The Search for Jonathan Korn

by Mardi Keltner

Jonathan Korn, age 12, wandered off the Pacific Crest Trail while returning to the car after a day hike with his father. He had been last seen where the trail runs along a ridge that divides the Breitenbush and Shityike drainages near Mt. Jefferson in the high Cascades. Carrying nothing, and dressed only in shorts, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap, he was unprepared for the three day adventure ahead of him.
CMRU was activated, and early the following morning joined the search - which now involved deputies from six counties, the U.S. Forest Service, several groups of mounted posse, the Explorers, and two other mountain rescue groups. Our assignment was to search about eight miles upstream on the South Fork of the North Fork of the Breitenbush River, in hopes that we'd encounter Jonathan if he was moving down that drainage. We were then to return to base by dark. In the Incident Command Center it sounded reasonable; after all, it was only about 3 inches on the map laid out in front of us.
We got a lift to the insertion point and began the trudge down a tributary. The day was hot and the way was steep. After three hours of loose rock, deep rainforest undergrowth, and a descent of about 1500 feet we reached our starting point. The river was lovely, clear as glass and nestled between velvety moss covered rocks. Unfortunately, the canyon was so steep that we had long ago lost radio contact with SAR base and could only occasionally relay a message through a passing helicopter.
We quickly abandoned any hope of keeping our feet dry as we scrambled up stream over boulders and log jams through the narrowing canyon. It was slow going and in the first hour we barely made a mile. The way narrowed to a slot canyon and we encountered our first waterfall. It wasn't too bad, and we were able to help eachother scramble around it. The next one wasn't so easy. Its' twelve foot drop poured into a long narrow plunge pool with vertical sides. After much debate, Ken led a scary traverse along the steep mossy wall above the pool. We then rigged a line and each gingerly edged around the falls, occasionally glancing down at the rushing water beneath our feet.
It got worse from there - the next falls was an overhanging drop of at least 20 feet. There would have been no way short of bolting to get up this drop, except for a stout tree which had fallen into the pool next to the falls. It was lodged upside down, with its root base extending above the falls, and after a considerable struggle Larry was able to lasso a strong root. We then climbed the rope using prusiks and ascenders, managed another scary traverse, and rappelled back down to the stream above the falls.
The next obstacle was a set of steep slippery stairs covered with a tangle of logs. Although the sun hadn't been visible for hours from the deep canyon, the fading light warned us that night would soon overtake us. We didn't want to spend the night there, where our choices were standing in the water or balancing on a slippery log, so we quickly scrambled on up stream.
Around the next corner was yet another falls. This one at least thirty feet high, with vertical walls and no fallen tree - but we were in luck. At its base was a rough talus slope and rocky outcropping which, in our state, looked deliciously inviting. It had taken us seven hours to travel the last half mile.
A helicopter flew over in the last of the fading light and we were able to establish contact. We asked them to relay a message to base assuring them of our well-being and letting them know that we'd be in the canyon through the night. Ken built a small fire and we shared our dwindling food and assessed our situation. We were obviously not going to find a healthy Jonathan Korn wandering down this canyon. We were equally obviously not going to be able to continue up stream for another 6.5 miles on our current resources. The talus slope, although rather horrifying looking, offered the only possible exit from the canyon which we'd seen in the last eight hours. At first light we would do our best to get out of there.
We rooted in our packs and considered how to make ourselves as comfortable as possible for the night. Jim was the worst off, having fallen off a slippery log in the fading light and gone for a swim - pack and all. We had an assortment of hats, jackets, long-johns, bandannas, and dry socks. Wayne rung out his socks and replaced them with wool gloves - which got a chuckle. The thin space blankets and garbage bags were welcome protection against the cool wind coming off the water. Although meager, our provisions seemed luxurious when we thought about Jonathan, alone. At least we had eachother and a wealth of camaraderie to get us through the night.
In the gray light of dawn we looked at the formidable rock slope and made our plan. The wall was less than vertical here only because the rock was rotten and eroded. Jim and Larry heroically volunteered to lead the worst of it and fix a rope for the rest of us who waited across the creek to be out of the way of the inevitable falling boulders. We waited with pounding hearts as they carefully climbed the rock, fixed the rope at the top, and moved out of sight into the nearly vertical brush above. Then, one at a time, we carefully followed - first up the rock, then into the crumbly dirt where the only hand holds were tiny sprigs of Oregon Grape and for foot holds we kicked into the dirt like we were front-pointing up a snow slope. Hours later, when we were assembled at the top, we slapped eachother on the back, hugged and laughed - weak with relief.
Radio contact! We could talk to base again and they were anxious to know if we'd found Jonathan - disappointment, then confusion, then jubilance. Jonathan had just been located! He was OK!
The rest was anticlimactic. It was a long hot haul out and when we finally arrived the SAR base had been dismantled, the crowd was gone, and the CMRU truck sat alone in the parking lot. But Susan (our invaluable base camp operator) had kept the Red Cross feeding station from leaving, and we were met with hugs and hot food, and the glorious satisfaction that comes with a happy ending to a rough mission.

Participants: Jim Ruef, Ken Parton, Larry King, Susan Leach, Jon Sears, Wayne Leaderer, Mardi Keltner

Photos by Larry King and Ken Parton