A bastard search is a search and rescue that’s performed, with a subject, (the bastard), who really isn’t in the search area at all. It comes from the phrase “The bastard was somewhere else all along”.

I’ve been on several searches of various sizes and forms, none of which were officially bastard searches. The largest and most awful, and the last one I was on, was, possibly a bastard search, because we never found him.

Bastard searches, and regular search and rescues, usually start out as duncehead expeditions. I have been on several, or perhaps many of these.


The worst search I participated in was the last. I was working at Olympic National Park, leading snowshoe walks for visitors – ranging from very whiny girl scout leaders (far whinier than their charges, poor kids) to fabulous Floridians who had never been in the snow before, and who thought like I was a fount of fabulous information. And told me so.

Two young German exchange students had hiked up into the snow, in a place called Deer Park. (I’ve fiddled with some of these names, so don’t go and look on a map and try to find the place. It’ll be a bastard search.) They’d gone about three miles, just a day hike, in jeans and boots. Then, they apparently got into a fight.

One of the fellas turned around, the other, in a fit of rage, kept hiking up. His buddy came to us when his friend didn’t turn up by dark.

On this search, I had the fancy title of Situation Unit Leader (See Incident Command System.) This was a spiffy way of saying I interviewed all the searchers when they came in, and drew pretty maps with sharpies and acetate of where they’d been.

By the next day, we had 60 rescuers, several helicopters, a pod of Newfoundland rescue dogs, and every other bell and whistle that a search team can come up with. I sat in on every debrief, trying to keep a mapped record of where everyone had been.


That was the end of the first day.

That night, it snowed.

The second day, things got quieter. As the searchers trickled in, they looked miserable. They had been scouring the woods, in mixed rain and snow. And they were VERY well-prepared. Goretex and skis and snowshoes, always in teams of two or more, with hot cocoa and cute newfie dogs and a lot of backcountry experience. And they were miserable. Wet and cold, and shaking their heads.


That was the end of the second day.



I didn’t sleep much that night. It snowed again.


The third day, we called off the ground crews, because so much snow had piled up that they were in danger of being caught in avalanches. The helicopters flew. The dogs, and their somewhat less hearty owners, went home.


The fourth day, we called off the search. I was there when the chief ranger, whom I was totally afraid of, talked to the young man’s parents.

To this day, we have no idea if it was a bastard search or not. He could have hiked out, changed his name, and be living happily in Cabo San Lucas. More likely, ravens have picked over his bones for many years.

The Olympic mountains are NOT Germany. I’ve skied in both, and once actually skied from Germany into Switzerland, over a mountaintop. Then I took a train back to my hotel, sipping schnapps. There are cute little round markers sticking up from the snow everywhere, and every so often a hut with buxom and well-fed pink-cheeked Swiss girls, and gnarly old German men who can ski better on a pair of 50 year old cross-country skis than you can on the latest high-tech pair of Rossignols. And they will sell you hot mulled wine and let you peep down their cleavage. (The Swiss girls, not the old guys.)

The Olympic National Park is called a wilderness park for good reason. It has ‘the appearance of being relatively untrammeled by man’. And is relatively untrammeled. Or to be more accurate, very untrammeled. There is nothing out there of humanity, especially in the winter. No trails. No signs. No huts, no tents, no people, and certainly no pink-cheeked Swiss girls.

This guy, in his ignorance, hiked up into what is possibly one of the wildest places in the lower 48 states, certainly the wildest place in Washington State. My belief is that he ended up going over a ridge, and came down in the Bogachiel River, the wildest of the rivers in the park. And what he found? Cold. And snow. And nothing else. There is no trail in the upper Bogachiel.

He broke ALL the rules. He had no idea what he was getting into. No pack, no food, no rain gear, no map, no tent, nothing. In this ice-coated, desolate, beautiful, dangerous place.

Once a search has gone from being a live search to a cadaver search, it’s a whole new ball of wax. Looking for a person who is probably alive is hard work, but very rewarding. I mean, returning a lost kid to her mom was the reason that we all got involved in search and rescue in the first place. That, and a love of the wild places we got to explore.


I remember crying, as I talked to the head of the search, about how hard it was to keep searching after the rat bastard had barely any chance of being alive. I know several people who have been seriously lost in a wilderness, and survived. One of them lost several toes. Another lost both feet. He's a hot climber to this day, but you think about how much you value your fingers and toes.

So go back and read the rules of what constitutes a duncehead expedition, and then think about the bastard search. Then think about letting someone know next time you go off on a day hike.

I’ll bet the bastard is still out there. But the ravens have whispered over his bones.

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