Shutterstock by Andrew Bertino

Sometime in the morning of a bluebird August day, a Seattle woman picked up a pencil and wrote her name on the register at a trailhead off the Mountain Loop Highway. The paper is there to log the hikers on Sunrise Mine Trail #707, a route that winds to the top of Vesper Peak.

Her scrawl is the last concrete sign of the 27-year-old day hiker whose disappearance launched one of the biggest search and rescue operations in the state’s history. As clues go, it’s not much, just a name: Sam Sayers.

The day was hot, the faint haze from far-off wildfires hanging in the air. Other day trippers would recall seeing the solo hiker stripped down to her bra and hiking pants. They remembered her distinctive bald head, crowned with a star tattoo like a Roman laurel wreath.

After climbing more than 4,000 feet, up switchbacks and across boulder fields and finally across the patchy snow that marbles the stone pyramid of Vesper’s very top, Sam reached the summit. Vesper Peak comes to a triangular point, like a child’s drawing of a mountain. Though it was a weekday, the sunshine brought summer crowds; another hiker remembers seeing her eat a sandwich, lettuce protruding from between bread slices, while she chatted with rock climbers who’d ascended one of the sharper faces.

The last few hundred feet of Vesper is more of a scramble route than it is a defined path. Once the proper trail peters out in the dirt and heather, it’s common for every comer to pick their own way. A hiker remembers seeing Sam veer down toward the peak’s southwest side around 3pm. The wrong side of the mountain, he later told a sheriff’s office sergeant.

That was nine months ago. No one’s seen a single trace of Sam Sayers since.

Sam Sayers on an earlier Vesper hike.

It isn’t easy to utterly vanish. Thanks to GPS watches and cell phones, facial-recognition cameras and credit card chips, the world observes and records. The most paranoid among us believe that every person is shadowed by satellites—and that’s probably not so far-fetched.

So we go to the woods, the mountains, the thin air of the alpine. The Cascades retain pockets of remote wilderness, enclaves that feel as raw as when Western civilization first mowed a passage to the Pacific, yet are a casual drive from Seattle.

Amid conifers and half-frozen lakes, we can feel free from our modern tangle of surveillance, even as tenuous threads still leash us to the world below: ever-pinging cell phones, footsteps on an established trail. But one day in August, one woman’s tethers disintegrated in a moment.

On August 1, 2018, Sam Sayers joined the exclusive and unfortunate ranks of people gone missing in America’s wilderness. There’s no official count; when the U.S. Department of the Interior tried to build a database of such events, the effort drew criticism as an expensive, malfunctioning boondoggle. One count estimates 1,600 people are currently missing on public lands.

“The system is so broke, they don’t even track it,” says David Francis, whose son Jon disappeared in Idaho in 2006. Like Sam, Jon summited a mountain and then vanished. “We can get statistics on auto accidents but they’re not collected for people missing in the wilderness.”

The search for Jon lasted only two days before the county sheriff pulled out and, as David remembers, told him he should give his son up to the mountain. Law enforcement, particularly the county sheriffs of the West who hold responsibility for wilderness operations, are by David’s accounting “inadequately trained, funded, staffed, or committed to long-term searches.”

Except in the case of Sam Sayers. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office launched 310 search and rescue missions last year, up 6 percent from 2017. About a third were for outdoorspeople: hikers, campers, hunters, fishermen, spelunkers, or prospectors. The county’s SAR spent 20,197 hours on missions in 2018, with approximately 8,000 of those hours looking for Sam.

From his home in Minnesota, David Francis says that in the decade he’s followed lost hiker cases, he’s never seen anything like it. “I was amazed. They are the most dedicated West Coast county sheriffs I’ve ever seen.”

• • • • 

Late on that August day, a few hours after Sam wandered down Vesper, Kevin Dares sat inside Rocco’s, an upscale pizza restaurant in Belltown with Victorian wallpaper and novelty banh mi slices. The 33-year-old lives just across Second Avenue and the eatery is more or less his office, where he runs a company that does real estate deals, renovations, and property management. Rocco’s is basically his Cheers; everybody knows his name.

