WALLA WALLA - The death of a local boy who got lost while on a cross-country ski trip has highlighted the need for basic training and the right equipment when tackling the wilderness in winter.
On Thursday, Union County Sheriff Capt. Craig Ward said he believed 13-year-old Nathan Cain of Walla Walla died of hypothermia. Ward said absent of injuries that would describe an animal attack or something sustained in a fall, Cain more than likely died from cold on Feb. 27 as night temperatures dipped into the 20s or lower.
"Quite frankly, a finding of hypothermia is largely a process of elimination," he said. "Every indication points to that."
Ward said the onset of hypothermia may explain why Nathan had food, water and matches on him when he was found.
Nathan, his father and two of his father's friends traveled to the Andies Prairie Sno-Park near Tollgate on Feb. 27 to spend the early afternoon cross-country skiing. Jim Cain, Nathan's father, told the Oregonian newspaper Monday that he gave Nathan permission to try a hilly part off the trail on his own about 1:30 p.m., while he and his friends took a loop in the trail. The goal was to meet where their two paths would intersect.
When Nathan didn't arrive, Jim Cain said he looked for his son until one of his skis broke. A friend called 911, and search and rescue crews were on the mountain by about 5 p.m.
Dozens of volunteers searched through the night and through Feb. 28, with the search concluding Monday when Nathan's body was found about 11:40 a.m. He was less than two miles from where he was last seen, in a heavily timbered gully.
Ward said Nathan skied part of the way, but had to remove the skis after his right boot delaminated. The 5-foot-1-inch boy then hiked through snow that was as much as 41/2 feet deep.
Clear, sunny skies and temperatures reaching into the 40s may have been part of the draw to go skiing that day. It may be why Nathan arrived wearing jeans and two sweatshirts. Ward said Nathan's clothing was soaked through.
"He was not just damp, he was wet," he said.
Ward said basic survival equipment should include two ways to start a fire, a way to rig a shelter and a way to keep warm.
"What you really need to do is be able to stay warm," he said, naming wool and polypropylene as common materials that retain warmth even when wet.
Some basic training would also be key. Ward said he would advise children who may get lost in the woods to stay where they are.
"It's easy to get turned around," Ward said. "This is hilly terrain that is pretty well wooded as well. Some of the searchers had difficulty staying on the trail."
On Monday, more than 100 people had arrived at the mountain to help search. Ward cautioned people who have good intentions on the risks they put themselves in when tackling a search without proper training.
Too many people can add tracks to the search area, and also introduce new scents that can throw off rescue dogs. He said search-and-rescue crews undergo hours of training.
"Those resources have to be intelligently deployed to achieve the desired effect," he said.