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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

But there are indeed rules, and the locals say that you'd better learn them: If you're alone, stay on the trail. If you're not, don't get out of sight. Always be prepared for the worst kind of weather. Always know where you are, and where you're headed.

Pollard says he tried explaining all that to Crouch's party from the beginning.

"Not only myself, but Joe [Erickson] was real insistent on one point, and he reiterated it several times -- stay together because this is awful rough country. We both said it again and again."

Nonetheless, holding back Crouch proved about as easy as tying down a mountain lion.

"He would just take off and top out," Ruland says. "They say he would never sit still."

When the group went fishing in Moya Canyon on Aug. 30, Crouch's restlessness continued. Finally, says Barbara Pollard, who runs the outfitting business along with husband, Terry, "Somebody told him, 'Dave, we've got seven days here. We've got lots to see, and you can't do it all in one day.' "

That night, they planned their Sunday schedule while eating dinner at their base camp at the south end of Lost Lake. Before crawling into their tents for the night, they agreed to travel the next day a few miles toward Island Lake, where they would fish the lake and the creek pouring out of its west end. At 2 p.m. they would rendezvous at a nearby trail junction, Fremont Crossing, where Terry Pollard would have a fire going and a hot lunch waiting.

And remember, they said, stay together.

The next day -- the last time anyone in the group saw Crouch -- he was fishing on the south side of Island Lake. It was around noon. The next time someone looked up, he was gone.

Lunch came and went without him, and by late afternoon, his companions were circling the lake and shouting his name. The lake sits just above the timber line, and voices carry well. But anyone who has moved over the hill and into the next pass won't hear a thing.

As long as he stayed on a trail, his friends figured, he'd be OK because it was a busy Labor Day weekend. Bob Reese, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, estimates at least 80 hikers and rock climbers were within a few square miles around Island Lake that Sunday. Local outfitter Frank Deede puts the number at closer to 140, after counting about 40 campsites in the area.

Barbara Pollard, who refers to the corridor of trails leading toward Island Lake as "the freeway system," says she passed 45 southbound hikers on one stretch that day.

Seen by one group

And sure enough, one group of hikers almost certainly passed Crouch at about 7 p.m., about a half-hour before sunset. They were several miles north and east of where he'd last been seen, above 11,000 feet of elevation on a trail passing directly below the face of the highest peaks.

He was traveling north, away from Island Lake, and only three miles short of the trail's end. From the terminus one can keep traveling only by scrambling across ledges and boulder fields.

The backpackers describe the man they saw as slender, about 5 feet 10 inches tall, with light brown hair, carrying a fishing pole, wearing jeans and a red and black plaid flannel shirt. It fit Crouch to a T.

"They passed by him, nodded, and said hello," Ruland says, "and he didn't say a thing. Just kept on walking. There's no doubt it was him."

"It almost had to be him," Pollard says. "even though he was way, way off from where he was supposed to be. He must have had some kind of agenda in mind, I guess. I wish I knew."

The best theory now is that Crouch took off for another fishing spot or a sightseeing stroll, then lost his bearings or strayed too far before realizing the lateness of the day. By the time he sensed his mistake, he was either too lost or too far away to make it back to camp by nightfall.

And as Ruland points out, Crouch was woefully short of survival gear: "No water, no matches, no nothing." Nor did he have a jacket, a map, a compass or a flashlight. It was also a moonless night, meaning the only light would be the pinpricks of the stars.

From that point on, much of what Crouch had found so beautiful would only have worked against him. On a cold night, even a drink of water only moves you closer to disaster, further lowering your body temperature with its glacial chill. And if Crouch tried an off-trail shortcut after dark, a single misstep could have been fatal.

The temperature that night only fell into the 30s, although during the next few nights, there was a small snowfall and a low of 18. It snowed again Thursday.

Judging from the areas where search dogs picked up a scent last week, Crouch may have made it back as far as Moya Canyon, the area above Lost Lake where he and his friends fished the day before he was lost.

Still isolated

But, as outfitter Frank Deede puts it: "As busy as that wilderness is, if you get just a quarter of a mile off a trail you might not see anybody for another 10 years."

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