Trevor’s Eternal Trail
This is a guest post courtesy of Doug Laher. Doug’s son, Trevor, passed away on March 27, 2020, during his PCT thru-hike.
Writer’s Note: Trevor slipped on a patch of snow-covered ice near Apache Peak (PCT NOBO mile 169.5). He was not wearing microspikes. In our research of the PCT, we felt confident he wouldn’t need his snow gear until Idyllwild. That turned out not to be the case. I implore everyone (now and in the future) to ship your snow gear to yourself in Warner Springs or to Paradise Valley Cafe. Don’t become another statistic. It’s not worth the risk; the weight penalty of carrying microspikes is worth every ounce.
I’d like to thank Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit (RMRU) for their exhaustive efforts to bring our son home. They are a selfless group of volunteers who risk their own lives to save others. For those who are about to hike the PCT or for family members of those who will hike the PCT, I would encourage them to make donations in Trevor’s honor to RMRU here. The next life they save may be your own.
In Memory of Trevor Laher
I am the father of the Pacific Crest Trail Hiker, Trevor “Microsoft” Laher, who perished in the mountains south of Idyllwild, California, this past Friday, March 27, 2020. As you can imagine, we are devastated by the loss of our son. But somehow, my wife and I want to let the world (or at least the hiking community) know who our son was, how much he loved hiking, and why (despite everyone’s best efforts) he chose to stay on trail.
We just don’t want Trevor’s legacy in the hiking world to be that of an anonymous asterisk in PCT lore of someone who died doing what they love. He was a man, a brother, a son, a grandson, a cousin, a friend, and boyfriend to his lovely girlfriend, Elise. He had his whole life in front of him. This is who he was, and this is his story.
One of the greatest days of my life was the day he was born (Feb. 12, 1998, in Cleveland, Ohio). He loved playing sports as a child, but soon realized he didn’t possess the dexterity and speed to compete as an athlete, so he turned his interest and energy to academics, where he excelled. And although we relocated to Texas in 2010 due to the recession, we still cheered on and watched our beloved Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturdays. Some of my fondest memories I have with Trevor are the times we spent watching our team as we proudly donned the school colors of scarlet and gray. The 2010 move of the family to Texas, for a new career opportunity, was tough on 12-year-old Trevor. He threw himself into academics and video games as a mechanism to deal with the sorrow of leaving everything behind in Ohio.
Trevor was introduced to hiking in 2015 when a friend invited him on a trip to Yosemite National Park. They day hiked more than 50 miles in three days. He walked away in love with the hiking and instantly knew that he wanted it to be a mainstay in his life—to climb to mountain peaks and see the soul of our planet. It was as if the world that had existed before had only been visible to him in black and white and now suddenly everything had turned to vibrant colors. He loved the beauty of the trail—the experience and the solitude. He loved the endorphin rush of a physically exhausting climb. He loved hiking by himself. He loved hiking with others. He loved the trail.
Shortly after his trip to Yosemite, he immediately began planning his first overnight backpacking trip with his close friend Alfredo. The flu prevented Alfredo from making the trip with him and thus began my love of hiking with my son. I served as his back-up and went from “Couch to AT” in 12 hours.
We were completely ill-prepared as we set off into the Smoky Mountains on our first backpacking trip. We predictably made all the classic first-time hiker mistakes. We carried too much food, packed for our fears, and off we went with 50-pound packs saddled on our backs. Trevor knew I was not in shape to do this hike when he asked me to join him. I agreed to do it to spend time with my son. He told me, “Dad…I’m getting you to the top of this mountain—you lead the way. We’ll go at your pace. Stop as frequently as you need to. We’ll get through this together.” It took nearly five hours to traverse more than 3,000 feet of elevation gain over five miles to the first shelter. Trevor offered multiple times that we could head back down to the trail head and call it a trip. But we hadn’t driven 12 hours to turn around and head home. We persevered. The trip took a physical toll on my body (chafing, exhaustion, soreness, and two lost toenails). And despite all that, it was an adventure of a lifetime that I will cherish forever.
When it came time to go to college, there was really no decision to be made. Ohio State was the easy choice. While there, he blossomed and turned into an amazing man. He joined the Trekking Club at Ohio State. He hiked the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon (down and back in less than six hours). He also made at least one trip back to the Smoky Mountains every semester with his good friend Chandler. Trevor simply loved hiking.
