The search for missing Juneau hiker Sharon Buis reached alpine heights earlier this summer as search and rescue teams combed Mount Juneau, Mount Roberts and then the entire trail system looking for any sign of her, all to no avail.
Today the search for the vanished woman, last seen three months ago, will continue. This time, it will go underground.
A local man with experience exploring Juneau’s old mining shafts, Brian Weed, is leading a small team to search for Buis inside shafts on the back side on Mount Roberts. Weed believes Buis may have slipped while hiking Mount Roberts, slid down a snow gulch and landed in one of the abandoned shafts, which would have been covered by snow at the time.
“She may not be down there,” Weed warned in a phone interview Thursday, adding he doesn’t want to give people false hope. “But there’s at least two (mining shafts) you could have fallen in if you were sliding down snow, and they’re covered most of the year. Probably end of August, September, is the best time to check them out when they’re uncovered.”
Weed is conducting the search with several experienced climbers. They are not part of an official search team with Alaska State Troopers or the Juneau Police Department.
The 33-year-old, who is writing a book on exploring the mines of Juneau, was out of state when Buis was reported missing May 24. He called Alaska State Troopers on the second day of their search and recommended they check the area’s mining shafts, but he doesn’t think they ever acted on the suggestion.
“I didn’t even get a call back from the troopers or anything, so it’d be pretty frustrating if I find her down there,” he said.
It does not appear as if Troopers ever searched the area’s mining ruins, although others in the community may have. Agency spokeswoman Megan Peters said there was no reason for them to believe Buis would be found down there.
“There wasn’t any evidence or leads to suggest that Ms. Buis went into a shaft,” Peters told the Empire on Friday via email. “We do not send volunteers into really dangerous places without acting upon a lead. Even with a lead, we still may not send a volunteer into a really dangerous place.”
Buis’ disappearance baffled many in the community, as well as her family and friends, because she was an experienced hiker and outdoorswoman. She had missed a scheduled hike with the Alpine Club the morning of May 24, and a concerned friend found her car that evening at the Mount Roberts trailhead, which sparked a search effort.
The effort was initially headed by troopers because they have jurisdiction over all searches and rescues in the state. They deployed teams of highly trained volunteers — members of Juneau Mountain Rescue, search dogs and handlers with Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search and members of the Alpine Club — to search for her. U.S. Coast Guard helicopters with infrared systems also swept the mountainside by night, searching for heat sources. There was no sign of her.
After about four days without any leads, troopers called off the search and transferred the case to the Juneau Police Department as a missing persons case. A volunteer effort cropped up in its stead and Buis’ family and friends continued looking for her, also without any luck. A lead from the public prompted officials to convene the search one day last month, but it didn’t turn up anything either, Peters said.
One of the mines that Weed and his friends will be searching is a 90-foot mining shaft that connects to a 343-foot long tunnel known as the Lurvey Creek Amphitheater Mine. It was a small, mom-and-pop mining operation built in 1881 and owned by George Nelson and, later, George Garside, who went on to form the Last Chance Hydraulic Mining Company in 1898. It used to be a “placer mine” where dirt, gravel, sand and other mineral deposits would rain down into the shaft and get caught in a sluice box attached to the side of the structure.
“There was a lot of small, mom-and-pop mines when people would leave the big companies and try to get rich on their own,” Weed explained. “Eventually, they were all consolidated.”
Searching the mine is a dangerous endeavor, especially since it’s so steep, and Weed warned others not to look for her there. Although he publicized his plans for the search on Facebook and subsequently agreed to do an interview with the Empire, he expressed fears that someone might get lost or hurt if they look for her.
“When there’s snow, it’s really easy to get down (from there) and access the Perseverance Trail,” he said. “When there’s not snow, almost nobody takes that path. We’re talking loose rock, loose gravel, steep hillside. There’s a couple of shafts in the area and tunnels.”
Weed, a corrections officer by trade, has explored some 240 mines in Juneau and is intimately familiar with Juneau’s mines, shafts and tunnels. He is also experienced with performing rope rescues and is an Army veteran. He is bringing along a surveyor and mapper, as well as others who are experienced hikers.
Weed doesn’t want to raise false hope that the search will be fruitful. He said if he does find something, it likely won’t be a live body, he said.
“If she fell in that one, she didn’t survive the fall,” Weed said of Lurvey Creek.
Regardless of what Weed finds, Buis’ family says they are glad he is looking.
“We were informed of the search and appreciate their efforts more than words can express,” Brenda Buis, Sharon’s sister-in-law, told the Empire via email on Thursday. “As expected it is hard on the family not knowing anything, being so far from her home and simply just no new leads turning up.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at email@example.com.