A popular Seattle hiking guidebook author and columnist died in Mount Rainier National Park while doing what she loved—hiking.
Karen Sykes, 70, died as a result of hypothermia with the secondary cause of heart disease, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s office.
Experienced and well prepared, Sykes was reported missing late Wednesday afternoon, June 18, when she failed to show up to meet her boyfriend following a day hike on the mountain’s east side.
A three-day search ensued and was called off Saturday, June 21 when the body of a female, later identified as Sykes, was found.
The author wrote the book Hidden Hikes in Western Washington and was also a co-author of Best Wildflower Hikes: Washington.
Both published by The Mountaineers Books, she also led hikes through The Mountaineers Club.
“Washington’s hikers and climbers were Karen’s community. She paid tribute to those who came before her and became a leader in her own right. Her depth of knowledge was hard earned, and punctuated with joy,” said Mountaineers Books Publisher Helen Cherullo.
Sykes also wrote a column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, stories for The Seattle Times, and her blog.
“Though I’m not young I still enjoy the challenge of rugged trails, obscure trails, abandoned trails and looking for artifacts even if the price is a losing battle with Devil’s Club, salmonberry, rotting stumps and nettles,” she wrote in her final blog post June 4 about the Lime Kiln Trail. “Sometimes it just feels good to tussle with Mother Nature; it builds character.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, Sykes and her hiking partner and boyfriend, Bob Morthorst, were trekking the Owyhigh Lakes Trail on June 18 when they encountered melting snow. Morthorst thought that made continuing on the eight-mile trail too difficult, a park spokeswoman said. The park had issued an alert that melting snow could be dangerous to hikers. Sykes continued alone into steep and rugged terrain, agreeing to meet Morthorst later. He reported her missing about 10:45 p.m.
Hopes were high that she would survive based on her experience.
However, her body was found off the trail that Saturday. According to park officials, 18 hikers have died from falls, drownings, heart attacks, and other mishaps in Mount Rainier National Park since 2000.
News of her death quickly rippled through the Washington hiking community.
“Karen’s passion for Washington’s wild places and wildflowers inspired thousands of new and veteran hikers to get out and explore, to protect and to treasure the landscapes she so clearly loved,” said a post on the Washington Trails Association website. “As a hiker, writer and friend to so many on Washington’s trails, she will be dearly remembered.”
WTA’s Kim Brown recalled fondly both Sykes’ curiosity and her humor on trail. “She always enjoyed having fun with nature – like picking up shed antlers to pretend she’s an elk, or using a mat of moss for a toupee. Once when we were hiking the Lime Kiln Trail she got all excited about a bit of ice hair, ran up to take a picture of it, only to discover it was Kleenex; she laughed so hard at herself.”
A memorial service has been planned for July 14 at the Mountaineers Seattle Program Center in Magnuson Park. Attendees are invited to share stories and experiences with friends at 6:30 p.m., with a program beginning at 7 p.m.
“Karen Sykes was an inspiration to many hikers as a hiking companion, hike leader, columnist, guidebook author and photographer. Even though she is gone, she lives on in her work and in our hearts,” the Mountaineers group wrote on its website, where there is a blog for people to share their remembrances.
“Her loss is tragic,” wrote Thomas Overlin on the blog. “She will be missed greatly by all who knew and loved her, but her spirit and gentleness and warmth, her love of the outdoors will live on in the ones whose lives she touched, either directly or indirectly.”
Main image courtesy of Jim Heaphy/Wikimedia Commons Secondary image courtesy of The Mountaineers Books