Trevor and I would try to schedule hiking trips together when we could, mostly while he was on break from school. Our most recent adventures included Eagle Rock Loop in the Ouachita National Forest and the Outer Mountain Loop in Big Bend National Park.
It was during this time at Ohio State that he developed a passion for exercise and fitness. He was obsessed about being physically fit because he knew he would need it for something he had been dreaming about since he was 17 years old.
About 18 months ago, Trevor told me of his intentions to carry extremely heavy course loads over his next three semesters at Ohio State so that he could graduate a semester early to hike the Crown Jewel of all long-distance trails, the Pacific Crest Trail. I objected at first. It was a source of contention with us for several months. Then, approximately a year ago, I started buying in to the concept of him hiking the PCT. And if he was going to make this hike, I was going to serve as his wingman, his trail manager so to speak.
For months on end, I spent hundreds of hours watching PCT vlogs, reading books, and watching gear reviews. I began the long process of purchasing all of the gear he would require for his adventure. Trevor had two main agendas during this time. First, to study hard so he could finish school early. And second, to focus on maintaining, and even increasing, his already high level of fitness. Trevor ran 30 miles a week to keep himself in top physical condition.
We both obsessed over the trail. As the research and days passed, I became more and more emotionally invested in Trevor’s hike. I wanted this adventure for him as much as he did for himself.
Trevor hiked Big Bend a second time right before Christmas 2019 with his best friend Domenic. In grieving with each other this past week, Domenic told me that “Trevor and I had just finished the trail. I was exhausted and I was looking back at the mountains with amazement, bewilderment, and wonder. It’s at that moment Trevor looked at me and said, ‘Now you know why I’m so passionate about hiking the PCT!’ ”
Trevor’s need to put mileage under his feet prior to his trek was one thing, but his training for the PCT was next level. He deprived himself of comforts knowing that he would not have them on the trail. On our last training hike together (a quick 15-miler), he laid down in the creek bed soaking himself through. Trevor knew there would be stretches of the PCT that he would need to hike soaking wet, tired, and exhausted.
Trevor’s cadence might be as slow as 2.6-2.7 miles per hour when doing a leisurely hike with me, but he could instantaneously turn on the jets at a moment’s notice. I was always in awe to see him hike at a 3.5 mile-per-hour cadence up steep climbs. And he could maintain that pace for hours. He was 6’3” and 200 pounds. He had long legs with a huge stride. If God wanted to create his vision for a perfect hiker, it was Trevor.
Unlike most PCT hikers, Trevor knew he was not going to make it to Canada. Trevor was a brilliant computer coder. He was offered a job at Microsoft, starting mid-July. So, when it came time to securing the permit for a PCT start date, he knew he would have to start early. Even with starting early, he would only have around 100 days on the trail. His target was to reach Crater Lake by July 1 and call it an adventure.
We knew starting in mid-March had its risks. We developed a plan accordingly. If there was heavy snowpack in the Sierra, then he would bail at Kennedy Meadows and head immediately to the Southern Terminus of the 800-mile Arizona Trail. We felt our alternate plan wouldn’t be needed as reports of a low snow year in California made an early start on the PCT possible. We were happy his plans were coming together.
So on March 9, roughly a month after turning 22 years old, Trevor, my daughter Olivia, and I headed to Phoenix, Arizona, to spend a week with his grandparents, after which they would drive him to Campo a week later. Everything was in great shape. And then, suddenly, everything started to unravel.
We got to Phoenix on Monday the 9th. There were growing concerns about the coronavirus, but nothing significant—at least that’s the way it was when we boarded the plane. Upon landing in Phoenix, the world was changing in front of our very eyes. The stock market had crashed. Concerns of the virus were growing with each passing day. That week was full of excitement for Trevor and anxiety for me.
The day before we left, I told him that maybe going on the hike was not such a smart thing to do anymore. But he was within spitting distance of the Southern Terminus of the PCT in Campo, so the yearn to start on March 16 was strong. In his mind, he was practically touching the Southern Terminus. Nothing was going to stop him now.
His sister (Olivia) and I flew back to Texas on Friday, March 13. Saying our final goodbyes at the airport, Trevor gave me a longer embrace than usual—much longer in fact. And in that embrace, he whispered to me, “I love you Dad. Thanks for all you’ve done to help make this adventure a reality for me.” To which I replied—“Go hike the shit out of that trail!”
His grandparents dropped him at the terminus on Monday morning. A few quick photos, big smiles, and some hugs. Then he was off on the adventure of a lifetime.