Kevin was expecting a call from Sam, his live-in girlfriend, by 6pm. Before she left on her solo hike on the Vesper Peak trail he’d texted “Be safe...sos me if anything goes haywire.” Her reply—“Thanks baby I love you.”—was classic Sam, straightforward and confident. Like Kevin she was a self-employed entrepreneur, owner of a cleaning service for Airbnbs. If Sam was distinctive for the head she shaved bald, Kevin’s signature trait is the thick New Orleans accent that betrays his Louisiana upbringing.

As the August day melted into late evening, Kevin grew concerned. Sam had hiked Vesper Peak before, but it’s a rigorous trail. He drove to the trailhead, a little over an hour and a half from Belltown, stopping at a gas station to buy a flashlight.

The Sunrise Mine Trail lot was dark, and Kevin could see Sam’s blue Ford Fiesta still in the gravel lot. Flashlight in hand he started up the dirt path around 10pm, quickly through the first third of the hike, which rambles through thick forest. There the route passes across the south fork of the Stillaguamish River; hikers hop across boulders while the knee-deep creek rushes beneath. The trail gains elevation through switchbacks cut in a brushy hillside.

Kevin swiftly moved into the next stretch, where hikers emerge into Wirtz Basin, a box canyon with a smattering of squat trees. It looks like a dead end—rock climbers need ropes to scale the steep walls that rise in every direction—but there’s one other way out, a trail that rises through an ankle-twisting boulder field, leading hikers to Headlee Pass.

Finally, the last push to Vesper: a short traverse from Headlee to tiny Lake Elan, still partially frozen, and the triangular peak half-covered in snow. It was there, in his rising panic, that Kevin tripped and broke his flashlight, forcing him to turn back. Using his cell phone for illumination under a moon just past full, he retreated three-and-a-half miles back to his car. He drove 20 miles back down the Mountain Loop Highway to the Verlot Public Service Center, a visitor center staffed by U.S. Forest Service rangers during the day—closed, but home to a pay phone out front.

In this wide swath of mountains unpenetrated by cell phone coverage, the Verlot pay phone is literally a lifesaver; more than 25 calls to 911 were made between 2015 and 2017 alone.

In a recording of Kevin’s 911 call, the operator asks what Sam had with her. Little cold-weather gear, no headlamp, Kevin tells her. And three or four sandwiches, plus snacks; she never skimped on snacks. His voice is strained, sometimes wavering with panic. “I had my flashlight going, banging, screaming—no word,” Kevin says to the 911 operator. “I think she’s hurt.” 

Kevin Dares with Sam at a New Orleans wedding in 2017.

Kevin recognized Sam from across the room before they even met—this was the girl he’d matched with on Tinder; they’d chatted through the app. Here she was in the flesh at a Mardi Gras party in February 2016, thrown by the owners of Belltown’s Biscuit Bitch.

They clicked immediately. “She was super smart, cool, funny. Super driven. All the things you want in a partner,” he says. Raised in Pennsylvania, Sam took to theater in high school, passionate about vocals on stage and set construction behind it, then earned a BFA in western New York. Soon after meeting Kevin, she left a gig at Seattle Repertory Theatre to work entrepreneurial hustles, pursuing a real estate license and marketing intriguing products she’d found online, like an inflatable lounger.

She and Kevin, a single dad of three, moved in together. Thanks to their flexible schedules, they cruised Cascade trails midweek—Sam in her sports bra and Kevin in jeans, a Southerner’s rebuke of Northwest tech-gear chic.

