SNOQUALMIE PASS — An Everett man who had been missing since October was reportedly found dead Monday south of Stevens Pass.
Gavin Johnston, 28, told his father Oct. 17 he was heading to the Pacific Crest Trail for a two-month backpacking trip. His family said he had almost no hiking experience and may have had a mental health crisis.
The King County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that a body was found early Monday afternoon in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.
The medical examiner’s office has not released an official identification, but according to the family, a hiker spotted Johnston near the trail by Glacier Lake, in a sleeping bag with a rosary in his hand. He was found with a phone, wallet and gear that he reportedly bought before leaving, said his stepmother, Debora Johnston.
“We know it was Gavin,” she said.
Family and friends said Tuesday that Gavin Johnston was quiet and kind. He had piercing blue eyes and, when his beard was shaved, a boyish face that made him look years younger than he was. He was a devout Catholic who attended daily Mass several times a week at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Everett.
When he wasn’t at church, he could often be seen at the Safeway on Broadway, where he spent much of his working life. More recently, he had a job at an aerospace parts manufacturer. In his spare time, he liked to play video games and classical guitar and spend time with his parents.
Marvin Johnston said his son was likely having a mental health crisis before he left for the mountains. Gavin had called his father one day in October, saying he was going backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail, which spans from Canada to Mexico along the West Coast. He said he wanted to go into the forest to pray and become closer with God. He didn’t have any hiking experience or wilderness survival experience, though, and it wouldn’t be long before the weather took a turn for the worse in the mountains.
His father said he still had a recording of the phone call. He said his son’s voice sounded cheerful.
Gavin reportedly sold his belongings and bought over $1,100 in gear from Cabela’s. Before heading out, he stopped by the Everett Gospel Mission’s men’s shelter to donate money.
Not long after, the family reported their son as missing, put up flyers and began searching. Marvin Johnston said they became confused about where to look.
Gavin’s car was parked on the north side of Stevens Pass, but he said he was going south on the trail. Then a hiker reported possibly seeing Gavin about 75 miles south, near Snoqualmie Pass.
Family members spent weeks searching from both Stevens and Snoqualmie passes. Search and rescue volunteers also scoured the rugged terrain.
The first few days of the search were summer-like, Marvin Johnston said. After that, the temperatures dropped into the 30s and 40s. It began raining and snowing. The ground became soggy. Marvin said they bought equipment such as snowshoes to keep up with the weather, but eventually, he recalled thinking, “We’re not going to find him.”
Family members took up the search one more time two weekends ago, but they ran into snow, Marvin Johnston said. They would need to wait.
Debora Johnston called it divine intervention that her husband wasn’t the one who found their son.
Gavin Johnston made it less than 15 miles south from Stevens Pass before coming to a stop. He set up camp away from the trail, toward Glacier Lake, such that passersby might miss him as they walked by, Marvin Johnston said.
Tied to his tent was a note, written on the paper wrapping from a flare. On it, Gavin Johnston explained he had run out of food and would likely die soon. He wrote about what he wanted his funeral arrangements to look like, said Gavin’s uncle, Carl Johnston.
Also on the note was a date. Marvin Johnston believes his son was in the wilderness for about 25 days before he passed away.
Carl Johnston said there was a certain relief in knowing what happened to his nephew. Now, he said, the family can have a funeral and celebrate Gavin’s life.
“As an uncle, I felt really sad that Gavin’s lost and we can’t even say goodbye to him,” he said. “And now we finally can.”
There are resources for people struggling with suicidal thoughts or other mental health concerns. Among them are phone and online chat services. They are free and confidential.
If there is an immediate danger, call 911.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255, suicideprevention lifeline.org
Care Crisis Chat: imhurting.org
The Trevor Project Lifeline for LGBTQ Youth: thetrevorproject.org, 866-488-7386
Mental Health First Aid courses: mentalhealthfirstaid.org