The Search For “Sherpa” Continues

Two years after hiker Kris Fowler’s disappearance, answers still in short supply

By Tim Walker

When Kris Fowler vanished while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016, he left behind a community of Dayton-area loved ones and family members who, two years later, still seek the truth behind the disappearance of the Beavercreek native and Wright State graduate. Now, with the assistance of a network of volunteers, fellow hikers and over 7,000 people on Facebook, his stepmother, Sally Guyton Fowler, remains determined to find the answers she’s been seeking these many months.

“We follow up on every lead,” Sally Fowler said when she spoke with Dayton Magazine by phone recently, just prior to another organized search of the trail. “There are just some incredible people out there, people who are determined to help us find Kris. We have hunters and hikers who know the area well, we have some search and rescue people who are helping us… just some incredible individuals who are all volunteering their time for someone they’ve never met.”

When he disappeared, the 34-year-old Fowler was thru hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Southern California through Oregon to Northern Washington and the U.S./Canada border. His trip North on the trail began on Mother’s Day, May 8, 2016, when he called Sally and wished her a happy Mother’s Day before departing on the hike, which he knew would not be complete until that fall. The last confirmed sighting of Fowler was five months later, on October 12, 2016. He has not been seen or heard from since that day.

The Pacific Coast Trail, or PCT, is one of three Triple Crown Trails, along with the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. Designated an official National Scenic Trail in 1968, the PCT is a long-distance hiking and equestrian trail, which closely follows the highest portions of both the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, and lies roughly 100 miles east of the U.S. Pacific coast. The trail’s southern end is on the U.S. border with Mexico, just south of the town of Campo, California, and its northern end is on the U.S./Canadian border, in British Columbia. The 2,659-mile route of the PCT takes hikers through 25 different national forests and seven U.S. national parks.

The trail, and those who spend time hiking it, were popularized by Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and the subsequent 2014 film version starring Reese Witherspoon. Anyone with any information on Kris Fowler’s whereabouts or disappearance is asked to please contact the Yakima County Sheriff, Sgt. Randy Briscoe, at (509) 574-2535 or the Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office at (509) 962-7525.

Fowler’s mother passed away when he was young, but the boy and his stepmom shared a close relationship. His father worked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “I first met Kris when he was 10 years old,” says Sally Fowler. “I married his father, Mike, two years after that. We later divorced, but we remained close friends. The summer after Kris’s disappearance, in June of 2017, Mike passed away. He never found out what happened to his son.”

Fowler was known as “Sherpa” to the fellow travellers who met him on the trails, and he left those who met him with a good impression through his generosity, easy kindness and outgoing personality. He was also a gifted athlete—while a young man, Fowler excelled at baseball and also enjoyed playing on his high school’s first hockey team. Later, as an adult, he would prefer wearing sandals to hiking boots while on his many treks through the country’s wooded landscapes.

When asked about her thoughts on what might have caused her son’s disappearance, Fowler says, “This is really a rugged area, and it’s possible he could have stepped off the trail and gotten into some trouble. Some of the places along this trail are very narrow, and it’s straight down for several hundred feet, so… you know, here in Ohio we have John Bryan State Park. This is no John Bryan. You might see on 60 Minutes or 20/20 where somebody’s missing and you see these people linking their arms and doing a grid search. You can’t do that out there.”

“They say people can go 5 feet off the trail,” she continues, “and literally get lost, because it’s just so dense.”

One of the facts in the disappearance that everyone agrees on is that Kris Fowler was on the trail very late in the season. Having hiked over 2,000 miles since May, Fowler had spent some time during his hike in various communities and small towns along the route, and was therefore not as far along the trail as he’d hoped to be. On Oct. 12, friends reported seeing him at a convenience store at a trail head, near White Pass in Washington state. Several fellow hikers had spoken with Fowler that day, and reported later that he mentioned being concerned about a severe storm, which was reported to be moving into the area.

“He really wanted to hike some of Washington,” Sally continues. “So we think he headed out of White Pass on the 12th. Then on the 13th, what they call a typhoon—this giant wind and rain storm with cold weather, one from Japan that they’re still talking about—started. Now, Kris could have made a long trek on the 12th and found shelter somewhere before the storm hit, or he might have left the trail. But a lot of people think he must have met his demise on the trail then, during that storm, because it was just so bad.”

There are unverified sightings of Kris later in the month, on the 14th in a small town called Greenwater there in Washington. Kris was reportedly seen at a gas station/tavern/general store there. However, his last cell phone communication was on the 12th, when he reached out to his father but was unable to get through.

The sudden and unexplained disappearance of Kris Fowler has prompted hundreds of people to volunteer their time and energy over the past two years, through searching, networking, and raising money to continue to fund the effort. With all of this support from so many, those who love and miss Kris—especially Sally Fowler—remain committed to doing all they can to find their beloved Sherpa, and to bring him home, at last.