Saturday, December 17, 2016

Otter Olshansky: A lonely death on New Mexico's Continental Divide Trail

By Wren Propp

Finding Otter
The snow was deep and unstable on the road into Lower Lagunitas Campground as Ian Crombie hurried toward the cinder block latrine.

Crombie, a thru-hiker on the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) had been “post-holing” – sinking up to his chest in the snow in some spots – to get to the remote U.S. Forest Service campground in northern New Mexico in May of this year.

He was looking forward to the comfort of using a latrine after days of roughing it in the back country.

As he drew closer he noticed the tattered remnants of a tarp hanging from the small building and the scorched remains of a campfire.

Neither seemed out of place until he saw the skis.

They were handmade from corrugated roofing tin with carefully cut footrests and straps of twisted bailing wire. They were leaning near the door of the latrine and in recounting his experience, they were the first warning that something terrible had happened here.

“Those skis were impressive and then I saw the door,” Crombie said.

“DEAD CDT HIKER INSIDE - CALL COPS - OTTER,” had been scratched into the brown paint of the latrine’s steel door. Also attached to the door handle was a paper note secured by string: “Warning there is a Dead Human Body inside Bathroom Locked In. It is that of Stephen Olshansky AKA The Otter - Please Notify Authorities Immediately - NOT A JOKE.”

Crombie left almost immediately, heading for Chama, several miles to the west. He was familiar with the search for Olshansky; he had seen posters of the veteran thru-hiker who went missing in December of 2015. Olshansky’s trail name was The Otter.

“My first instinct was that I need to tell someone. This is Otter. I kept post-holing, I keep walking. It was a pretty rough day of hiking and post-holing, it was wet, boggy sort of stuff and I kept losing the trail,” said Crombie.

He spent a night on the trail – at some point an animal dragged away a small storage bag containing a portion of his stove.

“I was trying to wake up early to see if the snow would firm up, then I see these glowing green eyes, staring at me. What a jerk,” said Crombie.

When he made it to Chama, he reported what he had seen to the State Police. The heavy snow on Forest Road 87 delayed State Police for a day. The first State Police officer who made it down the Forest Road couldn’t get into the campground and his vehicle got stuck in the snow.

A day later, several State Police officers and a Forest Service ranger were able to make it into the campground on the back of ATVs driven by state game wardens. The officers used a pry bar on the latrine’s door because it was locked from the inside.

They found the Otter’s body in a blue sleeping bag. He had made a wood stove out of tin and added a handmade stovepipe. He had filled two plastic bags with letters and his personal effects, such as a cell phone, a driver’s license and $22 in cash. Olshansky, 56, had carefully displayed his last will and testament, asking that all of the writing be taken to the authorities.

“I should have turned back that first day. I have no way of staying on top of the snow,” Olshansky reported in his writing, according to the State Police report.

“The conditions of the restroom, the conditions of the immediate area right outside the restroom, the condition of the body, all show signs and evidence of Mr. Olshansky having been in that location for a period of time,” according to the State Police report.

The exact date he died isn’t known. Searchers found writing dated well into January. On the scene they found a written entry of January 18. He had no way of tracking the days, other than his own observation. A rare “triple crowner” who had completed the 3,100-mile CDT more than once, as well as the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail and the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, he died of hypothermia, compounded by starvation and dehydration. He had been at Lower Lagunitas from the first week of December to his death in January, between four to six weeks.

Search for Solitude

Olshansky had hiked into the northern New Mexico wilderness near Chama on November 14, 2015, looking for solitude.

It swallowed him whole.

He had traveled less than 12 miles from his beginning point due to heavy snow. A series of monumental snowstorms and frostbite immobilized him.

He reported in his journals that he made it into Lower Lagunitas Campground on the “9th day after Thanksgiving,” approximately the first week of December. His brother Neil Olshansky said the Otter’s journals found on the scene described his struggle with the snow. He camped three miles north of the campground for nearly two weeks, due to the snow and weakness, he wrote. He developed frostbite, which hurt him, his brother said.

Otter prepared somewhat for a lonely time on or near the CDT in New Mexico going southbound. He left with a two-week supply of food, a tent, a stove and a hand saw. He had mailed himself a package of supplies to be waiting at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu.

