Autobiography: Vanished Into The Wilderness – The Daming Xu Memorial Hike

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(disclaimer: low automotive content)  Sunday, November 4, 2007 dawned an exceptionally warm and sunny day. Usually by this time of year, cold, wet weather has set into the Oregon Cascades, with the first snow falls in the higher elevations. Seeing it as an unexpected last opportunity of the year to enjoy a day hike in Oregon’s vast wild woods, three Eugenians cracked open a popular trail guide and picked Olallie Mountain as their destination. They were University of Oregon Math Professor Daming Xu, my wife Stephanie, and I. Only two of us would ever return.

The thought could I have saved Daming Xu from his terrible death has haunted me often since that fateful day. So a couple of days ago we set out to retrace our steps, in part to see if I could find answer to that question, or at least some greater acceptance of how it turned out.

McKenzie Riverimage courtesy Wagner photo

It was a similarly sunny and warm as we again set out heading east on Hwy 126 along the scenic McKenzie River to take the same hike up Olallie Mt. to enjoy the sights and colors, and ponder the events of that day six years ago.

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Like for so many other hikers in Oregon, William Sullivan’s excellent trail guides are our bibles. Over breakfast that morning in 2007– like almost every Sunday morning during the hiking season–I cracked open our well-worn copy of his 100 Hikes in the Central Oregon Cascades to pick one suitable for the day and conditions. We typically prefer hikes in the 8-12 mile range, but since the days were now short, and daylight savings time had just ended, I decided to find one on the short end of that range.

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On page 154 I found one that would be just right, given that we were still lingering over a slow breakfast and the Sunday paper. Olallie Mt. was only 7.2 miles round trip, rated “Moderate” by Sullivan, but afforded excellent view of the Three Sisters, the dominant volcanoes in our region of the Cascades.

Ollalie mt map

Olallie Mt. (B) lies in the Three Sisters Wilderness, in heart of the vast Willamette National Forest. It’s one of many smaller mountains of the Old Cascades, remnants of ancient volcanoes before a shift in the fault zones moved the active volcanoes, the tall and snow covered Young Cascade peaks that run in a line from California up into British Columbia, some distance further to the east.

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After about 40 miles, we turned right on Aufderheide Road 19 and crossed the McKenzie, a splendid white-water river and famous for fly-fishing, rafting and kayaking. It was right at this turn-off that I had an unusual encounter with a Maserati 350o.  Aufderheide Road 19 is one of the finest driving roads in the whole area, a winding ribbon of asphalt that follows the South Fork of the McKenzie and eventually connects Hwy 126 with Hwy 58 to the south.

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But to reach our destination, we turned left after a few miles and drove over the dam at Cougar Reservoir, now well-drained in anticipation of the winter’s rains to come.

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After a few more miles, we turned left on Forest Road 1993, one of countless gravel US Forest Service roads that snake throughout the National Forests, originally built to facilitate the logging on federal lands. Since the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, logging on federal lands has been substantially curtailed, and these roads now are used more for recreational access. We had a 15 mile winding uphill drive to get the trail head, at Pat Saddle. As is all-too common, we did not seen another car since we left the highway.

These roads offer endless driving enjoyment, and that is a big part of our love of hiking: getting there (and back) is as much fun as the hike itself. Not surprisingly, I tend to drive more aggressively on the way in, and more relaxed on the way out. The “handling nanny’s” repeated beeping scolded me as my Xbox drifted on the gravel through the tighter corners. No, one doesn’t really want to slide off the road here, especially this time of year. It might be a long time, if ever, before someone happened to find one’s car at the bottom of the ravine or in the creek.

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We parked at Pat Saddle, where two trails head off into the wilderness. We were the only car here. Although hiking is popular, there are so many trails that even on summer Sundays, it’s not unusual to find ourselves alone, although encounters with a few other hikers is common. But it was November already.

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We headed up Olallie Trail, which connects with Olallie Mt. Trail two miles ahead. Beyond that, Olallie Trail heads east deep into the wilderness area, connecting to a number of other wilderness trails. With the right equipment and skills, one could hike or pack all the way to the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Mexico to Canada, along the west slopes of the Sisters.  The other trail head, French Pete Trail, heads to the right, around to the west and south side of Olallie Mt., along French Pete Creek.

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I consulted Sullivan’s hand-drawn map once more, which reminded me that the key trail junction is two miles ahead. I was also interested in taking the additional .9 mile trail to Olallie Meadows on the way back, to check that out.

