How an Expert Hiker Died of Hypothermia in June

Summer wildflowers at Mount Rainier National Park. (Photo: Jeff McGraw/Shutterstock).

Brian J. Cantwell of The Seattle Times described hiking expert and author Karen Sykes as “a tough old bird, dogged in pursuit of topics that would get more people outdoors.” An avid explorer of the Northwest forests and mountains, Sykes wrote about hiking in all of its guises; wildflower hikes, hikes for kids, hikes for novices, you name it. She was a teacher and an inspiration. “She led outings with The Mountaineers, and many Washingtonians learned at her elbow, just as she inspired many hikers with her pen,” wrote Cantwell.

Sykes wrote for digital publications and periodicals, and authored several guidebooks on hiking. She wrote a popular trail column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and wrote other stories about Northwest adventures for The Seattle Times.

But all of her expert knowledge about hiking and the places where she did what she loved wasn’t enough to save Sykes, 70, from succumbing to the elements while on a day hike just before the start of summer. After having been reported missing last week in Mount Rainier National Park, her body was found three days later. She died of hypothermia, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s office.

While the circumstances surrounding her death are not clear, friends of Sykes said that her death was something that could happen to anyone, regardless of their skill and knowledge.

"The mountains are big. There's a lot going on. She was extremely experienced, but experience has nothing to do with any of it," Kim Brown, who has hiked with Sykes, told the Associated Press.

"She was very careful, very cautious," Brown said. "It's just something that happens out in the mountains. Everybody who goes in the mountains knows this can happen. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't go out, you need to be aware of it."

Experienced hikers know that regardless of the season, higher elevations offer temperatures low enough to be dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), 16,911 deaths in the United States were associated with hypothermia between 1999 to 2011.

And hypothermia is a sneaky condition. With enough exposure to cold temperatures, the body begins to lose heat faster than it can produce it. Eventually, the body’s stored energy is exhausted, resulting in hypothermia. The brain is quickly affected, making it very dangerous because victims often don’t realize what’s going on and thus, don’t take measures to protect themselves from further cold. Most of us think of hypothermia as happening in the frigid chill of a freezing winter, but it can occur even at temperatures above 40 degrees if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.

No one knows for sure the events that led to the death of such an experienced outdoorswoman like Karen Sykes, but it’s a potent reminder to be extra careful out there. And while her death is sad indeed, perhaps some solace comes in Cantwell’s tribute to her: “Karen was an authentic Washington outdoorswoman and it seems she finished her days in a place she loved,” he wrote. “Next time you stop to appreciate the bloom of paintbrush, the scent of an alpine fir, the glint of sun off a glacier, the dust of a trail on a warm July day — think of Karen Sykes.”