Kim Turner, a Belltown community health therapist already close with Kevin, quickly befriended his new girlfriend. “She was a strong woman who was not afraid to speak her mind, and I loved that about her,” Turner says. “Charismatic in the most genuine way.” Sam was a proud LGBTQ ally, thriving on activism. On Friday nights, she joined Turner for what they called “Rant”—wine and cathartic heart-to-hearts.

Alopecia, an autoimmune disease, caused Sam to lose much of her hair; she shaved the rest daily. She had given up wigs in high school, when in typical dramatic fashion she ripped one off her head during a class presentation. Despite her healthy pallor, strangers assumed she’d just undergone chemotherapy, and the sympathetic clucks wore on her.

The tattoos on her scalp, Kevin says, were armor. “She preferred if more people thought she was punk than had cancer.”

Sam exuded vitality. At a Unicorn bar drag brunch in 2017, Turner remembers Sam’s cheers at the flamboyant performance, the loudest person there, giving the biggest tips. This was Sam Sayers in her element: fired up by the theatricality, by a tight-knit community. By life.

Kevin was still at the Verlot station when Sergeant John Q. Adams arrived around 1:30am. It was Adams’s first year as a search and rescue sergeant, taking over from a predecessor who oversaw SAR response for 22 years at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. Kevin was keyed up, eager to replace his broken flashlight and get back on the trail.

In his short tenure, Adams had already honed his instincts on missing hiker cases. In Snohomish, calls often come for underprepared or overdue teens; once SAR launches a response on the Mountain Loop Highway, he usually gets a call from sheepish parents saying the missing had just returned home.

This one was different. Early on he told deputy Peter Teske, who would also play a huge role in the search, he had a feeling “we better throw everything we’ve got at this one, at least for a couple of days.”

Adams, a lawman with a chiseled face that eschews theatrics, advised the frantic boyfriend not to go back out alone in the predawn hours—but he also wouldn’t stop him. He loaded Kevin down with a helmet, food, and a headlamp and watched him sprint back up the trail. Then he began to rally Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue through his radio. August 1 had long since rolled into August 2, the first day of the search for Sam Sayers.

When volunteers arrived around 6am, they took off in teams to comb the trail and call out Sam’s name. Adams dispatched the county-owned SNOHAWK1 helicopter on what was turning into a cloudy Thursday. The aircraft’s FLIR, an infrared camera, scanned for heat signatures, but the pilots also stuck their heads out windows. They spotted a tree on fire, but no Sam.

Everett Mountain Rescue, a specialized group of volunteers equipped to explore Vesper’s alpine environment, joined the operation. By the weekend, SAR teams—all volunteers—from King, Skagit, Kitsap, Kittitas, and Pierce counties had deployed, along with four other mountain rescue squads. Trained dogs sought scents and human trackers scoured for footprints; others examined the creek. Adams established operations bases at nearby Big Four ice caves and at Spada Lake far below Vesper’s southeast side. A dozen PJs, or Air Force Pararescue personnel, came up from Oregon; the navy flew a mission.

On his foray into town that first night, Kevin had posted a plea on Facebook. “SOS, SOS. Need help ASAP,” he wrote. “Missing: Samantha Sayers…Please hurry.” Back in Pennsylvania, that was how Sam’s mother heard the news.

Of that first week, Kevin mostly remembers climbing and crying. One day stands out: August 4, three days in. The AFRCC, or Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, was actively monitoring Sam’s phone for pings, a sign of brief connectivity to cellular sites. They’d had nothing since midafternoon on August 1, when Sam’s phone pinged near the summit, one of the only areas with even spotty cell service.

And then, a breakthrough. Sam’s phone pinged, a sign it was on and working. And it was in Seattle. In Belltown.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office searchers at Spada Lake, and a SAR unit briefing during the search.

Missing people usually leave a signature, whether physical, electronic, or even a smudge of heat to be traced. Usually the ties that bind us to everyone else can be grasped and slowly reeled in.

When Kevin talks about August 4 now, his voice catches with emotion, remembering the most excruciating day of the worst summer of his life.

