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Detective Photo Hunt in the Uintas
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Detective Photo Hunt in the Uintas

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Detective Photo Hunt in the Uintas

Page Type: Article

Object Title: Detective Photo Hunt in the Uintas

Activities: Hiking

 

Page By: Dmitry Pruss

Created/Edited: Oct 22, 2006 / Jul 11, 2007

Object ID: 237508

Hits: 13010 

Page Score: 90.13%  - 31 Votes 

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Setting of the story

On September 8th, 2003, just over 3 years ago, two women from Georgia picked a Mirror Lake Rec Area pass from a highway booth. They never returned from their Western Uinta hike.
 
Overview of the routes
Blue - route of lost hikers according to investigators
Red - actual route of lost hikers to Clyde Lake

Topozone and image links:
Crystal Lake TH (trails have been realigned to begin from the TH parking lot)
Hidden Lake (photo)
Long Lake (photo of Mid Fk Weber junction)


Carole Wetherton and her daughter Kim Beverly have last been seen very close to Crystal Lake TH, heading in the direction of Long Lake. The search for the women didn't commence until they missed their flight home on Sep 13th. Their rental car was still at Crystal Lake Trailhead, parked next to Notch Mountain trail sign. The two women's remains have been eventually recovered 9 months later, miles North of the Long Lake trail, and the investigators suggested that the pair may have lost trail in the falling snow, choosing to cross a saddle to the West of Mt Watson (towards Holiday Park) instead of backtracking across a saddle to the South of Mt Watson.
 
According to investigators  theory,
Did they make a wrong turn by this cairn?

On the 3rd anivessary of the womens' death, KSL published digitized photographs from the camera the women have been carrying with them, as well as an image and an approximate location of their final stop. The website visitors immediately questioned the theory of the investigators - it looks like the women may have been heading North of Mt Watson all along:

Picture Locations Wrong - Pictured in Time, Part 1
by David M. (#103363) @ 10:03am - Thu Sep 28th, 2006
I have been up to the Uintahs for many years and have been to most of the lakes off of the Crystal Lake trailhead. Some of the pictures shown on the website were actually taken at Wall Lake (pictures 5-7). Picture 7 is actually a picture of The Notch, a well-known notch in the mountain next to Notch Mountain. I have hiked on the trail that goes up through the notch and down to Ibantik Lake. I have also taken many pictures similar to the one that these two women took of The Notch as seen from Wall Lake.

Just thought it might be an interesting note. It is stated that they went to Long Lake, but the pictures say otherwise.


The basic conclusion wouldn't change, that the women were very reasonably prepared (they carried extra layers, space blanket, water, matches) but couldn't find a way back to their car in a storm, stopped for the night in an area of poor trails two miles from their car, and apparently succumbed to hypothermia. But there are big doubts about the geography of the story. And since the family made the pictures public to raise awareness about dangers of Uinta hiking, and about proper preparedness, and especially about using GPS to know precise locations, it seemed to me that the controversy calls for putting those precise locations of the map.

Importantly, in my opinion, the biggest mystery of Carole's and Kim's death is not why they may have lost a trail (the investigation assumed that the snow covered the trail, although the snow didn't start accumulating in the area until the night of September 9th). To me the biggest question is why they didn't keep going. An oft-repeated go-down-the-creek rule would have brought them to a well-travelled trail in lower Middle Fk Weber in perhaps as little as a mile, and the woods are wide open for cross-country travel at this elevation. In fact searchers on horseback (!) passed by barely 300 yards from their shelter, too late to make a difference.

Was it a trauma, general exhaustion, or darkness which prompted them to stop? A proper reconstruction of their track, pace, and time travelled, might shed some light on these questions.

And in addition to speculating how a GPS might or might not have helped, we may be discussing a need for a (much cheaper, lighter, easier-to-use, and longer-lasting) headlamp. Or we may talk about the proper rules for separating a team when one member is unable to walk and another one may be able to summon help.

Photo Hunt around Notch Mountain Trail

On October 14th I've tried to pinpoint the pictures taken along Notch Mountain Trail and its Clyde Lake spur. Most of pictures between #2 and #18 in the KSL album have been located to within a few feet - check here for a complete list. A couple examples of matching pairs are thumbnailed below:

or

But after picture #19, we've got a problem. It is a photo which was supposed to be the central clue for the investigation. Heavy rain is hitting a lake surrounded by timber country. Wooded slopes raise from the lake's far shore, with some talus bands visible higher up the slopes. There are three very distinct penisulas jutting into the lake.

Only there wasn't a place like this at the Clyde Divide. The area of Booker and 3 Divide lakes is short on timber, and the slopes above are pretty bare - just check this beautiful view from the slopes of Watson from Penza19 Gallery:


We pressed on to Hidden Lake and circled it ... some timberland on its South shore, but we didn't see any penisnulas or forested slopes behind (doh! read on!).