Trevor pushed himself to Lake Morena on day one. He couldn’t have been happier. It was in Lake Morena that he connected with his tramily. The tramily would morph into larger and smaller groups of people over the coming days, but there were three gentlemen whom he consistently stayed with through the entire journey: Leo from Milwaukee, Jannek from Germany, and Cody from Australia—the latter two were with him on the morning of Friday, March 27, when the accident happened.
His group hiked through a snowstorm, pulling into Mount Laguna on Wednesday. They were fortunate enough to hole up in one of the tiny houses to escape the snow. Their game plan was to stay there two nights as heavy snowfall was scheduled through Thursday. But they wanted flexibility in their plans and only booked one night. When they called the next morning to book a second night, they were told the tiny house had already been booked. They had no choice but to head back out into the snow.
I spoke with his hiking partner, Leo, this past Saturday. He told me how miserable that day was. They were cold, soaked to the bone from the heavy wet snow. They were miserable. The group struggled unsuccessfully to find a protected location to set up camp. It was in that moment, during their first real moment of adversity on trail, that Trevor told him, “It’s during these moments of adversity, through trial and tribulation and our actions in dealing with these moments that define who we are as human beings.” Hearing Leo recount this to me brought me to my knees. I had been sobbing all weekend after I learned of his passing, but this shook me to my core.
That same day, the day of the snowstorm, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) had issued a statement that all thru-hikers not yet on the trail should postpone their hike, and that all hikers already on trail should get off due to COVID-19 concerns. I pleaded with Trevor that it was time to end his dream. To come home. The trail would still be there for him next year. Or five years from now. Or even 10. Trevor said that until it became illegal to stay on the trail, he was going to continue hiking. “This is my dream Dad…I’m living it right now. The views, the vistas, the things I get to see are the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen in my life. If I lose this opportunity now, I’ll lose it forever.”
And so became our daily argument for the next week. I begged him to postpone his trek. I told him he was being selfish. I told him he was putting himself and others at risk. That he wasn’t thinking about Elise, his sister, his mother, or me. I threatened I was going to withdraw financial support and would no longer resupply him (my last option). I think we both knew I would not do that.
I said things I regret. I even lobbied the USFS to terminate all PCT permits to no avail. The most haunting, prophetic thing I said to him was, “Please come home. I don’t want you to get sick on the trail—or worse yet, die. It would devastate me if I had to be the one to call Elise and tell her something happened to you.”
After about 5-6 days of trying to convince him to come home, I realized he was staying put. There was no getting him off the trail, at which point I would focus on supporting his hike. I vowed to myself, if he wouldn’t come home, then I’d at least do what I could to keep him as safe as possible with current information and good resupply boxes.
Trevor and the group trudged on. They were closing in on Warner Springs, having just passed PCT mile 100. I sent Trevor a text and asked him how he was feeling and how his body was holding up. He told me other than a few pesky blisters, he was feeling great and that his body was strong. I remember him saying there were a couple of members in his tramily that were nursing some injuries… sore ankles and knees, but he said could not have felt better.
Trevor’s closest trail friend, Leo, was nursing a bum knee after hiking several days without a break. Leo got a hitch from Warner Springs via the PCT Trail Angels Page on Facebook to a hotel to take of couple zero days to heal up. Leo encouraged Trevor to take those zeros with him but Trevor, Jannek, and Cody were still feeling strong. Trevor had limited time on the trail. They were going to press on without Leo. While sitting in his hotel room for a couple of days watching the news, Leo learned of the severity of COVID-19. He decided to end his hike at this point. I’ve asked myself multiple times, “What would have happened had Trevor stayed back with Leo that day?” His decision to press on will haunt me forever.
Our last communication with Trevor was on Thursday night. They had just pulled their 8th straight day of “twenties” (twenty-mile days) by completing a 3,000-foot climb. Arriving to their camp site at PCT mile 166.5, they hunkered down for the night. Trevor sounded exhausted. He was eager to complete the last 14 miles into Idyllwild where he, Cody, and Jannek were planning to take two zeros. While in town he’d pick up his resupply (which included his ice axe and microspikes) in preparation for Mt. San Jacinto and Fuller Ridge. He never made it to Idyllwild.