At the SAR base at Spada Lake, he heard about the ping. It made sense, in a way, this impossible news—if Sam wandered out on her own, she could have hitchhiked back home. Of course she’d go straight to Belltown.

Seattle PD was dispatched to the coordinates. But when they knocked on the door to Kevin and Sam’s apartment, the truth quickly shattered the fantasy. Sam wasn’t inside.

It was Kevin’s mother Dawn, who’d flown in from Louisiana and had spent the day working with the phone carrier to access information on Sam’s missing cell phone. The best they could do, the carrier said, was load the SIM signature onto Dawn’s mobile, effectively cloning Sam’s iPhone. That was what had pinged. The tether didn’t lead back to Sam at all.

Supply bags meant to be left on Vesper for Sam.

From Kevin’s first post, Facebook’s role in the search metastasized. Friends created a group page called Find Sam Sayers—#findsamsayers, to be specific—that would grow to more than 30,000 followers. A GoFundMe page raised $60,000 for the search.

Imagining Sam bushwhacking her way through the forest around Vesper, family members filled Ziploc bags with snacks and instructions for Sam. They gave the bags to Snohomish County Search and Rescue, asking them to place them around the mountain.

On forums like NWHikers.net, locals offered likely scenarios, stories of their own misadventures around Vesper, their own accidental wanderings down to Spada Lake or the Sultan River. Many took issue with the supply bags full of energy bars, not a common SAR technique. “Squirrels are going to be stuffed,” one poster wrote.

Kevin began referring to himself as Sam’s fiance. It felt true; he and Sam had lived together for more than a year, had talked about marriage. The title change was born out of a family discussion, he says. Everyone agreed that the public would take it all more seriously if people understood their solid commitment. “Everyone’s gonna say, a boyfriend, whatever, fly-by-night, who cares,” he says. “Language is powerful.”

• • • • 

The official search for Sam went on for 22 days. News organizations picked up the story. Flyers wrapped trees and signposts on the Mountain Loop and telephone poles in Seattle. Members of the Find Sam Sayers group began referring to themselves as Sam’s Army, calling elected officials en masse to demand more resources.

Local drone pilots launched flights, passing along footage that Sam’s Belltown crew posted online for anyone to scour for clues. Spreadsheets tracked every time a viewer thought they saw something. Nothing panned out.

After a $20,000 reward was announced, the trail swelled further. Carlton “Bud” Carr, a journeyman carpenter from Concrete, had taken part in searches before, like a failed attempt to find Skagit County’s Patti Krieger on Sauk Mountain in 2010. He took to Vesper and pioneered his own way off trail; from the brush he counted more than 100 people on the day the reward was posted.

Carr knew what so many recreationists did not, that Vesper Peak wasn’t just a subalpine playland of rocks and cliffs. Prospectors found gold and silver in the area in the late 1800s, and the Sunrise Mine popped up around Wirtz Basin. It’s hard to say how many deep mine shafts and ventilation corridors, called adits, are dug into the mountain—often hidden in the underbrush.

Adams got hundreds of phone calls, including one from the general in charge of the Washington National Guard, who offered his own helicopters. It had never happened before. Tips came pouring in, from the useful—YMCA campers at Lake Elan just below the peak saw Sam ascend but never come down—to the questionable, like psychic visions of her near rocks, trees, and water. Each was dutifully logged.

The sergeant fielded endless rumors and accusations, about whether FLIR was really operational—it was—or why he wasn’t using bloodhounds (wrong terrain, he says). And a common refrain, the question of whether Sam’s disappearance could be foul play; Adams simply never found anything to suggest that possibility.

He remembers Sam’s mother Lisa asking him what he really thought, around day four. His policy is to be as honest as he can.

“I said, 'I know you may not like this but I think she’s dead. I think we’re looking for a body.'” Lisa cried, he says, and gave him a hug. That was the last time they spoke.

