Rika (a.k.a. “Strawberry”) first passed me as I ascended Kearsarge Pass for the first time. I was putting on my spikes and huffing and puffing on a rest stop. She checked in with me and then walked off. Step-step-step-step no pauses for sure footing, no crampons or micro spikes – just boots. Step step step. I was impressed. I finished my ascent and looked down and she was just disappearing into the tree line on the East side of the pass. She was fast.
I saw her again as I descended out of Rae Lakes. I had just finished crossing Baxter creek and was putting my boots back on: “Hi I’m Rika and I from Japan, I walk 20 miles a day.” Bold and fearless, she made me look like a rank armature grade A backpacking wimp.
I crossed the wood creek bridge, started up and she passed me again. We said hi, but that was it.
When Nosebleed told me that no one had seen her I was surprised and worried. She seemed so with it. When I returned home I looked up her case immediately and saw the post by the National Park: “Any one with any information please contact the 800 hotline. Within minutes of leaving a descriptive message I received a call from a detective. “She was found dead 400 yards south of the trail crossing of South Fork Kings river.”
Holy crap, that’s near where I crossed. And that river almost got me.
“I’ve been in search and rescue for nearly 10 years, and before that I was a Navy Seal. Can you help me get into her head? All of her texts home seemed preoccupied with the dangers out here and she didn’t know how to cross certain rivers. I’ve gotta tell you, if that was me, I would have stopped until I got an answer. Why did she continue forward?”
That is the question isn’t. Why do any of us move forward? Some of us stay paralyzed in fear of the world. Afraid to travel, afraid to talk with different people, afraid to face the unknown. Others launch out, and push boundaries and move forward when others do not not. Where does foolhardy begin and courage end?
I didn’t have a great answer for him, but I told him:
“On the trail, after a few accomplishments, people become more courageous and overestimate what they can do. That was the case with me. I underestimated the trial and overestimated my abilities. I was passed on the trail about two-three times a day over the course of three weeks. If they could do it, why couldn’t I? I guess I was just more lucky than Rika.”
Rika wasn’t the only fatality this year:
- Rika Morita: South Fork Kings River
- Chaocui “Tree” Wang, Rancheria Creek in Kerrick Canyon
- Scott Davis – Golden Staircase, Solo Hiker – near Pear Lake.
Article after article warned people to stay away. Yet was I foolish or courageous to attempt a solo hike of the JMT? I may have made it through, and I may not have known Rika at all, except for a few words exchanged. However, I do think about her often, her determination, grit, and unwillingness to ask for help