Thru-hikers on the CDT spend long days on remote trails, returning to civilization for brief periods. They want to bathe, eat and rest before going on their next leg. Many mail packages to their next planned stop in civilization to refresh their supplies and additional equipment for the specific demands of the next leg of their hike.

According to the State Police report, he refused a map offered by his friend, Ben Witting, who dropped him off north of Chama on November 14. He said he would find his way via GPS on his phone, instead. He knew the way.

“He loved that time, when he was out there by himself and the world was beautiful,” said his brother, Neil.

He was a strong hiker who could average 15 miles per day and could post hole – hiking through heavy snow – and had done so on numerous occasions, his brother said.

“There aren’t five people in the world who are hikers like he was, other than Leatherman, who wandered around in the 19th century. (Stephen) measured his miles in the tens of thousands, ” his brother said.

According to Wikipedia, the Leatherman was a man of unknown origin who walked a consistent 365-mile route between the Connecticut River and the Hudson River every 34 to 36 days for 32 years beginning in 1857. He was called the Leatherman because his clothes were made of leather, according to the history. Calculating his circuit and consistency, he walked approximately 3,796 miles each year, or nearly 10 and half miles a day.

Stephen Olshansky loved hiking from the time he was very young – around 9, his brother said.

He had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail multiple times and then hiked the Continental Divide Trail three times, according to his own account in a blog from 2014, when he was northbound on the CDT again. His brother called him a “triple triple crown” holder because of his many completions of the long distance trails and other, shorter trails, as well.

And he was certainly aware of the risks.

“He had dozens of blog entries from various times that he found the trail dangerous. Tons of incidents,” Neil said.

At times, he appeared to embrace the danger – even advocated keeping the CDT free of water caches, where “keepers” or hikers cache water for others or themselves, he wrote. Keepers, people who help others on the long distance trails, and hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail had spoiled it by caching water and making it safe for more hikers, he wrote.

“Now someone will yell at me for this but personally I don’t want the cdt to turn into the pct water wise, with people caching water for hikers all over the place thinking it helps them. It doesn’t. It stymies their growth and takes away from the trail experience…I don’t care if the trail is hard or even if there is no trail,” he wrote in one trail journal.

In the small world of the CDT community, the Otter ran into the executive director and co-founder of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, Teresa Martinez, in Pie Town’s Pioneer diner during his 2014 northbound hike.

“I was so reassured after talking with her for over an hour. She has her head on straight. I’m behind her 100%,” he wrote.

Olshansky expounded at length regarding access to water and politics along the CDT in his northbound journal from 2014. Ultimately he saw offering water to hikers as an artificial means of keeping the trail popular. The organizations attached to a popular trail can drum up donations, he saw.

“Money corrupts everything even the trail,” he wrote.

The Continental Divide Scenic Trail
“I guess from the start, solitude has been an important thing. And my view has been to keep it as wild as possible,” said Jim Wolf, who first saw the possibility of a trail in 1973 while on a hike through Glacier National Park in Montana.

He had hiked the Appalachia Trail two years before.

“It’s hard to say what I envisioned…I was thoroughly enthusiastic about another long distance trail,” he said.

The glimmer of a scenic and silent trail tracing the continent’s spine through New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming, then Montana and Idaho, also lit a small flame of political will in Washington, D.C. Discussions of a national trail system, using awareness of the Appalachia Trail as a guide, culminated in 1978, when Congress approved studying national scenic trails, including a trail for the Continental Divide.

“I couldn’t have complete confidence that it would ever be constructed; to serve the purpose of preservation of nature and enjoyment of scenic qualities,” he said. “It’s taken a long time and it’s a continuing process,” he said.

Political boundaries and private interests, environmental impact concerns and public recognition have all played a part in the CDT’s story so far, but of course it was the hikers – the long distance hikers like Olshansky and Crombie – that have made it real.

Jennifer Hanson, author of the book “Hiking the Continental Divide Trail,” about her thru-hike in 1997, said the CDT back then was relatively new to long-distance hikers. A “ridge runner” on the Appalachian Trail – an employee of the Appalachian Trail Club to provide assistance to hikers on that trail – she had hiked a large part of the AT prior to taking on the CDT.

“We had selected the CDT because it was remote and unchartered, particularly at that time,” she said. She hiked with her former husband, but also hiked it alone.

