Search and rescue teams are scouring the entire Mount Juneau trail system — from alpine heights up on the peaks above the treeline to gullies and sidetrails on the mountainsides amid heavy vegetation and brush — in search of a hiker believed to be missing since Friday.
Juneau Mountain Rescue members, along with Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search and the Alpine Club, widened their search as it entered its second day Monday after 48-year-old Juneau resident Sharon Buis did not turn up Sunday night.
JMR member Doug Wessen said a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter from Air Station Sitka, equipped with forward-looking infrared systems (FLIR) that can detect heat sources in the dark, conducted flights around Mount Roberts from about 11:45 p.m. Sunday to 2 a.m. Monday but without any luck.
“The idea was that there was so many hikers out there during the day that at night they could find her, but there’s no sign of her,” Wessen said Monday morning.
Buis, a 48-year-old physical therapist and experienced hiker, was reported missing by her friend after she failed to show up for a planned Alpine Club hike at 9 a.m. Saturday morning. The friend, Anne Johnson, alerted authorities when she located Buis’ car — untouched for hours and coated in pollen — at the Mount Roberts trailhead on Basin Road around 9:30 p.m. that evening.
Buis’ car was still in the gravel parking lot Monday morning. Inside were hair scrunchies and a water bottle. But no note, or schedule letting people know where she was going. Her last known location was Alaska Marine Lines near the Rock Dump at 9:30 a.m. Friday, based on a receipt Alaska State Troopers found.
“It’s just really difficult because she did not leave any information about where she was going and what her plans are,” Wessen said. “It’s all speculation, it’s all a mystery.”
About 50 searchers combed the trails throughout the day Sunday looking for Buis. Even more were expected to join the search Monday.
On Monday morning, a Temsco helicopter dropped off four teams of searchers above the treeline up on the ridges on mountain peaks around the Mount Roberts area. Searchers are also looking on Mount Juneau trails, and Mount Roberts sidetrails, as well as going up Sheep Creek trail.
“We’ve kind of expanded out,” Wessen said.
He added, “Our feeling is at this time she’s not out in the open above the tree line, otherwise we would have seen her. Our guess is she’s probably in a wooded area. We got people on Gold Ridge, Icy Gulch, Gastineau Peak looking for clues and footprints.”
Local hikers who don’t know Buis have joined in the search as well.
“I saw the signs on the trails yesterday, and we figured we should look while we’re out skiing,” Juneau resident Cheyenne Cuellar said, as she waited for her companion at the Mount Roberts trailhead around 9 a.m. Monday morning.
Johnson, 50, and her friend Gail Blundell, 57, both of whom regularly go on hikes with Buis, set out for Icy Gulch from the trailhead. Johnson and other friends looked all day Sunday, only resting on occasion at the restaurant at the top of the tram where Alaska State Troopers have set up a command center. Troopers organize all searches and rescues in the state of Alaska.
“We’re just starting up again,” Johnson said, adjusting the pack on her back. “The scent dog just started up here ... we think she went up there,” she said pointing to the Mount Roberts trailhead. “But we’re going to focus on Icy Gulch now. It’s one of the ways coming down from Gold Ridge. If she went up this way, she could have gone down towards Perseverance, so we’re focusing on that a lot, and Gastineau and up above the tram, basically, to Roberts but coming down towards Perseverance.”
Johnson described Buis as “tough,” noting they just went to Greenland last month for an ice camping trip. “She goes out alone a lot.”
Blundell said she just got back at 8 a.m. Monday morning from a 10-day trip tagging harbor seals for her job with the Department of Fish and Game. She heard word about the search via email but thought it was just a drill.
“Then I got an email from a woman in Australia — so it must be on Facebook — and she said tell me as soon as you find out,” Blundell said. “So then I knew, and then it was real.”
Search dogs with SEADOGS expressed interest — but did not alert — to something along the Mount Roberts trail that sent two dog handlers on a four-hour-long hike down to the Thane Road avalanche chute Sunday night, said SEADOGS leader Bruce Bowler.
“I picked them up at 10 p.m. last night,” Bowler told the Empire in an interview Monday. Nothing came of the search, he said.
The dogs are using a “scent clue” item that they got from Buis’ home in order to track her, he said. He did not say what the item is. Usually, it’s something like a pillowcase.