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I have a pretty good sense of distance, and I started keeping an eye out for the junction shortly before we arrived. These junctions are not always well marked or obvious. The beargrass, which is actually a member of the lily family, is lush here, and the trail is almost obscured. Every second or third year, the beargrass sprouts a three-foot tall plume, covered with tiny lily-white star-shaped flowers.

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Confirming the map, I found a little marker on a tree to the left, with an arrow pointing to Olallie Meadows and points beyond.

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And on the right is a broken-off marker for Olallie Mt. We take it, for the last 1.5 steeper miles to the summit.

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Near the summit, the trail breaks out of the woods, and the little vintage fire lookout building is now in sight. It’s one of only two of these structures still standing, part of a former network of lookouts. Its location up here is obvious, as the views are 360 degrees, and stellar.

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The most impressive view is directly to the east, where the Three Sisters dominate the view. South Sister, the tallest, is to the right, and Middle Sister and North Sister huddle together to the left. From here to there is all virgin wilderness; a few trails, but no roads anywhere. Due to my camera’s lens, the mountains appear somewhat further away than they actually are.

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South Sister is some 14 miles away as the raven or eagle flies. We looked at it closely, and I pointed out to Stephanie the route to the top that pretty much directly follows the ridge line on the right. It’s a pretty tough climb, 12 miles round trip, but that doesn’t really account for the very direct sections up the mountain itself after the hike to its base. The almost 5,000 foot elevation gain to the peak is punishing, as well as the loose scree on much of the steep sections.

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I’d been up with son Ted (Ed) back in 1998, on a cold and windy September day right after the first storm of the season. North and Middle Sister are behind us , and other Cascade volcanoes beyond them.

But standing there now looking at South Sister, Stephanie decided that she was finally ready to tackle it, after resisting the idea for years. It was of course too late that year, but the following August in 2008, the two of us made it up, and reveled in the views from its top, encompassing much of Oregon, well into Washington, and the string of volcanoes that stretch in an almost perfect line north and south.

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Now from Olallie Mt. we could also see most of them in the crisp fall air. To the north of the Sisters, the first little peak is Mt. Washington, then jagged Three Finger Jack, majestic snowy Mt. Jefferson, and in the distance on the far left, Mt. Hood, the tallest and most beautiful of Oregon’s volcanoes, near Portland.

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Mt. Hood must be close to 100 miles away, but it’s perfectly clear to our eyes, if not the camera’s. Ted and his GF spends every Sunday zooming down its slopes during the long ski season (one can ski all summer on its highest runs). I try to join him a few times a year too.

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Turning 180 degrees to the south is Diamond Peak, which Stephanie and our younger son climbed some years back. In the early days of West Coast mountaineering, the climbing clubs would coordinate an overnight hike to all of the Cascade Peaks from Rainier down to Mt. McLoughlin near the California border, and all build signal fires on their peaks in the dark to communicate to each. Now we instantly send our pictures standing on them, like this one Ted sent from the top of Mt. St. Helens just this past Friday.

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To the west, the tree-covered Old Cascades give way to the foothills and then the Willamette Valley, whence we came from. The last ridge on the horizon is the Coast Range, and the Pacific lies beyond that. It should not come as a surprise that Lane County was (and still is) a primary source of timber and forest products generated on the West Coast, most of it the Douglas Fir used in wood construction. In this direction, these hills have all been logged at least once.

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The lookout building is anchored by cables against the brutal winter winds. The roof is looking mighty bad.

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It’s kept unlocked, to be used as a shelter for hikers wanting to spend the night up here. The stars must be amazing. In the center is the pedestal where the transit (or whatever the equipment used for determining the location of fires is called) once was mounted.

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And in the corner is a stack of new cedar shingles. Looks like the hut is finally going to get a new roof before it deteriorates too far.

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And on the other side, a temporary shoring wall has been erected. It’s good to know this Depression-era lookout will get some long-overdue repairs. But given the lateness of the season, that won’t be happening until next summer.

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We savored the unseasonable warmth by taking off our shirts and charging our bodies’ solar cells for the long gray winter season ahead. And we enjoyed our al fresco lunch sitting on the rocks there.

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But it was too rocky up on the summit for our customary postprandial nap. So we walked maybe 50 yards back down, and Stephanie waited on the trail while I scouted for a soft grassy spot some 10 yards off the trail. It was about 1:30 or so.

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I heard, then saw someone coming up the trail; a middle-aged man, obviously Asian, wearing a white shirt and only carrying a light leather jacket, but no backpack. I guessed he was Chinese, for what it was worth. Stephanie greeted him cheerfully, and told him what a superb view was waiting for him at the top. He said very little, as if perhaps absorbed in his thoughts, and moved right on.

