Trail likely led to death for missing Md. hiker Wyoming mountains lured Kent Island man

September 14, 1997|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

PINEDALE, Wyo. -- The last time anyone saw David Crouch, he was striding across a harsh gray landscape of boulder and crag, well beyond the green comfort of the timberline and miles ** beyond the reach of his friends.

A few backpackers passed in the opposite direction, offering greetings even as they wondered at this unlikely sight so close to sundown -- a young man heading up a dead-end trail without pack or parka, carrying nothing but a fishing rod.

They said hello. He said nothing. And no one has seen him since.

That was two weeks ago. And the local folks now say it is almost certain that this slender, athletic 27-year-old man from Stevensville on Kent Island is dead, if only because he mistook these mountains' beauty for benevolence, and exuberantly let it swallow him alive.

"The people with him say he was just awe inspired by the countryside, and you know, sometimes people lose sight of how dangerous it can be," Sublette County Sheriff Hank Ruland says. "You lose your way and it doesn't take long to panic. The clock ticks pretty slow up there. And if you don't have some survival equipment when the temperature drops into the 20s, well, that's a no brainer. You'll go down."

The search for Crouch has employed helicopters, horses, dog teams and some 50 people. The latest big effort came Wednesday, but by then the search had long since taken on a fatalistic atmosphere. Given the harsh weather that moved into the mountains in the days after his disappearance, rescue workers say Crouch probably died Sept. 2.

So, as Ruland prepared last week to order in another team of dogs, he advised against optimism, saying grimly, "Now these are certified cadaver-sniffing dogs, so we are not looking for a lost soul up there anymore."

Wednesday's search also proved fruitless, and Ruland says there will probably be one more try next week before he gives up.

The uncertainty has been one of the hardest parts of the ordeal for Crouch's wife of three years, Donna, according to those who have accompanied her. She traveled to Pinedale last Sunday. Crouch's father arrived Thursday.

Closing ranks

They and the rest of Crouch's family have responded to the crisis by closing ranks, saying virtually nothing to reporters and asking others to do the same. Friends who accompanied Crouch on the trip also won't talk about it.

But Ruland, who listened to their accounts, and Terry Pollard, a local outfitter who led them into the wilderness, offer a rough sketch of the events leading up to and after Crouch's disappearance.

The trip was the idea of Joe Erickson, a Baltimore man who had traveled out here before and is among those not talking. He had been fly fishing the waters and fell in love with the scenery. He wanted to return, this time bringing others.

Accompanying him were his sons, Joe Jr. and Brad, as well as another friend. Brad invited Crouch along, Pollard says.

Crouch seemed the perfect choice for a wilderness companion. He was a runner, a bicyclist, a sailor. On one bike trip, he'd pedaled from Stevensville to Ocean City.

Even his work was related to the outdoors. He'd managed a Stevensville bike shop since April 1995, the year after he married his one-and-only girlfriend, Donna, 27, whom he had known since kindergarten.

Crouch had also done some fly fishing. And even if his experience with mountains involved little more than a past trip to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, as one acquaintance says, he was charged up for the Wyoming journey.

The trip called for a full week of hiking and fishing in the Wind River Range in Bridger National Forest, an isolated area about 90 miles southeast of Grand Teton National Park in western Wyoming. At $225 a day, the accommodations were about as cushy as you can get in a wilderness.

One of the main advantages the money bought was a ride into the wilderness on horseback. Pack animals carry the supplies, while riders clop past hikers staggering at half the speed beneath their 60-pound packs.

Even at that, the trip is bone-jarring, crossing streams and steep, rocky hills. But from the very beginning, Pollard says, Crouch couldn't seem to get enough.

It is easy to see why.

Sometimes the scenery is intimate -- a small alpine pond hemmed in by gray canyon walls, with golden trout shimmering below the surface of the clear waters.

Other times the views are as wide and grand as the heavens themselves. Approaching 10,000 feet in elevation, you emerge from a fragrant stand of lodgepole pine to confront the Wind River Range's crowning glory, a distant progression of jagged 13,000-foot peaks, framed by high banks of clouds that seem able to boil up into storms at a moment's notice.

Another 500 feet and the bleakness of the landscape is stunning. There are no more trees and no sounds but the gurgle of streams and the skitter of an occasional marmot.

Giddy from the view

To a flatlander, giddy from the beauty, the altitude and the shattering blue sky, it can seem like a place where the rules from back home no longer apply.

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