Every year LandSAR personnel recover either the living or the dead from the wilderness, but sometimes no trace is ever found. Josh Gale investigates cases of trampers who’ve vanished into thin air
In a remote mountain range over Easter in 2010 Larry Charles was trying to solve a mystery that had been on his mind for over a year when he stumbled upon what could be a clue to a much older mystery.
Charles and his two dogs were returning along the St James Walkway in Nelson Lake’s National Park after searching for missing American tramper Ed Reynolds when one dog disappeared into the scrub.
Trained to find people and retrieve articles such as clothing and gear, the wilderness search and rescue (SAR) dog was off on a scent.
After about 10 minutes Namu emerged carrying a pair of shoes.
“They looked like they’d been there for about 20 years,” Charles says. “My first thought was Clifford Carn.”
“I took some photos of the shoes and showed them to the coppers, but unless someone has a photo of Clifford wearing those shoes we’ll probably never know.”
Clifford Trevor Carn went missing in 1995 in Nelson Lake’s National Park in the same vicinity Ed Reynolds also disappeared in 2009.
Carn was last seen by two trampers on the D’Urville Track and Thompson Pass Track junction and is said to have intended to go over Thompson Pass towards Lewis Pass. However, he was never seen again.
Edward Dale Reynolds, called ‘Fireman’ by friends, was 39 when he went missing on the Nelson Lake’s National Park leg of the Te Araroa Trail.
The fit ultralight tramper, reputed to be able to walk 30km a day and who suffered from bipolar disorder, walked the trail from Cape Reinga with Gisborne-based teachers Teresa and Andy Topp.
However the Topps split from Reynolds after completing the Wanganui River Journey with him because Teresa was pregnant and they were offered teaching positions.
They first met Reynolds on the Pacific Crest Trail in the US and, hitting it off, invited him to New Zealand to walk the Te Araroa Trail with them.
Teresa Topp says Reynolds, a computer programmer by trade, was a funny guy always cracking jokes.
She also says he was a risk taker though he didn’t see them as risks.
“That’s what I think made it dangerous sometimes,” she says. “He overestimated his capabilities.
“I think sometimes he got in a little bit over his head.”
The findings of Coroner Carla na Nagara’s inquest into the Reynolds case were released in April and concluded the direct cause of death cannot be ascertained.
Her detailed report, which highlights the risks of ultralight tramping, stated Reynolds originally planned to follow the official Te Araroa Trail route over Waioa Pass and out to Lewis Pass via Ada Pass.
But after other trampers informed him of another route, Reynolds deviated from his plans and the trail by cutting around Lake Constance to D’Urville Track and then into Matakitaki River East Branch and from there the intention was to go up to Bobs Hut, over Three Tarn’s and Ada Passes and coming out at Lewis Pass.
He was seen on February 23, 2009 when he had breakfast with three trampers at Blue Lake.
The coroner’s report states the trampers told police Reynolds was “chatty and cheerful” and “it just seemed like he was Superman, he could do whatever”.
He was also seen by trampers and left a note at the East Matakitaki Hut saying he intended to go through Three Tarn Pass to Lewis Pass.
Eight South Island search teams combed the remote and rugged area, with no sign of Reynolds. A second search effort also failed.
The search was complicated by the fact the alarm wasn’t raised until five weeks after the breakfast at Blue Lake when Reynolds failed to collect belongings from the Topps and missed his return flight to the US.
After media attention about the search, a Glenroy farmer contacted police and said a man matching the description of Reynolds came by her house asking for directions to Matakitaki River East Branch.
She told him to follow the Glenroy River and to turn right at Upper Matakitaki and to follow the Matakitaki up-stream back to the east branch.
“With that he just started walking, he didn’t say thanks or anything, he just started walking,” the farmer told police.
SAR personnel searched the area and found a footprint above the Glenroy River that matched the tread of the shoes worn by Reynolds.