A friend called me on Friday to notify me of a tragic accident on the PCT close to Trevor’s last known location at mile 166.5. Of course, at that time, we didn’t know the hiker involved was Trevor. The news report mentioned a hiker had succumbed to their injuries before the rescue team arrived. The report suggested the rescue occurred “near” Mountain Center, of which Trevor was close to the prior day. He was now some 10-15 miles past that point. But when you’re dealing with the wilderness, the word “near” could mean one mile, five miles, 10 miles, or even 25. I was slightly concerned and would remain that way until I heard from Trevor, but I was confident he was well past the search area. I had two thoughts. First, Of all the hikers on the trail, what is the likelihood this deceased hiker was Trevor? Second, He had his driver’s license with him. If it was Trevor, Search and Rescue would have certainly reached out to me by now. I was confident it was not him, but would remain mildly concerned until I heard his voice. That voice never came.
7 p.m. rolled around in Dallas/Fort Worth. I knew Trevor would have been in Idyllwild by now. Every time I tried calling, it went straight to voicemail. He would likely have access to internet in town. Therefore, he would most likely be on his phone. It was also about this time every night that he would check in with us via call, text, or his Garmin InReach. I started to worry. I called the Riverside County Sheriff’s office.
I won’t go into all the details of the next several hours, as some of those details will only remain with my family. Speaking to the Sheriff’s Deputy who orchestrated the Search and Rescue, and then subsequently to the Coroner were some of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had to have in my life. My life was changed forever when the Coroner told me, “We have Trevor.”
To the best of our knowledge, Trevor slipped on a patch of snow-covered ice near Apache Peak (PCT mile 169.5). Trevor’s accident was first reported by Cody and Jannek via their emergency GPS device at roughly 9:38 a.m. PT. Rescue crews from the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit and the California Highway Patrol Medic and Air Operations Unit arrived on site at roughly 10:30 a.m. Five fire trucks, two helicopters, and more than 24 rescue personnel fought the elements during the rescue mission. One helicopter focused on rescuing Cody and Jannek while the other attempted to locate Trevor. Dangerous terrain, coupled by severe weather, prevented the helicopter from locating Trevor. They were able to locate a safe landing spot to drop Medic Charles Rhodes of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) onto the trail. Medic Rhodes hiked and eventually bushwhacked a total of five miles to reach Trevor at 1:30 p.m. Sadly, prior to Medic Rhodes’ arrival, Trevor had succumbed to his injuries from sliding several hundred feet into a steep ravine. I am grateful to the men and women who risked their lives to recover my son. I will forever be in their debt.
As you can imagine, Friday, March 27, 2020, was the darkest, most painful, heartbreaking moment of our lives. The grief of losing our son has hit us like a tsunami. The unstoppable waves drown us in grief each time they hit. There’s nothing that can be done to stop them. It’s several days later now, and the waves still come.
I yearn for the day when Trevor’s family and closest friends can talk about him and look at photos without pain or grief, but instead smile and recall the happy times we shared together.
Trevor was not a statistic. He was not a PCT asterisk. He was everything you want in a son. As parents, we were so proud of him. He was our child. Trevor LOVED hiking! He was handsome, responsible, and smart. He was going to make this great world a better place. He was convinced he would someday write a computer program that would change the world. Most importantly, I want people to know that he cared deeply about his family and friends. He was philosophical. He was a deep thinker. He genuinely cared for others, encouraging those closest to him to be “the best version of themselves they can be.”
Just as in life, Trevor made the same impact on others during his brief time on the PCT. As communicated to me by his close trail friend Leo, who said, “While our time together was brief, it was intense. We had several deep conversations on the trail and my viewpoint on the world has in many ways changed because of Trevor.”
My hope and wish is that Trevor’s death can start the healing of a hiker community that has been ravaged and torn apart by COVID-19. What was once a free-spirited group who loved “The Trail,” the community has become name callers who have hurled insults at each other because of one’s position to hike or not to hike. I beg of you, that if there is one way we can honor Trevor, I ask that you put aside your differences and come together as a community. And I ask that you not judge Trevor for his decision to remain on the Trail. COVID-19 did not kill my son. His death could have happened to any one of us, in any year.
In closing, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Trevor shared with me by his girlfriend, Elise. In which Trevor says, “We are not individual souls, but a collection of the souls of the people we love the most—we are one in the universe.”
Be good to each other. Love each other. Come together as one hiking community and heal the pains by which the coronavirus has inflicted upon this community. That’s what Trevor would have wanted.
Hike on, my son. I count the days when we’ll be rejoined again on the highest of all mountain peaks in Heaven… on the Eternal Trail. The trail of eternal life.
All photos courtesy Doug Laher
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