal any bootprints or other evidence, and by mid-day Thursday, having covered the areas around Billy’s peak that could have been safely reached on foot, Matt began to form a theory about where Steve might be.

While the Trinity Alps wilderness area is large (821 square miles) the search field for Steve was relatively small, and there were roads within a couple of miles of the peak and the Stoddard Lake campsite in any direction Steve could have walked from the peak. If he had found a way down the mountain, even if he had minor injuries (sprained ankle, broken arm, etc.), it was likely he could have reached a roadway within a couple of days.

Matt’s theory is that while Steve and Bob were looking for a path down from Billy’s Peak, Steve may have lost his footing and fallen from the mountain. The decaying granite is extremely unstable, making even careful movement around the peak very dangerous. Bob and Steve were separated for a relatively short period of time, and Steve’s disappearance seems to have been very sudden. Matt’s theory is consistent with Bob’s description of the timeline on the mountain. Based on the terrain where Matt believes Steve might have slipped, it is possible Steve would not have survived the fall, and if he fell, it is likely that his body is lost in a rocky crevice, lodged where he cannot be seen from the ground.

Mid-day Thursday, having found no clues and with little evidence to support any other explanation than what Matt put forward, the decision was made to suspend the search. If any new evidence or information about Steve’s whereabouts or movement should surface, the team assured Carrie they would resume, and search until Steve is found. Anna and Carrie spent one last night in Coffee Creek and on Friday morning they began their journey home.

It has been a week since we first learned that Steve was separated from his friends. The intervening days have been filled with emotion. Deep sadness has given way to a realization that the family has lost a husband, father, brother, and uncle. If Matt’s theory is true, Steve died doing what he loved to do. He was on a mountain top, pushing the limits of his hiking skill. The last photograph of him shows him with a huge smile, gazing into the distance, wind at his face. His body may remain forever on this mountain, and we can think of no more fitting place for his final rest.

Sunday August 10, 2014 — Mark —