At least three dogs were on the trails Sunday, the first day of the search, some since 2 a.m. Some of the dogs and their handlers are resting at home right now before they go out again.
In the 37 years Bowler has been with SEADOGS, a volunteer group he created in 1977, only three to four people have fallen off the top of Mount Roberts trail, he said.
Snow conditions this time of year are fairly moderate; the snow gets soft and melts when the sun shines. Hikers can break through the snow and hit last year’s ice.
“The folks that we’ve had to rescue in the past have slipped off on that ice after walking on the knife’s edge of the ridge and fallen several hundred feet,” Bowler said.
The hike from the Mount Roberts Tramway to the cross on the mountain, a popular spot for tourists to snap pictures, is relatively easy. Although there’s a 600- to 700-foot rise in elevation, wide paved trails accommodate tourists unaccustomed to hikes.
But past that point, the hike becomes hairier.
“The trail becomes much less easy to deal with, and the higher you get the more snow and ice that you get into and the skinnier the trail is,” Bowler said. “It’s not an easy trail, its not a park-type trail.”
Those searching for Buis on mountain peaks are equipped with metal cleats used for ice climbing known as crampons and ice axes, Bowler said.
“You need proper gear at this time of the year,” Bowler said. “Our guys have crampons and ice axes, so that gives you an idea of what they’re running into.”
Searchers down on the mountainside, meanwhile, are battling thick growth, heavy Alders and heavy underbrush.
“They’re going to be bushwhacking through most of it,” Bowler said.
Bowler said he “absolutely” is optimistic in this case, especially since people have survived the fall off Mount Roberts, which is the worst-case scenario in Buis’ situation. Searchers don’t even know if that’s the trail Buis took — they just presume so because that’s where her car was located.
One man, 21-year-old Joshua Shrader, lost his footing on a slick patch of snow and fell 300 feet off the backside of Mount Roberts in 2001. He knocked himself out on a rock, and when he came to, he camped and waited for help. A National Guardsman in a Temsco helicopter spotted him spelling out “Help” in the snow with sticks.
“It took us almost three days to find him,” Bowler said.
Another remarkable story of survival is that of Petra Draskovic, a 23-year-old tourist from Slovenia, who fell off the top of Sheep Creek Basin in 2004 trying to photograph mountain goats. She somehow managed to grab hold of a tree root on the 65-plus-foot freefall down the mountainface. She clung to the root for 17 hours, dangling off the side of the cliff.
“She grabbed hold of vegetation and hung there from 3:30 p.m. to 9 a.m. the next morning when we found her,” Bowler said. “That started as a night search exactly what we have here.”
Some stories don’t end as well. But even when they don’t, searchers still never give up on finding missing people. Bowler points to the case of Mitsuo “Mitsy” Okazaki, an elderly cruise ship visitor from the San Francisco area who had Alzheimer’s and disappeared on Mount Roberts in 2001. His family members left him briefly on a bench outside the tramway’s giftshop, and he was never seen again.
Still, every year, members of JMR and SEADOGS still go out to look for him or his remains.
“You never give up,” Bowler said. “The search may wind down eventually but you never give up.”
The last time the Juneau search and rescue community conducted a multi-day search effort for a missing person was in 2010 for a suicidal subject in the Dredge Lake area. He was never found.
Juneau-based Alaska State Trooper Tim Birt said in an interview at 2 p.m. Monday that there is still no word of Buis, but they will continue to search.
“Our search is continuing,” Birt said. “We don’t have any new leads, and we don’t have any new focus points on our search, although we’ve been searching new areas today and we’ve gone back and searched areas we’ve already looked to double check.”
Birt said he doesn’t know how long the search will continue if Buis is not found.
“We don’t have that strategy down yet, although I think after today’s activities we’ll have a much better idea as to our strategy for the remainder of the week,” he said.
He noted they are not anticipating any more night flights.
Anyone who has seen Buis on the trails can contact Alaska State Troopers at 465-4000. Buis is described at 5’7” and 135 pounds with brown hair and blue eyes.
She has been a physical therapist at Juneau Physical Therapy since 2005, according to the company’s website. Buis’ family members, who live in Ontario, have been notified of the search effort.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.