Special Reports

Four backpackers on Mount Rainier were warned via messages from helicopter of potential danger

As news media outlets almost instantly spread word around the world Sunday that a killer was loose in Mount Rainier National Park, four backpackers celebrating the new year were oblivious to the danger they could have faced.

The King County residents arrived for their three-day snowshoe trip on New Year’s Eve, and after a 1.5-mile hike, they set up camp near Reflection Lakes. They rang in 2012 with a midnight toast, then headed out for a day hike after a lazy Monday morning.

As they walked, the tragedy that claimed the life of park ranger Margaret Anderson was playing out just a few miles away. A gunman fleeing the scene of a shootout near Renton shot and killed Anderson and then, after a 90-minute standoff, fled into the woods.

Shortly after Brian Vogt and Natalia Martinez-Paz of Allentown, which is near Renton, and Matt Pokrywka and Jen Berthiaume returned to camp, they saw planes and helicopters.

Soon a chopper swooped down and hovered over their camp. After a few moments, it took off.

“We had no idea what was going on,” Martinez-Paz wrote on a trip report she posted at NWHikers.net. “They kept swooping until the light was out. … We still have no idea what’s going on so we continue drinking our champagne and enjoying a beautiful night out. … We figured someone was lost.”

The friends talked about the incident that night, Vogt said in an email to The News Tribune, but “We never assumed a fatality, or a shooting, and we certainly never speculated we might be in danger.”

They didn’t even think they were in danger Monday morning when a helicopter returned about 8:30 and hovered over their camp until they came out of their tent. The message being delivered via loudspeaker was difficult for the group to understand, but they thought it said that a ranger was shot, Vogt said.

“Well crap,” Martinez-Paz wrote of her reaction.

Vogt said the announcement “was met with incredulity.”

“We didn’t get the full message …,” Vogt said via email. “Clearly a tragedy, but it’s a big park and we didn’t see any immediate threat to ourselves based on the initial news of a shooting.”

It was the final day of their trip, and the snowshoers began packing when the chopper returned with clarification that dramatically changed their mood.

Hovering about 50 feet overhead, the chopper crew dropped a white paper coffee cup that Vogt said almost landed in their hand.

Scribbled with pen on the side of the cup was a message: “A ranger has been shot shooter at large. Call on cell if able to Pierce Co sheriff.”

The snowshoers broke camp more quickly, but the process still took nearly two hours because of the amount of gear they had brought to ward off the cold.

An hour later, the chopper returned and dropped a second cup. This time the message read, “Take road to falls and sheriff deputies. We will keep an eye on you. Do not drive from paradise w/o armed escort.”

“Clarification by the cup messages certainly focused our attention,” Vogt said by email, “particularly the second cup … Prior to that final message, we were concerned generally, but not specifically for our own safety.”

After they packed, the chopper returned and signaled for them to start hiking. The helicopter stayed near them the entire time.

“At this point, we are all pretty worried,” Martinez-Paz wrote, “since we have nothing but snow shovels and we are having paranoid visions of a sniper bearing down on us.”

Along the trail the group encountered an armed law enforcement team dressed in camouflage that escorted them to their SUV at Narada Falls, about a quarter-mile mile from where the shooter’s body was found in Paradise Creek. They got word that the shooter, Benjamin C. Barnes, had been found as they walked back.

Back at the parking lot, the helicopter landed and Martinez-Paz spoke with the pilot.

“… He said he was worried when we didn’t immediately come out of the tents this morning since they thought he might have gotten up the trail far enough to find our camp, kill us and take our gear,” Martinez-Paz wrote. “It was memorable to say the least.”

As they were escorted out of the park, they saw a ranger’s truck that had bullet holes in the windshield.

“This whole event was an unmitigated tragedy, from start to finish, for everyone involved,” Vogt said via email. “The killing of a park ranger, already so senseless, is made so much worse by the damage to her family.  For her husband to lose his wife in a place that must have been so important to them both is a loss of so much more than a loved one.

“But this is also a tragedy for the soldier and his family. We piled our yuppie toys in our SUV and drove off for a weekend of leisure, made possible by the sacrifices of servicemen like the shooter. We feel that this event arose, at least partially, out of the stresses of returning a troubled soldier to civilian life.”

The backpacking party was properly permitted. Park officials were unable to confirm Wednesday what steps were taken to make sure the backpackers were safe.

Vogt was also grateful for those who came to their aid. “We were shocked to find out the full extent of this tragedy … It wasn’t clear to us at the time how much had been done to keep an eye on us and protect us.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497