From Hidden Lake, it was less an a mile cross-country down into Middle Fork Weber gorge. We investigated a half-mile section of the creek, looking for the women's final shelter - a little cove of rock facing West - and couldn't find it either. In hindsight, the shelter rock might not be so trivial to find, because it is illogically far from the creek and the faint trail there. July 10 '04 SLTrib article quoted S&R that

Twice, in separate searches, teams were very close to the women and the shelter they had built. Last fall, a crew on horseback was within 300 yards. And just a month ago on June 5, a reconnaissance team checking the area was about 100 yards from where the pair eventually was found

(A complete collection of potentially useful media tidbits has been posted to SP)

We then backtracked and checked the unnamed lakes on the Northern side of Clyde Lake Divide, and Watson, Linear, Petite, and Cliff lakes between Clyde Lake and the trailhead. Nothing looked like photo #19 there either.

The key picture ... at Long Lake?

 
East Face of Cone a.k.a. Island Peak
Trail to Long Lake

It started to look like perhaps the Notch-Clyde hike wasn't the trip where the women got lost. That they might have been in the area twice. The pictures actually bore date stamps from the camera, only the date hasn't been set properly, in any case, the publisher cropped most of them out (there has been a good deal of water damage at the edges of this film, of course). So no help here.

As I already mentioned, the hikers (who just arrived to their Park City timeshare on Sep. 6th) purchased their Mirror Lake pass on Monday the 8th, and the weather has been reasonable in the morning. It only started raining later in the afternoon, then snowing on Tuesday night. The last-sighting reports are contradictory, with most of them saying that a ranger spoke to them near the trailhead on the 8th, while others say it was on the 9th. Some early news reports state that the two have been sighted in Park City on the 9th. It would strike me as highly unusual if the hikers returned to exactly the same high-elevation trailhead, almost an hour drive away from their condo, in a miserable weather, after just completing a nice hike there the previous day. But there are many unusual things in the story, so we just can't rule it out.
 
A peninsula?
Definitely not here!

I tried to contact various people involved in the story, and got a responce from then-county coordinator of SAR. From what he could remember, the pictures might have been taken on two different trips. He remembered one photo the best, with the heavy rain falling into a lake and clouds rushing down from the ridge, for its unsettling, foreboding quality. This of course must have been KSL's shot #19, and he insisted that it was taken at Long Lake.

The following weekend we trudged through a nearly foot-deep snow to Long Lake and of course it could not have been the place. Most of the timbered slopes are separated from the water by a cliffband, and on the lower shores on the South side, there are very few trees and no matching set of penisulas. I got over half-dozen shots of Long Lake, from all different angles, in the gallery below. Just ain't got a clue where the pictures from the following section have been taken.

The key picture ... at Island Lake maybe?


Just when I was about to give up looking, and to postpone any further search till summer, I came across an intriguing photo in Scott Patterson's book. There on page 82 was an image of a lake with low-slung peninsulas and a lone fir tree guarging the more distant point. This being a small faded B&W reproduction, I couldn't figure out if it might be it, but it sure caught attention.

OK, so we are heading to the beautiful Island Lake now. Lo and behold, it does have shoreline points which are juxtaposed kind of in the same way as in the dead hikers' pictures!

A low-slung, grassy point comes from the left; some distance away on the other side of a lake, another point, topped by a lone fir, comes from the right. A wooded slope rises behind the lake.


The differences are too obvious though. The lone fir tree on Island Lake is much smaller, and the point it is standing on is way rocky. The bay before the nearest point is much wider. The timbered hill behind the lake tops out at the skyline, no talus slopes are there further up.

Some more interesting conclusions from comparing the two pictures:

1. The mystery lake is probably quite a bit smaller than Island lake - just compare the sizes of the trees on the peninsula and on the far shore (of course we don't know the focus length and the extent of cropping to measure it precisely)

2. The mystery picture is likely made from a hillside or a like point elevated slightly above the lake, rather than from the shoreline.

Apart from these interesting hints, we are back to square 1. But with a new set of birds-eye photographs of the area, picturing dozens of local lakes from East Long and Watson mountains (in a separate album - check if any of these lakes look like it to your eye!)

Fellow SP contributor finds the missing link!

Just as I kept claiming that the key "KSL images #19 and #20" couldn't have been taken at Hidden Lake, filwould posted a nearly perfectly matching photo - taken right there!

Hidden Lake
The trees, the shoreline, the slopes ... bingo!