On August 16, Adams emailed a doctor at Snohomish County EMS to ask how long a young, healthy person like Sam could survive on the berries that blanket the western Cascades in late summer. The doc’s reply: “Someone with mental fortitude and true survivor skills can find food to live on. That person would’ve walked out by now, I would think.”

No definitive signs ever surfaced; some footsteps on the southeast side could have been Sam’s, but they revealed nothing. Crucially, searchers looked every place a hiker could have conceivably fallen, but some couldn’t be completely ruled out. Below the steep north face of Vesper Peak, the edge of a glacier formed a moat at the base of the cliff, its bottom impossible to reach beneath the ice.

On August 23, Deputy Teske was sitting with Kevin when word came that the county was officially suspending its search. They both cried.

A map of search zones on Vesper Peak.

Three weeks later, Kevin stood in the Sunrise Mine Trail parking lot, shoving food into an army-style tan backpack. He took off up the trail toward Vesper, leading Cheryl Phillips, a dog handler from South Carolina, and her search dog Raven. They were among the outside experts Kevin hired using money from the GoFundMe. He tackled the elevation gain like it was a stroll down Second Avenue; his weeks of searching Vesper had whittled his already slim frame down whippet-thin. It was around day 50 of the search; Kevin would ultimately spend over 100 on this mountain.

It’s more than three miles from the trailhead to the shores of Lake Elan and Kevin’s base camp, where snow had mostly melted. That first night he wandered Vesper Peak with only the gear Sergeant Adams had on hand; by this point, his personal base had a canvas tent with a peaked roof, like a homesteader’s cabin made of fabric. It even had an iron box stove inside.

This unofficial search began as soon as SAR pulled out. David Francis—the Minnesota man who’d lost his son 13 years earlier—now leads a foundation to aid the families of adults lost in the wilderness; he flew to Seattle to meet with Kevin and the county SAR team, to make a plan.

His advice? Follow mountain man Bud Carr. An Eagle Scout who’d earned almost every merit badge, Carr was raised by a father who introduced him to both search and rescue and a defiant, self-sufficient ethos. “I’m a militant,” he says, his voice softer than his camo wardrobe suggests. “I’ve always been of a warrior mindset. Being proficient in anything is militant.”

With his dark pointed goatee and survivalist rhetoric, Carr rubbed many the wrong way. Online, critics pulled up evidence of past felonies—he helped burgle a gun store before Y2K, he admits, but found Buddhism in his four years in Missouri prison. In videos posted to his own YouTube channel, he is combative and confident about his mountain experience. To Kevin, Carr was a generous stranger turned close friend, willing to take the Louisiana tenderfoot through the rugged terrain around Vesper Peak.

Impressed by Carr’s careful hand-drawn maps and search experience, Francis recommended he be put in charge of the family’s search operations. Between Carr’s military mindset and Kevin’s own stint in the Navy, they approached the mountain with a tactical eye. They called it Operation Relentless Pursuit. In the Belltown apartment, they hung maps and scrawled Sharpie notes directly on the wall. They wrote operating plans, considered moon phases and water sources. Kevin asked his father, the command chief warrant officer in the Louisiana National Guard, to run the mountain camp.

Left, the private search basecamp near Lake Elan; right, Kevin Dares, Bud Carr, and Clay Olsen.

Online criticism reached a fever pitch. Citing the campsite’s delicate heather, posters online howled at a plan that flaunted the prevailing “leave no trace” ethos. The U.S. Forest Service denied access for their helicopter, and Kevin rallied Sam’s Army to make phone calls to USFS offices, politicians, anyone who could make noise. Approvals quickly followed.

Up at camp, just below the stone summit pyramid, the buzz of Facebook was distant. Leave no trace? Life had narrowed to a singular purpose, to comb a few square miles of earth for a trace. Sam’s trace. Volunteers still showed up, most unbidden, like a trucker from Memphis who read about Sam online and dropped everything to come climb a mountain in a place he’d never been.

