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Help for hikers

U.S. Forest Service ranger Jackie Holm says as many as 100 people a day climb Mount McLoughlin in the summer. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
U.S. Forest Service ranger Jackie Holm guides Daniel Newberry, front, Andrew Eckerson and Lee Juillerat through a boulder field beneath the summit of Mount McLoughlin. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
New Mount McLoughlin signs aim to keep people on the trail, instead of needing rescue

Shawn Richards knows all too well that hikers who conquer Jackson County’s Mount McLoughlin often believe the path off the mountain can be easier than the climb up it.

Instead of following the trail through boulders toward the timber line, many believe they can scramble through the rough rock, called scree, as a shortcut toward the trailhead away.

But it’s not.

“It’s that optical illusion,” says Richards, a Jackson County Sheriff’s sergeant who runs the county’s search-and-rescue program. “It looks like a shortcut, but you end up three drainages away.”

Invariably, someone reports them overdue, or they call 9-1-1 for help while in the dark from a cellphone with 2% battery left.

Since 1998, 2,393 people have followed that illusion to a point where Richards’ paid and volunteer searchers had to scramble around the base of Mount McLoughlin to rescue them.

But now a simple, yet strategically difficult, remedy is about to help Richards and his volunteers have more McLoughlin-free nights of sleep.

The Forest Service next week plans to install a series of low-impact trail signs to guide hikers safely off the top mile of the McLoughlin Trail, reducing safety impacts while staying true to wilderness ethics that dominate management here.

The wooden posts with only an arrow will be dug into the trail route as permanent markers to guide hikers on the first leg of their 4,000-foot descent, but be otherwise inconspicuous.

They will replace haphazard stacks of rocks and even the occasional illegally spray-painted boulders as trusted guides to get off that bucket-list hiking mountain safely without search-and-rescue intervention.

Over the past quarter-century of lost hikers, none have died descending Mount McLoughlin, records show. Richards said he believes the new markers are the best bet to keep that streak running.

“The big worry isn’t the cost (of rescues),” Richards says. “It’s the loss of life. You can only throw the dice so many times before you crap out.”

Help for these hiking dice-rollers begins next week when Angie Panter leads a small crew up the McLoughlin Trail with 20 cedar posts tethered to the backs of pack mules.

The posts are 4-foot-long, sporting roughed edges to appear more rustic, and will be sunk 2 feet down in strategic areas to keep hold and disappear under snow lines, says Panter, the Rogue Forest’s trails crew leader.

Panter plans to separate the post along about a mile of trail along the first 1,500 feet of descent. That’s where most of the mental biffs of hikers occur.

“They’ll be staggered to get people to avoid the scree,” Panter says. “We’ll put them wherever I can get a hole dug. I’m afraid I’ll hit a lot of rock.”

The posts sport only an arrow suggesting the proper route, Panter says.

“They’re going to be very, very minimal,” Panter says. “No words. Nothing.”

But their impacts likely won’t be.

Since 1998, search and rescue crews have plucked 243 people off that mountain, logging nearly 5,000 hours of volunteer time and nearly 1,000 hours of sheriff’s office time split between Jackson and Klamath counties.

About two-thirds of the searches are done by Jackson County teams. The trail to the top snakes between Jackson and Klamath county lines.

The costs of rescues range the gamut. They’re heaviest when helicopters or fixed-wing airplanes are used to locate lost hikers. Jackson County records show nearly $8,700 in aircraft costs for searches done in 2021 alone.

“Like I said,” Richards says. “It’s not saving money. It’s about saving lives, and we’ve been very lucky so far.”

Trail markers may seem like a no-brainer, but most of the trail is within the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area, meaning federal Wilderness Act rules apply.

That often means minimal signage at best. But signs like this are not unprecedented and definitely present less impact than rock stacking, the occasional spray-painted arrow and the off-trail impacts of lost hikers.

Richards has long lobbied for simple lodgepole trail markings during the busy summer hiking — and rescue — season on Mount McLoughlin.

“I’m a big believer in the Wilderness Act,” Richards says. “But when you have a situation where people are getting lost all over the place, that’s more of an impact than if you keep people on the trail where already they’ve had an impact.”

Mark Freeman covers the outdoors for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470 or my email at mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.