The final two images from the hikers' camera

In July 2007, we succeeded at last in locating the final two photographs retrieved from their camera. As already expected, they have been made a short distance upstream from the canyon, and downstream from the outlet of Hidden Lake. Still, with hardly any major landmarks in the pictures, locating the spots was nothing short of a needle-in-a-haystack problem. Three trips to the area yielded the answers at last.

The two final pictures have been taken from virtually the same spot on the right bank of the stream, near an old campsite on the East edge of a small meadow with the view of distant Long Peak.

"The Campsite": the next to last photo



The Hidden Campsite image of the lost hikers revealed
The "Campsite" location revealed!

"The Little Meadow": the last photo


The Little Meadows shot of lost hikers revealed
The "Little Meadow" location revealed

Unidentified pictures - the mystery lingers

Can you ID any of these two?
KSL - no number but according to the uploading order it may have been taken between Hidden Lake and the "Little Meadow".
The SAR shot

External Links

uutah.com thread
utahgeocachers.com thread
KSL 3rd anivessary story
Climb-Utah original story, owing some fallacies to hasty media reporting back in '03-'04
Summit Co UT Sheriff's

Thanks!

I would like to thank Lynn & Wendy Deppe, Scott Patterson, Shane Burrows, Jim Snyder, Vlad Turchenko, and Matthew Ross for their help with the research and for their insightful comments.

The last chapter of the story is not finished yet, of course. I will gladly extend more thanks to all of the readers for helping to fill in the missing info!

Images


Comments


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Dmitry PrussRe: What makes one stop?

Dmitry Pruss

Hasn't voted

UtahHike, I think it was said in response to even more frequent comments that "a GPS would have made all the difference". If an injury keeps one from moving, a GPS wouldn't help. If inclement weather makes one seek a shelter, a GPS wouldn't make things different. If batteries die or if you drop it and crack the screen, then a GPS wouldn't be of any use either. And of course one can even be lead astray by the GPS arrow, if the correct route circles around, bypassing difficult terrain. I'm a GPS afficionado but I've seen my share of stories of "bad choices assisted by a GPS". The point, a GPS is a great tool but not a fail-safe substitute to good planning, appropriate gear, and outdoors experience.
Posted Aug 13, 2012 3:55 pm

brlyRe: What makes one stop?

Hasn't voted

Thank you Dmitry.

I should have been more specific about my comment that a GPS would not have helped. The news reports said that people should always take a GPS when they hike in areas like that. I was stating that it would not have helped them in this situation because they died from hypothermia, not from being lost. Whether they were disoriented or not doesn't change the fact that they did not survive the elements.
Posted Sep 28, 2012 11:56 am

UtahHikeGPS coordinates of final SAR picture

Hasn't voted

You said the sar guy didn't tell you where it was at? By any chance, do you know if they have reports of locations somewhere which happen to be in public records?
Posted Aug 3, 2012 9:38 pm

UtahHikePosting videos on Summitpost?

Hasn't voted

Interesting website discussion. I just hiked to Hidden Lake two days ago, on Monday the 17th.

I wonder if this may supplement filwould's photo of western Hidden Lake, for those who haven't been there yet, a view without the snow. http://www.summitpost.org/western-hidden-lake-uintas/815122 One more tree has been taken out since filwould's picture (probably part of that bench of logs next to a firepit behind where you take this picture), and the water level looks a little lower this year, but I like it how the colors of the ground show.

Also, I'm new here but wonder if there's a way to post videos on Summitpost? I took a video of this part of the lake and while moving forward, as a way to show more of it to make it even more obvious to those who haven't visited.
Posted Sep 20, 2012 1:42 am

UtahHikePossibility of getting lost

Hasn't voted

I know that some here are skeptical these two hikers could have gotten lost, however, it's always easy in hindsight to say you can't get lost when you're by a computer screen looking at a map. As far as the possibility, Search and Rescue says they often find people who claim they got turned around, especially in the Uintas. As far a personal experience, I have a GPS that marks a "track" of where I go. Often hiking with others, when returning to the trailhead I get people who insist we need to turn a different way because they swear it's the way we came. Then I'll tell them my GPS tracks us and we came from the opposite direction they think we need to return. Then as we go further the correct way that they had been skeptical about, they'll say "Oh, it looks familiar now." I've also heard quite a few people say they've climbed the wrong mountain peak, etc, etc. You often hear about studies of how hikers who don't recognize landmarks often hike in circles, to the left or right. The SAR people even mistook that picture of western Hidden Lake with Long Lake, so that's why I'm still still curious about the possibility of these two getting lost by mixing things up.

In addition to that, when I hiked there this Monday, when cutting from the Three Divide Lakes over to Hidden Lake, I got the impression people usually don't go over there unless they have a GPS, are good with a map and compass, or got turned around and went that direction. I didn't see how the average Joe off the streets hiker would just wander over there out of curiosity. I say this because you can't see Hidden Lake until you're basically already there, and along the way you cut across some rock gulley's/cliffs and have to find openings. Maybe I got that feeling only because I was hiking all by myself and knew what the weather reports said the temperature would be for the night, but I still got that impression continuing further and further down toward Hidden Lake.