Off the mountain, Kevin had become the tragic fiance who refused to give up…or maybe the subject of wild speculation. One day in Wirtz Basin, Kevin fell in step with a man who didn’t recognize this stranger with the Cajun accent and decided to share some theories. “He says, ‘Oh, I think the fiance did it,’” says Kevin, his drawl emphasizing his wry amusement. “He watches crime shows, so he tells me, ‘There’s always a dungeon where they lock them up. I’m looking for vent stacks.’” Kevin took it in stride, told the stranger who he was, but held no hard feelings. At least, he says, the man was looking.

On the mountain, Kevin’s crew of a half-dozen hardcore searchers, most of whom had never met Sam, became a little band of brothers. The elder Dares prepared hot meals of rice and meat and anything else on hand, calling it all jambalaya. Kevin, who used to wear jeans day hiking with Sam, learned how to use an ice ax. Carr belayed him down ropes into steep ravines. One day Kevin watched Clay Olsen, one of the core searchers, trip holding an ice ax, missing his own forehead by inches. “Do you know how it’s going to look if you die out here with an ice ax to your head and it’s just me and you?” Kevin asked him, grasping at dark humor.

Handler Cheryl Phillips and her dog, Raven.

Raven the search dog and her handler spent 39 days on the mountain, 17 of them in a row. Kevin, Carr, and the others made occasional trips down to visit their children and gather gear, but their lives had become ruled by the command tent maps, the bearings and grid lines plotted around PLS: Sam’s place last seen.

They were rarely alone. Volunteers brought up snacks, so many grocery store fried chickens that the team joked about the tidal wave of drumsticks. A crew of spacey garnet hunters who called themselves the Galactic Goats set up camp nearby, sometimes wandering into the search enclave in a haze of pot smoke to show off the rust-red gemstones they’d unearthed.

Though Snohomish County had officially suspended its operation, Sergeant Adams came back up to snorkel Lake Elan in a thick dry suit. He didn’t think it was likely Sam had ended up there, but it was worth a look. “There was nothing down there,” he says. “It looked like the moon.”

In October the occasional snow flurries turned to regular snowfall, and temperatures continued their plunge. Finally, in mid-October, Kevin and Bud Carr made the decision to pack up their camp and come down the mountain. Kevin made several more solo trips through November 14. That was day 106.

Less than a month later, on a sunny December day, Kevin sits at a window table back at Rocco’s and reflects on his strange, lost autumn of 2018. He looks drained. The weight he lost up on the mountain hasn’t returned to his frame and he wears his weariness like a coat. The staff checks on him every 10 minutes, more motherly than waiterly.

“My diet’s bad. I drink too much on occasion, I smoke too many cigarettes,” he says. “Sam was my health dictator. Now she’s gone.” When Kevin returned from the search, real life was waiting. The Find Sam Sayers Facebook group had grown to five figures, with posters trading conflicting theories and rumors. People who’d donated to the GoFundMe, which Kevin says was used entirely to fund the private search, wanted to know if the men had been goofing around up there, having a drug holiday around the campfire.

Kevin shut down the Facebook group and others sprung up in its wake. Sam’s mother, Lisa, started one titled Love, Light and a Miracle, buoyed by her faith that her daughter was still coming home. In regular live videos, she implied that the Sayers family was undergoing its own investigation; the Dares family interpreted cryptic statements as accusations against Kevin and sent a cease and desist letter.

The sheriff’s office fielded sightings of bald women across the state, several at various Walmarts. Psychics and shamans relayed visions. One woman said her brother-in-law could’ve abducted Sam, given a coincidentally timed vacation. The woman “had borrowed his vehicle once and even though it was very clean, it smelled of semen and dead bodies,” relayed the deputy who took the report.