We spread out our tattered Space Blanket, and by the time we had taken our shoes off and stretched out, the hiker was already heading back down the trail. He couldn’t have spent more than a few minutes on the summit. In a hurry, on such a glorious day?

We enjoyed our nap in the bushes, and about a half hour later we reluctantly packed up and headed down. It was a bit after 2 PM, and the sun was already arcing into the west. I decided to not take the additional detour to Olallie Meadows on the way down, given the sun’s position. I’m sure we could have made it, but I’m conservative about some things.

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As usual, Stephanie walked ahead. And when we got to the trail junction, she inadvertently took the wrong way, and headed towards Olallie Meadows and the wilderness beyond. For what it’s worth, it was literally the path of least resistance, and she never noticed the trail junction and the marker on the tree. I called her, and we headed down to the left, back to the trail head. Once again I reminded Stephanie that if I die early, she is not allowed to go hiking by herself. Ever.

Chevrolet 2003 Impala

When we reached the trail head parking lot, I was surprised to see a white Chevrolet Impala of semi-recent vintage parked there. Hmmm. We both thought that was a bit odd. The hiker we met would have long been back by now, unless of course he also decided to go to the Meadows on the way down. We agreed that the logical assumption was that it belonged to a hiker on the French Pete Trail.

But I thought to myself:  in an Impala? Although I rather hate reverting to stereotypes and making assumptions, but as a car person, I couldn’t quite help it. I could just really much more see a Chinese person driving an Impala than the typical hiker or hunter hereabouts in the North West, where just about the only Chevy sedans are inevitably rentals. But this one was a bit too old for that. Trail heads are populated with Subarus, Honda CRVs, Toyota 4×4 Tacomas, and such. Maybe a vintage Corolla, or Honda Civic. Or a Prius, increasingly so. And of course a certain white Scion Xb with red wheels.

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We put speculation aside, got the tea basket out of the car, and had our customary afternoon tea. Yorkshire Gold, with milk, of course. And home-made coffee cake, and apples. Tea time is sacrosanct, no matter where we are.

We lingered over our tea and drank in the surroundings for maybe a half hour, knowing this would be our last time up in the high country this year. I half-expected the hiker to show up anytime. That is, if the Impala was his car, and he had gone to the meadow before returning. As we packed up and left , the shadows were really getting long, and the temperature was dropping in the shade. No, it must be some backpackers or hunters that were on the other trail, the French Pete Trail, Impala notwithstanding. It was too nice and relaxing of an afternoon for other ideas or thought to intrude.  As well as the only logical one…it’s not like this easy hike had any challenges. Maybe he was just taking his time; it wasn’t all that late yet.

We enjoyed the internal glow of a day hiking and the late rays of sunshine as we bopped down Forest Road 1993. On days like this, driving home is a meditative experience, like watching a video instead of actually driving the car. By now, my car well knows how to get us home by itself even if I am in the zone. No chatting or thoughts, except perhaps a mantra I used to say to my kids: It’s great to be alive in Oregon today….

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Did the white Impala enter my thoughts anymore as we drove home into the sunset on Hwy 126? I can’t really say, because subsequent events have tainted the memories. As best as I remember, no. And by the next morning, Monday, there were more important things to think about.

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On Wednesday morning, we sat down for breakfast table and Stephanie opened the newspaper. She called out: Paul: Look at this! There on the front of the Local section was a story about a lost University of Oregon professor by the name of Daming Xu, who had gone hiking in the Cougar Reservoir area on Sunday and never returned. Unbelievable!

The tv station had reported on it Tuesday night, but we don’t watch tv.


Xu tvrest of tv station’s report here

His family didn’t report him missing until Monday afternoon, and they didn’t know what hike he was planning to take, except that it was generally in the Cougar Dam area. Not until sometime Tuesday afternoon was his car spotted on Pat Saddle. So the first search effort only got underway late Tuesday, and they didn’t know which trail he had taken. My first thought: he’s dead already. Two nights in the woods with temperatures dropping down to around freezing, with no additional clothing since he had no backpack on. Hypothermia sets in quickly.

But how could he have gotten so lost? He must have taken the wrong trail at the junction like Stephanie did, and headed to Olallie Meadows and beyond. But surely he noticed how different that trail looked, and the fact that there was no meadow on the way up. It was only a mile to the meadows, and there was plenty of time to turn around.

I immediately called the Sheriff’s Department, and told them of our seeing Dr. Xu on Olallie Mountain, and of my certainty that he had headed into the wilderness on the wrong trail. They sent a deputy over to get a statement from us.