A strapless Casio watch, the same as one carried by Reynolds, was also found near Lewis Pass, but the coroner doubted it was his even though his mother believed it was.
“This particular type of watch was produced in units of many millions, so it is not a distinctive or unique watch, but certainly Mrs Reynolds felt that the watch that was found was the same as the one her son wore,” na Ngara stated. “That does not mean that it was in fact Reynolds’ watch.
“In my view the antecedent cause of his death was misadventure while tramping,” na Nagara concluded.
Clifford Carn and Ed Reynolds are just two of many people who’ve disappeared without a trace while tramping.
According to Police national co-ordinator of search and rescue Senior Sergeant Bruce Johnston, 78 people have gone missing in the outdoors since the 1970s and have never been found.
Of those, 37 went missing in the mountains, 19 in river environs, 13 in the bush, six in rural areas and three in an urban setting.
Thirty-three of the 37 mountain cases occurred in Canterbury.
In Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park approximately 60 trampers, walkers and mountaineers have gone missing without trace since records began in 1907.
Most recently, in September 2009, Malaysian tourist Kok Wong disappeared while walking not far from Mt Cook Village.
In 1997, American tramper Stuart Finlayson was last seen climbing a rocky ridge from Ball Pass to Peak 2222m.
In 1996, experienced Wellington-based tramper Denis Jackson visited the park to climb Nuns Veil from Gorilla Stream.
When he became overdue, SAR personnel found his campsite, but no trace of the climber.
In 1988, three mountaineers who were planning to ascend Aoraki/Mt Cook via Zurbriggen’s Ridge vanished, though years later the remains of one was spat out at the bottom of the Hochstetter ice fall.
This is, after all, mountain country so it’s perhaps not surprising. What about the rest of the country?
There has been no trace found cases in nearly every region from Stewart Island where a hunter went missing in date, to Hawkes Bay, the Ruahines and the Kaimais.
In Tararua Forest Park in 1973, 42-year-old Scout master Kenneth Balfour led three boys, all Venture Scouts, on a trip along the open tops.
Starting at Eketahuna, they aimed to reach Dundas Hut on the first night, but ran out of daylight and spent the night in a cave.
The following day, after a wet night with no fire or breakfast and in snow, sleet and strong winds, they attempted to reach Putara Hut via Ruapae Peak.
Balfour walked ahead and the boys followed in 20m intervals behind.
When the boys reached the peak, Balfour was gone.
Long term Palmerston North Tramping and Mountaineering Club member Kevin Pearce was the field controller for two searches for Balfour. Nearly 100 people participated in the first search, but no trace was found.
“The following December his pack was found in a fairly battered condition in the Ruamahunga,” says Pearce. “A second search was mounted and it found fragments of a sleeping bag in Chamberlain Creek.
“It was green, the same as his, and in the area he went missing so it was almost certainly his.
“Since then a number of people, me included, have been down Chamberlain Creek in summer time and it’s a pretty formidable trip.
“There’s no way a person on their own and without a rope could manage it in winter.”
Nelson search and rescue assistant co-ordinator Sherp Tucker, who co-ordinated the search for Ed Reynolds, has seen a few no trace found cases over the last 40 years that have mystified him and other SAR personnel.
And like the Balfour case for Pearce, these unresolved cases have stayed with him.
The television series The Missing featured Tucker and other SAR experts revisiting the disappearance of 89-year-old Johnny Isinger in 1998 on his regular morning walk in Kaiteretere.
Isinger, says Tucker, went missing in the middle of summer with about “4000 to 5000 people only 300m away”.
“I’ve been involved with a lot of incidents and operations and the ones that get resolved stick around in your head for a wee bit, but the ones that haven’t been resolved are there forever because it’s unfinished business,” says Tucker. “I don’t like the term ‘closed case’ because not only for me, but for a lot of SAR personnel it’s not closed and we’ll keep on looking if we’re ever back in that area.
