Medical examiner says Rainier hiker Karen Sykes died of hypothermia

Karen Sykes, the hiker who went missing Wednesday at Mount Rainier National Park, died of hypothermia. The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office issued the ruling Monday.

The body of the 70-year-old Seattle outdoors writer was found off a trail in the park’s northeast corner, near Boundary Creek. That part of the park is rough, steep terrain, difficult to access and not commonly traveled.

She had been hiking up the Owyhigh Lakes Trail with partner Bob Morthorst when they reached the snow level at 4,500-5,000 feet. Sykes opted to continue on, agreeing to return to that location. When she did not return, Morthorst returned to the trailhead and reported her missing about 10:30 p.m.

Three days of intensive searching ended about 3 p.m. when Sykes’ body was found.

Well known in the hiking community, Sykes wrote two books about hiking, as well as for a number of print and online publications including visitrainier.com. She was researching a story for that tourism website when she died.

Sykes had written more than 100 hiking and snowshoeing stories for the site that promotes tourism in the gateway communities around the mountain, according to executive director Mary Kay Nelson.

“I didn’t know we had such a relationship with her until we didn’t,” Nelson said Monday. “We talked to her on a daily basis, so you always expected to talk to her tomorrow.”

Nelson said the uncertainty of what happened to Sykes still means there is no closure. Nelson pointed out that Sykes had written a story about hiking safety for the website.

“We know she knew how to survive, and that she had survival gear,” Nelson said. “Did she have a chance to use any of that, or was she incapacitated so she couldn’t get to her pack?”

Nelson said Sykes had “an inner beauty and spirit” that came through in her writing. It also showed in photos of Sykes.

“You couldn’t have a bad picture of her on the trail because she just radiated that beauty like a bride at her wedding,” Nelson said.

Since Sykes went missing, Nelson had a chance to look back at some of their online correspondence. Finding their first email exchange, Nelson said it was remarkable what Sykes wrote: “I’m somehow at my best when I’m in the mountains. I just find it so hard to leave.”