GRANITE FALLS — She was only an hour overdue from a solo hike on Vesper Peak when Samantha Sayers’ boyfriend got in the car to look for her on the night of Aug. 1.
Kevin Dares figured he’d see her on the way up the Mountain Loop Highway, he said. But her car was still there at the trailhead. So he hiked through the dark. About two miles up the rocky path, he slipped, fell and broke his flashlight.
“You’re sitting there at the base of these mountains, and you’re looking up at this monolith, and it’s pitch black and you realize: I can’t do this myself,” Dares said Tuesday.
He retreated to his car by the light of a cellphone, he said. He drove back to a ranger station to call for help.
Seven intense days of scouring the dramatic landscape in the Cascade Range has turned up no trace of Sayers, 27, of Seattle, an experienced solo hiker who had climbed the peak before, according to her family.
She packed light — three or four sandwiches, chips and water, but no overnight or cold-weather gear, Dares said. Her plan was to check in by phone around 6 p.m. She never did. A hiker reported seeing her around lunchtime at the 6,220-foot summit, according to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. The hiker said she’d gone south, not east, back to her car. Two helicopters circled the peak this weekend, humming over wide valleys and lowering to the snowy basin of Vesper Lake, just feet from rock cliffs.
Vesper is not an easy day hike.
The trail begins 30 miles east of Granite Falls off the Mountain Loop Highway, at the end of a weathered forest road. The path crosses rooty forest, climbs a cairn-marked boulder field known as Wirtz Basin and switchbacks to a narrow notch, Headlee Pass, at 4,600 feet. Above the pass, a single misstep can easily lead to death or injury.
Eighty searchers crisscrossed the wilderness Saturday, checking every direction from the summit.
“All sides, all possibilities, all avenues,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Courtney O’Keefe said.
Those efforts continued Tuesday.
The summit is still guarded by an almost vertical ascent through snow, rising hundreds of feet to a final ridge. Thinning snowbanks are melting and caving in August heat. South of the peak are steep gullies and miles of bushwhacking. North of the summit is a sheer wall called Ragged Edge, a route popular for roped climbers, with vertigo-inducing views of Copper Lake and the south face of Big Four Mountain.
A small bouquet of wildflowers sat on the hood of Sayers’ blue Ford Fiesta at the trailhead Sunday, when 40 people were still part of the official search effort. A note on the windshield read: “Kevin Dares went to find at 10 p.m. Aug. 1. If car still here in morning, call for help.”
Dares, who has the accent of a New Orleans native, grew up in a family of alligator trappers, he said. He and Sayers met at a Mardi Gras party in Seattle. She came here from Pennsylvania. Their dates were hikes in the Olympic and Cascade ranges. Most of the time they hiked in groups, but Sayers went alone before, Dares said.
On Instagram, selfies show the couple conquering peaks. One of Sayers’ shots, from October 2017, shows Dares down-climbing one of Vesper’s snowfields with trekking poles. They’d climbed the peak maybe a half-dozen times, Dares said. Sometimes they’d wander off trails together. But he knew her to be careful when she hiked alone.
“That’s why this is so frustrating,” Dares said. “For her to go off trail doesn’t make any sense.”
A group of hikers reported seeing Sayers heading up the mountain on the morning of Aug. 1. The man who ate lunch with Sayers at the summit has been working with the sheriff’s office to help pinpoint where she might have gone.
Deputies still are seeking tips. One detail might stick in hikers’ minds: Sayers is bald from alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss. She’s healthy and strong, her family said. Dares said she’s a better hiker than he is.
A sheriff’s office helicopter, SnoHawk 1, has searched the region with infrared cameras. Snohomish County pilots were in the air 33 hours over the weekend. Air crews around Puget Sound have helped, too. King County’s Guardian 1 helicopter swept the area with thermal equipment Monday. Ground teams arrived from Everett, Seattle and Tacoma, as well as from Whatcom, Skagit, Kitsap and Kittitas counties. State emergency responders and the U.S. Air Force have taken part. And rescue dogs, equipped for unforgiving terrain, have been on the mountain since last week.
Dares spent Monday on the peak with his father and brother, when most searchers were taking a day to rest. Dares has tried not to be a distraction to the professionals, he said. But it has been hard for him to stay off of the mountain.
“Right now’s the time for action,” he said. “Sitting at home and getting emotional isn’t going to bring Sam home.”
The family asked for donations to string trails of yellow caution tape through the forest, along with 20 gallon-sized bags of food and survival gear. Some bags were given to the rescue crews to drop in the woods, with notes from family telling Sayers they love her. More than $22,000 has been raised to fund the family’s independent search efforts.
In the meantime, Sayers’ family has hardly slept.
“You wouldn’t think you can go seven days without sleeping,” Dares said, “but you can.”
They have kept supporters up to date on a Facebook page, #findsamsayers.
“We really believe that she’s in a rocky area and hurt herself, and that’s why she can’t get out of where they can see her,” Sayers’ mother Lisa Sayers said in a Facebook video. “Sam’s skinny. If she’s stuck between two boulders, they’re not going to see her.”
They will not give up hope, she said, until they bring her home. Sayers’ 28th birthday is next week. Her mother said she hopes to celebrate with her, safe at home.
Dares begged hikers to keep their eyes open for any sign of Sayers. When he picked up his phone Tuesday, he said he couldn’t talk for long. He said he was going back to the mountains.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; email@example.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.