Daming Xu search

A proper intensive search didn’t get underway until Wednesday, now focused on the trails the he had to have taken. Of course, the Olallie Meadows Trail has a number of trail junctions further in the wilderness. Searchers found what they believed to be his tracks near Bear Flat, but they then ended, or they lost the tracks. A helicopter with infra-red capability joined the efforts.  Thursday’s newspaper report here.

Xu’s cell phone, heavier jacket, and water were still in the Impala. But family and rescuers were still still sounding optimistic: Lane County Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Smith was “also was optimistic Wednesday. The search area offers plenty of shelter and water, and the weather hadn’t been extreme, he said. (high) Temperatures on Wednesday reached about 50 degrees.  “If a person has any kind of wilderness survival skills, they could make it,” he said. I didn’t feel nearly that optimistic.

On Thursday, the weather deteriorated, and cold rain and snow moved into the area. Now I knew without any doubt that Daming Xu was dead. No one can survive more than a couple of days without warm clothes. And even then, it quickly becomes difficult.

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By Monday, Nov. 12th, the official search was called off, due to bad weather and the reality that Xu would never have survived that long. Friends and volunteers continued to search, and on Nov. 15th, found the only clue to his whereabouts:  one half of Sullivan’s trail book, through page 157, which included the Olallie Mt. hike on page 154. The other half had been found in his car. So he had the trail map with him, which only compounded the mystery of how and why he got so lost.

Daming Xu French Creek

The trail book was found in a very rugged area of the French Pete Creek drainage, on the south side of the mountain. He must have followed the trail to Bear Flat, then headed down French Pete Creek, where there is no trail, and the going is extremely difficult due to endless fallen trees, rocks and steep terrain. For what it’s worth, if he had made it further, he would have eventually hit French Pete Creek Trail, which would have either taken him back to Pat Saddle or down to Aufderheide Road 19. How long he manged to survive, and how long it took him to get where they found the book is speculation. I strongly suspect he died on the second night out, from hypothermia, if not already the first.

One year later, a group of 45 volunteer searchers spent 400 hours looking for remains of Xu’s body, but nothing was found. That’s not uncommon, after so much time. No less than 240 persons officially remain missing in Oregon’s wild areas since 1997.


In the summer of 2012, another one joined the ranks. Jake Dutton (above), 32, headed off purposely into the wilderness towards the Three Sisters from almost the same place where Dr. Xu started his hike. Dutton was an experienced backpacker, carrying gear and supplies, and it was summer. But he never returned, and his body was never found.

Leaving an established trail even for a very short distance can be dangerous, as it’s so easy to become disoriented among the tall trees. There are often no landmarks to orient oneself with. On one of my first hikes in Oregon’s woods, I once bushwhacked a couple hundred yards with my younger son to a remote lake described by Sullivan in his book, and had difficulty finding my way back to the trail. It scared me a bit, and ever since, I’m very reluctant to leave a trail unless I have landmarks in sight, since I didn’t carry a GPS or such. And since the event on Olallie Mt., I usually make it a point to let my younger son know exactly what hike we’re taking, even if there’s two of us. Certainly so if I were to go alone.

In the days after Dr. Xu’s disappearance, I couldn’t stop thinking how I might have called the Sheriff’s Dept. Sunday night to tell them that there was a car still parked up there, and saved him. But realistically, it just didn’t call out for that, and I doubt anyone would have, unless they had good reason to think someone was truly in trouble. It was a warm day, an easy day hike, and someone just wandering off into the wilderness without realizing it seemed utterly implausible. One just assumes that another hiker knows what they’re doing.

And even if I had called, it’s hard to say whether they would have found him in time. There were many trails he could have taken, and its possible that he expired on that first cold night without a proper jacket.

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The other day when we re-enacted and photographed this hike, we were again the only ones parked at Pat Saddle. But when we came back down, there was a Subaru Forester (not pictured) parked there also. And while we were again having tea, pondering whose car it was, a hunter dressed in camo walked in from the French Pete Trail, got in the Forester, and drove off. That mostly validated the conclusion we arrived at in 2007: that the Impala belonged to someone on that trail. Although it is a wee bit harder imagining a hunter getting into a 2003 Impala. But hardly impossible.

Nevertheless, I was glad not to have to even consider whether I should take down the Forester’s license plate and call the Sheriff. If everyone did that for every car still sitting at a trail head at the end of a sunny day in Oregon’s vast woods, it would be ridiculous. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of those heading out into the wilderness to make sure they understand the risks, and to prepare and act accordingly. It is called the wilderness, after all.

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