Getting up every morning for a hike – a nomadic lifestyle – was very freeing, she said.

“It appeals to people. It’s the least populated by hikers, and you’re more on your own. And the trail isn’t all that well marked. On the other two trails, you could just show up and use a little guidebook,” she said.

The remote aspect of the CDT means that nature is closer at hand.

“I did two months of my hike alone and it was so empowering. It’s just the freedom of being able to go alone,” she said.

The number of people attempting thru-hikes on the CDT is thought to be growing, but it is still a relatively small number. In the past year, about 320 attempted thru-hikes, with a previous year number thought to be around 275, according to Teresa Martinez of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. 

Backcountry permits are required through three areas of the trail. Those are Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park. The CDTC encourages hikers to check with land managers in each state to find out about any new requirements for hiking through the four states. The network of trails is becoming an attraction to day hikers and short-distance hikers, with hundreds perhaps thousands exploring parts of the scenic trail, she said.

In some areas, bicyclists have been following the trail – but founder Wolf doesn’t support bikes on the CDT.

Meanwhile, communities close to the CDT are seeing hikers arrive hungry and desiring of a place to sleep and bathe. Grants, NM, obtained CDTC Gateway Community status earlier this year. The status helps serve as a reminder to locals that the somewhat ragged strangers aren’t people who are homeless, usually, they’re thru-hikers with money to spend, said Tammy Legler, manager of the New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants. Welcoming the thru-hikers is one way to focus on the hiking community.

“We’re trying to partner with local businesses to offer discounts,” she said.

The solitary hikers are enjoying a part of New Mexico she wishes more would see.

“I think it is a personal benefit, to spend time alone,” she said.

CDT thru-hikers usually have money to spend on good food, although they usually want to eat more than a normal traveler, and look for ways to keep their housing costs to a minimum. Individuals in Grants have welcomed them to their homes – to pitch their tents and take a shower – to get to know them, she said. Other towns along the route have been recognizing the thru-hikers for some time. Chama, for example, acknowledges the influx of hikers with a list of “CDT friendly” businesses on the CDTC website. Northbound and southbound arrive at different times during the late spring and early fall.

Thru-hiker Crombie plans his freelance graphic designer work around hiking and camping, he said.

“I do think I planned my career around free time. That’s a value,” he said.

Both Wolf and Hanson agree that there are still some challenges ahead for the relatively young CDT. Hikers usually have a variety of options on their way and a portion of the miles are “road miles.” Not terribly scenic and in some people’s perspective, “boring.”

To balance that, however, there are up-close-and-personal sections – portions where isolation and hardship give way to revelation, said Hanson.

“I think some people going through a change in life, where they want a new perspective,” may take to the CDT to help them find it, said Hanson.

Crombie, an Eagle Scout who went to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, learned about the CDT while hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. It took him a few years to prepare.

“I’d done a lot of research, but you just have to start walking,” he said.

Entries in trail journals from Olshansky in 2014, while on a northbound hike of the CDT, discuss the “artists’ hike,” with short cuts for scenery and solitude and the “technician’s hike” which follows the official route more exactly.

“I have done the artist’s route almost twice and would like to do all the parts of the official route…I am going for a complete thru-hike NO SHORT CUTS and all the long ways, plus some extra exploring…Shortcuts never feel good to me,” Olshansky wrote in 2014.

The Paradox of The Otter
On May 15 of 2015, a year to the day before searchers found his body, Olshansky wrote in his trail journal:

“Pretty much I’ve always been solo over 40 years, I’ve fared ok. I’ve taken some bad falls in my time and have made bad decisions before and gotten into some bad life threatening spots, I’ve been lucky a few times, escaping without bad injury or worse. I am no accomplished mountaineer and I know it, and will take less chances because of it,” he wrote.

“Embrace the Brutality,” the unofficial motto of the CDT, isn’t just hype. Hikers face risks on the journey that are rare on the other long-distance trails.

“There are desert conditions and high altitudes, grizzlies and more severe lightning. It is more remote: your trail is 45 miles from town. There is more of a sense of you in nature and you have to contend with nature,” said thru-hiker Hanson.

Beginning in December 2015, the search for Stephen Olshansky was shrouded in paradox.