I don't know, do you think perhaps it's always possible they wanted to do the Wall-Clyde Lake Loop, ventured off the usual path to explore west of Clyde Lake a little? Then when they saw the storm coming in they felt rushed to get back to their vehicle, not taking much time and effort in figuring out their navigation, making a wrong turn somewhere? When the sky started getting hazier and the Sun was less noticeable to tell south, feeling rushed to beat the storm they mistook the shape of Long Mountain for the Bald Mountain/Reid's Peak combo, went west rather than east, then when they ran into the stream connecting Hidden Lake with the Middle Fork Weber they mistakenly thought it was one of those streams which would take them to one of those popular lakes near their vehicle, all the maps show streams running down to Trial Lake, etc? (Not knowing they were being taken in the wrong direction) To me, on my Monday hike, Mount Watson looked quite a bit different than the western Notch, rocky and without the trees, but I wonder if they were tired or cold so they may not have processed as well the terrain they weren't as familiar with? Was it the National Forest Maps they had? If so, I believe those maps don't show where the trees are, like the USGS do. So I wonder if maybe they didn't figure it all out, in addition to possibly not paying much attention to the Sun as a landmark from the weather coming in paired with feeling rushed?
Posted Sep 20, 2012 2:58 am

brlyRe: Possibility of getting lost

Hasn't voted

Ummm. They did not have a GPS!

Let's concentrate on the facts, since that is the actual point of this thread.
Posted Oct 8, 2012 9:05 pm

UtahHikeRe: Possibility of getting lost

Hasn't voted

brly, How is brainstorming ideas of what may have happened to these two ladies getting off topic? I thought that was part of the point of this thread, discussing the possibilities of them getting lost versus actually knowing where they were traveling and one getting injured?

To clarify what I said for the post for which you're responding to above, I was exploring the notion that it may not be too much of a stretch to think the hikers got turned around. I was trying to point out that when I hiked from Clyde Lake to Hidden Lake last month, I got a pretty good impression most hikers out there will not just cross on over like that unless they are either: 1. Good with a map & compass (the news said they only had a map but no compass); 2. Have a GPS (they didn't have that); or 3. Turned around and wandering in that direction (may be a possibility for what happened with those hikers).

Since in person I got the impression your average hiker isn't going to just head on over there plus the news seems to indicate they didn't have a compass, I was evaluating the possibility they got turned around (if they were so much in a rush to beat the storm in the distance they didn't take as much time for navigating, mistaking the outline of Long Peak for Reid's Peak/Bald Mountain). I was also thinking about the possibility that since the Forest Service maps don't show the trees on mountains like the USGS do, if these two hikers were feeling rushed, terrain navigation with just a map may have thrown them off when looking at western Notch Mountain.
Posted Oct 9, 2012 4:40 pm

Dmitry PrussRe: Possibility of getting lost

Dmitry Pruss

Hasn't voted

Just noticed the continuing discussion ... I don't think you can post a video, but it's possible to embed a youtube flick in a page here.

I think there is a general agreement that these ladies didn't get to Hidden Lake on purpose. Since they were coming from Notch Mtn Pass by Clyde Lake, and since their car was at Crystal Lake TH, it's reasonable to think that they planned to complete the loop, following the trail further South to Watson and Cliff Lakes.

The locations of the final pictures tell us that they hiked West instead. There are reasonable anglers' trails between Clyde and 3 Divide lakes but they grow faint beyond, before one can see Hidden Lake. That's correct.

But a lost hiker doesn't need to know about Hidden Lake to get there. The usual sage advice is, if lost then continue on downhill. So it's like, you are going in a wrong direction, but a first there is a trail to follow, and then as the trail fades, you keep going downhill, to Hidden lake and then to its outlet stream.

It's true that sometimes people are confused about the direction of a trail, even when the things are obvious in hindsight. The worst example I recall happened on a wilderness ski backpack, on a half-day side-trip from a camp to an alipne cirque. We skied upstream along a major creek until the terrain opened up, snapped some pictures, and descended back to camp. Except one guy stopped to tinker with his bindings, and promised to catch up. Well the Sun was going down and he didn't return yet ... rescue time ... following our track upstream again, passing the spot where he saw him last ... nothing. A couple miles later we spotted him in twilight, going up the valley towards the tree line. He said he didn't pay attention and couldn't figure out if the camp was down below or up above (!) What's an unbelievable blunder to one person, is just a regular level of confusion to another, I guess...
Posted Oct 26, 2012 5:05 pm

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