Everyone had a theory. One witness claimed she saw Sam playing a TV show on her phone while hiking that day, an episode of The Bachelorette. “I do know that the season finale of that show happened after the hike so it could point to her not planning on inflicting any sort of self-harm?” the witness wrote in an email to deputies. Hearing that, Kevin can only give a scornful laugh.

Steve Monchak, an area drone photographer, reported that he’d been at the Big Four ice caves the day Sam went missing, just a few miles away; he told deputies he spotted two suspicious men there. Monchak would head up the amateur drone searches, but later broke from Kevin’s search to run his own. He began a Facebook group called The Truth of the Sam Sayers Case where followers could swap theories; one made a timeline that runs more than 180 pages. Eventually, even that produced a splinter group, The Truth of the Sam Sayers Case – UNCENSORED. People made YouTube videos. There are giant Reddit threads.

Amateur sleuths followed the case like the podcast Serial or a season of True Detective. They parsed Kevin’s 911 call—could you hear someone in the background?—and claimed to have hacked his email. Sam and Kevin’s friends waded into the fray, trying to correct misinformation; one of his sisters got into arguments in comment sections. Someone sent Kevin a kind of fan fiction story they found online, casting Sam, “Buck Carp,” and “Kelvin Daires” as characters in a rambling tale with a menacing undertone.

Posters wait for resolution like a season finale; “I’m in too deep to stop watching now,” wrote one. “I’m sure they’ll be surprised [sic] twist we’ve never thought of.”

“It’s the murder mystery crowd, the I-love-watching-HBO-serial-killer-documentaries crowd,” says Kevin, who tries, sometimes in vain, to temper his cynicism. “They think, This is my chance to be a part of one.” 

Kevin and Sam on a Mt. Ellinor hike in the Olympics about a month before she went missing.

By early March, just after Mardi Gras 2019 and three years after he met Sam, Kevin has regained some of the weight he shed on Vesper, a mustard button-up brings color back to his face. He gave up two things for Lent: social media and alcohol. Not drinking makes nights harder.

“I dream,” he says, the bayou drawl heavy even as his voice gets quiet. “When I dream she’s always getting kidnapped.” The unknown, he says time and time again, is the hard part.

Sometimes he can joke about the idea that Sam had orchestrated her own disappearance, a kind of Gone Girl stunt that would melt the internet: “You’ve been chilling in the woods for five months? You owe me 99.999 percent of those royalties,” he’d tell her. But he knows that any scenario where Sam’s alive is a dark one. He calls it the rabbit hole, one that can swallow you. “The happiest situation I can think of is she’s on that mountain and it was something quick and she didn’t suffer for too long.”

Only a fraction of missing persons cases are truly without a trace, truly unsolved. Someone told Kevin 3 percent. “It’s just a really shitty club to be a part of.”

Sergeant Adams thinks Sam is somewhere on that mountain, not far from where she was last seen. He points to the moats off the north side of the peak, where the steep bottom of the cliff meets the glacier.

Those moats haunt Kevin too; he knows they’ll never really be able to search the bands between ice and rock that fill up with snow every winter. It’s as if the ties that bound Sam to him, to her life, to reality, are fluttering in the Cascade gusts, and after months of grasping at them he still can’t seem to catch one between his fingers.

• • • • 

The trail register may be the last tangible piece of Sam on Vesper Peak, the last one you can physically touch, but there was one more sign of her. That sunny August Wednesday, a hiker stopped a few hundred feet below the top, right above the meadow where Kevin would one day erect his camp.

The hiker turns his camera in a blurry panorama, catching blue sky over boulder fields, the sharp peaks that circle Lake Elan. A big open space where it looks like you can see everything. As the camera trains on Vesper Peak, a figure ascends the scramble route, passing other climbers at a determined pace.

Sam has a hiking pole in each hand, head down as she earns the last of the 4,200-foot climb. This is the stance of someone who doesn’t give up. The camera moves on, and Sam continues ever upward.

Editor's Note: This article was updated April 30 to correct cellular satellites to cellular sites.

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