“We were flying all over the area, where I thought my primary search area was when we got word in Grants. Literally we had a description of someone walking down the CDT north of Grants. And we were taking all that evidence into play,” said Bob Rodgers, resource officer for New Mexico Search and Rescue, part of New Mexico State Police.

Once a person enters civilization, whether he chooses to make himself known or not, they’re not considered endangered anymore, he said.

“The search had been wound down and suspended,” Rodgers said. However as reports of sightings of Olshansky throughout western New Mexico and Arizona continued through the winter, Rodgers and State Police officers followed up on those reports.

Pilots flew five sorties over a wide area in northern New Mexico on December 10, 2015, looking for Olshansky.

They didn’t find him.

And there was a stream of sightings of a man matching his description and doing things he would likely do, such as walk along a road near Quemado, stand in line at a McDonald’s in Lordsburg, talk to a worker at a convenience store in Cuba, perhaps ask for a meal at a Hooters in a Arizona border town. The reports continued until February 2016, within days or weeks of Olshansky’s death.

A journal dated January 4, 2016, from Olshansky’s effects detail two suicide attempts while at Lower Lagunitas. He tried to end his life by blocking a vent in the latrine and pumping carbon dioxide into the space. He placed a plastic bag over his head. When his attempt failed, he wrote, he tried cutting his wrist, according to the State Police report. His brother Neil noted that the journals go on to state that following the attempts, the Otter changed his mind about suicide and struggled to survive for at least two more weeks.

On that same date of Olshanky’s journal entry, and nearly 500 miles south, a State Police officer spoke to a worker at a Lordsburg McDonalds. On New Year’s Eve Day, a man resembling Olshansky and wearing a 49ers pullover drew the notice of a busy restaurant worker. When the counter worker waved and called “49ers!” recognizing his loyalty to the underdogs, the man waved back. And he remembered him when a person helping to look for Olshansky showed him a photograph of the missing hiker. Olshansky was wearing the same pullover as the man in the McDonald’s line, he told State Police who were checking out the report. But it wasn’t the Otter.

The veteran hiker’s strength and experience had been bested by nature.

“Something drastic had happened,” Rodgers said.

The other component of his disappearance was the certainty of eyewitnesses. Many confirmed having seen a healthy looking Olshansky in places that seemed reasonable, although routine surveillance video proved them wrong or was irretrievable.

“We knew when he took off and how fast he usually traveled. It threw me off. We did what we could do,” said Rodgers.

For example, a report of a sighting of Olshansky in Grants, NM, in mid-December was well within the parameters of when the long-distance hiker might have arrived there, Rodgers said.

The effort included chasing down leads wherever an eyewitness reported having seen Olshansky after his disappearance.

“I interviewed several people who actually saw someone matching his description. I drove around Grants looking for this guy,” Rodgers said.

He didn’t find Olshansky, but sightings of Otter lowered the concern, Rodgers said.

“I thought he wasn’t in danger anymore,” Rodgers said.
Reports of two other missing CDT hikers around the same time resulted in the hikers being located, safe, he said.

Olshansky burned a building to the ground at Lower Lagunitas, hoping to signal help. He saved some horse feed – stored in the building -- as a food source for himself, he reported in his writings.

After fashioning the skis, he started out but heard a plane and turned back. According to his brother, Olshansky’s journal states he had hoped a plane would see the black ash of the burnt building. He also reported in his journal that he saw two planes, but they didn’t see him.

When no help came, he began thinking of the end, according to his journals reported by the State Police.

“Mr. Olshansky talks about finding horse feed in the cabin before he burned it and that was what he was eating and staying hydrated. Mr. Olshansky at this point starts saying his good byes to friends and family, he mentions several times he thinks it is the end and that he is at peace with everything,” according to the State Police report.

Trapped and Tragic
According to excerpts of Olshansky’s journal in the State Police report, he regretted that he had consumed marijuana before starting out on his last hike. He grew weaker and weaker as the days passed while he tried to figure out a way to escape the snow. He feared frostbite.

“I was too high to think straight learned lesson but will never be able to do anything because I’m doomed here too late,” he wrote.

He wrote farewells, according to the State Police report.