“We’ve quite often run SAR exercises in places where we’ve got an unresolved search as it allows us to have another look at the area while we’re training.
“If we don’t find someone, we put the file into what we call a continuous limited search mode.
“We get fully committed to finding the Johnnies and Jennies and some of us certainly struggle to let go sometimes.”
Larry Charles is certainly committed.
He’s been into the area Ed Reynolds disappeared four times this year alone and is planning one more trip before he gives up.
He’s not doing it because the case is haunting his dreams; he’s motivated by the challenge of solving the puzzle of “what happened to the guy”.
His theory is Reynolds missed the track marker on the opposite side of the Matakitaki River that he was walking on and accidently went into a gorge adjacent to Pretty Bridge and on the true left of the Matakitaki River.
“I reckon he’s in there,” says Charles, “and until we’ve had a really good look we can’t say he’s not.
“Even if we do go through there we could still miss the guy because he could have climbed a ridge and could be way up on the tops.”
Finding an unresponsive person or a body in the wilderness is, even with a search team of hundreds, like finding a needle in a haystack.
One square kilometre contains a million square metres and it only takes 1.5m² to hide a body. Reynolds went missing in area hundreds of square kilometres in size.
Arch Fiddler and Dave Saunders have been involved with search and rescue for more than 40 years and, in what seems to be SAR lingo, refer to some no trace found cases as “beam me up Scotties”.
That’s because some of the cases are so puzzling it seems as if aliens are the only remaining plausible explanation.
More likely, it’s a light-hearted way of making sense out of what have been incredibly frustrating and mentally consuming unresolved SAR operations.
Fiddler and Saunders were both involved with the search to find 73-year-old Ray Cassidy, who disappeared on Canterbury’s Mt Grey in 2001 only 200m ahead the rest of the tramping group he was walking with.
“Ray Cassidy was one of those ‘seen one minute and gone the next’ cases,” Saunders says. “He just completely vanished off the face of the earth.
“I’ve been involved with SAR for over 50 years and every now and again one of these cases pops up where you’re completely baffled because there’s no logical explanation for it.”
Fiddler was the team leader for the SAR operation to find Cassidy which went for six days and involved 80 people searching every day.
After combing the area, they weren’t able to find anything.
“It was just as though someone had come down from up above and zapped him up into a flying saucer,” Fiddler says. “For at least three months after that I kept going up there on weekends or when I had a day off.
“I’d just wander around and have a look in the areas where I thought he might be.
“There were more than 30 or 40 people going up at different times just looking and looking and some of them were still going up 12 months later.
“I still think about it because nobody likes to leave a guy in the hills.”
Back in 1987 after 10 days of searching and again a month later with police dogs, Roger Millard had to leave 64-year-old Bill Jackson in the hills, too.
The keen tramper and kea watcher set up his camp at the northern end of Skippers Range in Mt Aspiring National Park.
Millard, a cop and SAR co-coordinator at Haast for 20 years, became aware of his disappearance when an unrelated fire at Martyr Homestead incinerated the man’s car which was parked next to the building.
Once they identified the license plate and realised he was overdue, they went into the hills to find him.
“We found his campsite along with his billy and gear,” says Millard, who led the search. “The potatoes were peeled, his meal was half prepared and we presumed he’d gone to find water.
“He wouldn’t have gone far from his campsite, but we never found any sign of him at all.
“He was really keen on studying nesting keas which normally nest in the back of crevasses or caves and there was an idea he’d crawled into one and got stuck, but we checked them all with a police dog and found nothing.
“It was frustrating because he had to be right there somewhere unless he was stolen away by a UFO.”
Finding missing people is a matter of pride not only for SAR personnel, but also for the local communities people go missing in.
When American tramper Roselyn Tilbury went missing on the Heaphy Track in 1972 the SAR field controller and now retired police constable Neil Shepherd says a lot of locals helped with the search and were reluctant to give up.