Calling her friend’s death “incredibly tragic,” Martinez said Olshansky was well-known and well-liked within the long distance hiking community. His experience provides important lessons about the vagaries of the trail, she said.

“He had the skill and the expertise, but there were unfortunate decisions on his part,” she said. “The environment isn’t extreme, but it is unpredictable and we have to understand the limitations.”

Communication links with local agencies were built and developed during the search for Olshansky. She said she hopes those connections remain. It will be needed if the trail becomes even more popular.

Northbound hikers starting at the Mexican border begin their hikes in late April or mid-May. As they make their way through the desert and into higher country, the days are longer and warmer. Southbound hikers usually begin their hikes at the Canadian border in mid-June, about the same time the ice is receding at Glacier National Park.

Coming from either direction, hikers find snow. Sometimes they are prepared with snowshoes, purchased at the last town or sent to themselves via a well-timed care package. But others are taken by surprise, and have to post hole to get through. Thru-hikers desire the lightest packs possible, so they shave the weight by trying to guess what the trail ahead will have in store for them. They don’t always guess correctly.

Olshansky noted in his northbound CDT journal from 2014 that he suffered altitude sickness – headache, nausea and insomnia – in May near Cumbres Pass. He had hiked only two miles.

“Too much risk, too little fun. This is why I had been uneasy last couple of weeks. The trail had gotten too far outside my comfort zone,” he wrote.

In late May of 2014, he decided to bypass the San Juan Mountains of Colorado because of heavy snow. Other CDT hikers were doing likewise. Some flew north to skip Colorado and take on Wyoming.

The Otter walked to Glenwood Springs.

Hiker Crombie was fighting snow that remained in northern New Mexico through mid-May earlier this year. The snow shoes he expected to arrive later in his trip may not have helped him, but he still wishes he had them, he said. He had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, with snow in Sierras, but that snow surface had remained frozen and he didn’t sink in.

“In northern New Mexico it wasn’t frozen, so I would fall in up to my chest. There was a lot of frustration,” he said. “That snow was a whole new experience for me.”

Crombie said he carried an emergency beacon with a light and GPS that sends an email to his family each night to assure them he is okay. The 10 ounces of weight is a sacrifice, but worth it, he said.

“So I don’t end up like Otter,” he said.

Writer’s Note
The 28 unpaved miles of Forest Service Road 87 grinds under the wheels while the last aspen leaves and blowing dirt whip over the road. The Cruces Basin Wilderness is well populated in October -- ranchers round up their cows, hunters hunker around their camps or wait in blinds. A father and young daughter hunt ducks in the Rio San Antonio. A couple of bicyclists, sweating under layers to protect them from the cold gusts and wearing neon green vests so the hunters won’t mistake them for game, stop at the top of a hill to say they’re on the biking trail of the CDT.

It isn’t quiet. The wind blows and blows. You can tell how much it blows because the trees bend over as they grow. The cattle make a desperate racket when the cowboys and cowgirls prod them into the trailers hauled by rumbling semis. The hunters shoot their rifles.

Lower Lagunitas Campground is tucked into a knoll. It’s deserted.

The latrine is open, so I enter. I walk around outside and see the bare concrete foundation of the building that Olshansky burned. Lots of fire rings.


There are two ponds adjacent to the campground, thus the name, probably. They appear to have no fish in them although some anglers will tell you otherwise.

Picnic tables and old Forest Service fencing are in the gloomy and persistent shade of several tall pine trees. It’s quiet for once, so I listen. The wind plays rough in the tops of the trees and makes a sound I’ve always thought was like water running across rocks in a stream. Constant, but always just a little bit different.

I think, “My God, he must have heard this and wanted to hear something else, anything else. But maybe at the end that was all he wanted to hear.”

The End
Propp, a journalist, has been a newspaper reporter for the over 20 years in New Mexico. She's worked for the Albuquerque Journal, the Farmington Daily Times and the Los Alamos Monitor. She also served  for over 10 years at the State Board of Examiners for Architects as an investigator, public information officer and director.
For more Information about the CDT check out the websites below, they provide maps, answer frequently asked questions and provide other information for hikers
For a closer look at the experiences and challenges of hiking the CDT go to:

For a map of the current Continental Divide Trail go to:

For more information about the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, go to:

For more information about the Continental Divide Trail Society, go to:

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