Tilbury and her friend Stephen Tait, both only 23, were classic hippies of the era; long hair, light moccasins and a carefree spirit. At the time of her disappearance the Nelson Mail said the pair was ‘ill equipped, inexperienced, ill prepared and ill advised’.
‘A person they spoke to before leaving said the track was easy to walk … “you could do it in a pair of jandals”,’ the newspaper reported.
Shortly after they started the Heaphy, Tait, a faster walker, went ahead of Tilbury.
Eventually he stopped, sat down and played his wooden flute to give her time to catch up.
But neither Tait nor anyone else ever saw Tilbury again.
Shepherd says he thought she must have taken a wrong turn down to Shakespeare Flats where she may have tried to cross the river, slipped and been taken under.
Foul play was also briefly considered so all of the nearby long drops were searched.
After an extensive investigation they found nothing.
“In the end we only kept going because the locals wanted to keep going,” says Shepherd. “We’d exhausted all the areas that could be searched.
“She just disappeared into thin air.”
It stayed on Shepherd’s mind for a long time afterwards and, like many others, he revisited the area and tried to work it out in conversations with mates.
“It was unfinished business,” he says. “Her father came out from America and was given a flight over the area.
“When we took him up in the helicopter his only comment was ‘there’s a lot of bush out there’.”
When people go missing and can’t be found, flying family members over the search area can help them to understand the terrain and the difficulty of finding them.
In fact, liaising with family members, usually handled by police, takes skill and sensitivity.
Kevin Pearce says family members often want to help with the search even though they’re unfit or inexperienced in the hills.
“There are a variety of tactics; one is to give them an easier area to search or to get them to make cups of tea,” Pearce says.
When Japanese tramper Masami Somaki went on a day walk to Mueller Hut in 1994, the 34-year-old’s mother was waiting for her to return. She never did.
Aoraki/Mt Cook DOC ranger and local SAR co-ordinator Ray Bellringer says the search for Masami Somaki was the most difficult and emotionally draining operation of the many he’s been involved with.
“Her mother was waiting at the bottom for her to return, but Masami never turned up,” Bellringer says. “For five days when I was running that search I had her mother sitting next to me along with a Japanese interpreter.
“It was pretty tough for all of us.
“Every now and again and whenever I go to Mueller I’m still thinking where the hell she could be.
“My personal view is that she had a fall and we’ve just not been able to locate her.
Somaki’s family came to New Zealand years later and held a small memorial and also made a big donation to the local SAR group which bought a defibrillator with the money.
Bellringer hasn’t heard from her family for years now and suspects they’ve accepted the situation which, he says, doesn’t happen for all families.
“Some people say they’re actually quite happy they’ve ended up in the mountains,” Bellringer says. “Maybe that’s what happened with Somaki’s family – they saw the area and maybe thought this is where she’s happy.
Other families, he says, return to the area again and again.
“There’re no rules for how families react; there’re cases when you think no family is ever going to turn up and they actually do and then with other cases there’s total disinterest,” says Bellringer.
Teresa and Andy Topp are satisfied SAR personnel and police have done all they can to find Ed Reynolds. They’re also appreciative of people like Larry Charles who are still searching.
They’ve even got involved with the Wairoa SAR group so maybe one day they can “help someone like Ed”.
They say while the coroner’s report gave legal completion to them and Reynolds’ family, it didn’t give total closure.
“We’re a part of a mystery that at the moment looks like it’s never going to be solved,” says Andy Topp who’s in close contact with Reynolds’ parents.
“We just want to know what happened; did he end up in a river trapped under a log, or did he fall off a three-wire bridge, or did he tumble off a precipice or did he make it to road and get picked up by a car – we just want to know.”
His wife Teresa adds: “What makes it really sad for us is to see how much it’s affected his parents.
“I think they’ll be wrestling with it for the rest of their lives.”