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A Cold and Deadly Place

A Cold and Deadly Place

Three summers ago, a hiker vanished on the Yukon's Donjek Route. When authorities found his remains, Northerners kept searching for a deeper truth.
By Eva Holland
Nov 06
From the October/November 2014 Issue

The searchers did their grim work under a bright late-May sun. Spread out in a line, arm’s-length apart, they worked their way quadrant by quadrant across a grid laid out with flagging tape, eyes on the ground. Every so often one of them would spot something: a fragment of bone, or a scrap of fabric. Then they’d call it in, flag it, and move on in a line while the Mounties and a representative from the Coroner’s office moved in to process the find.

Around them, the wide open alpine of Hoge Pass sloped down into a series of rocky gullies and steep scree slopes, the fraught path down to Hoge Creek and, eventually, the Donjek River. This was a section of the Donjek Route, a demanding 10-day horseshoe of a hike that dips into and then out of the Yukon’s Kluane National Park. Hoge Pass was just inside the park boundary, a day and a half or perhaps two days into the trek. It’s a gorgeous spot—on a clear day, there are big views of the glacier-wrapped mountains of the massive Kluane icefield before you descend to the creek bed—and for the searchers, pulling 10, 12, 14-hour days, the weather could not have been better. The sun shone, warming their hours on the grid, but winter was only just receding—they weren’t hampered by much new spring growth, or assaulted by clouds of mosquitoes.

Mountain sheep grazed on the steep slopes above them, and a lone grizzly bear or moose occasionally ranged into view. The disconnect between their work and their surroundings was jarring: they were, as one of them put it later, in “one of the most beautiful places in the country.” And they were gathering human remains.

The search went on for three days, covering a square kilometre of mountain terrain, the searchers working their way carefully over every foot of ground. They didn’t want to leave anything behind.

*                      *                      *

Once a week, every summer, a German airline called Condor lands a Boeing 767 on the tarmac at Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport. It’s a direct flight from Frankfurt—an anomaly in a territory without direct air links to either Montreal or Toronto, Canada’s two biggest cities. The plane disgorges German tourists eager to explore the Yukon’s rugged, unpeopled wilderness, and sometimes—especially early and late in the season, when prices drop to their lowest—it carries vacationing Yukoners to Europe on its return.

On June 8, 2011, a young man named Till Moritz Gerull stepped off the Condor plane and onto Canadian soil. Gerull was 22, blond-haired and baby-faced. The RCMP would later report that his intention, upon his arrival, was to “walk through the forests of Canada”—a statement that seemed strikingly naïve, with its suggestion of easy strolling under a leafy canopy, but whose exact origins are no longer clear. It lacks the stiff formality of official police language. Were the police quoting Gerull directly? Today, the RCMP can’t say for sure.

They also can’t say for sure what happened next. Gerull never boarded his return flight to Germany, on June 30, and he never contacted his family to explain why. After he left the Whitehorse airport his trail went cold. For nearly a year, according to the Gerull family, Till was not formally declared missing. Back in Germany, his rent was still being paid out of his account, and the German police made no move to find him.

"He was not suicidal. We would like to believe that he lives and works in Canada. He had not told us of his intentions. No one knows why he did this."

Finally, in May 2012, the money ran out and the German police took action. The flight to Whitehorse was discovered, along with the unused return ticket. The RCMP opened an investigation, and the story made national news in Canada. Reporters—and the inevitable online commenters on their stories—were quick to pick up on the innocent idealism suggested in that mystery phrase. Gerull was treated as a Christopher McCandless type—the young man whose story is told in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, and the movie of the same name, who starved to death near the boundary of Denali National Park and who is regarded, in some circles, as having committed a kind of suicide-by-wilderness.

The Gerull family put up a website designed to allow Till to sign in privately and let them know he was okay. The site, headlined “Where Are You, Till?” and given the tag line “You do not want to be found, maybe you can find us,” included links to news stories, a couple of websites devoted to finding missing persons, and a quick summary of the case.

It also offered a brief editorial. “We, his friends and relatives, do not believe that he naively went into the wilderness, as it is represented in the Canadian press,” the site read. “There is no evidence of this, and he was not suicidal. We would like to believe that he lives and works in Canada. He had not told us of his intentions. No one knows why he did this. We only know that he was not happy in Germany. In 2010 he visited Canada as a tourist and was inspired by the country.”

It was a comforting vision for a confused, distraught family: Till, safe in Canada, maybe working in a coffee shop in Banff or Whistler alongside a platoon of Australians—inexplicably shutting them out, but happy. The Gerulls were able to hold on to that hope for nearly two more years.

*                      *                      * 

It was late in the season to be travelling the Donjek Route. By the time the hikers reached Hoge Creek on September 23, 2013, the leaves on the trees would have long since fallen to the ground, and above treeline, the tough ground plants of the alpine would have turned red, orange, yellow, and finally a winter brown. There would have been fresh snow on the peaks and covering the glaciers, and probably dusting the trail some nights, too. Maybe the hikers spotted the backpack—where others passing by over the years must have missed it—because it stood out in the white powder, or because it had usually been hidden by summer greenery.

The hikers reported the abandoned pack to Parks Canada staff, who passed the word along to the RCMP. The mystery bag, still fully loaded with good-quality gear and food, was complete with ID: it belonged to Till Moritz Gerull.

With full-blown winter looming, it was too late and risky to launch a comprehensive search, so the authorities decided to hold off until spring. There was no rush—no one expected, more than two years later, to find Gerull alive. 

*                      *                      *

Picture Till Gerull on the day of his arrival at the Whitehorse airport. He didn’t leave a trail of credit card payments, so maybe he grabbed a cab and paid cash, or maybe he walked along the dusty airport trail and down the metal staircase that descends the clay cliffs to Black Street, downtown, carrying his backpack the way plenty of budget travellers do. The Condor flight lands in the afternoon: plenty of time to set up his tent for a night at the Robert Service Campground, along the Yukon River on the edge of downtown, and then stock up on some groceries for his hike and perhaps a few odds and ends at Coast Mountain Sports. Investigators were able to place him at the campground for that one night, but after that—until the pack was found—he vanished. Let’s assume he stuck out a thumb and hitched his way three hours north on the Alaska Highway, to the small community of Burwash Landing, on the shore of Kluane Lake.

The trailhead for the Donjek Route is just a few kilometres north of Burwash, where the Alaska Highway crosses the Duke River. Just past the bridge, hikers take a lefthand turn onto a rough, hilly dirt track with weeds and grass growing high down the middle of it—more of a glorified ATV trail than a proper road. Chances are Gerull walked this last stretch to the parking area, unless an especially generous stranger with a high-clearance vehicle and four-wheel drive picked him up.

It’s a few kilometres down this beat-up road to Horse Camp, an open area with a small collection of old cabins—a ready campsite for a late-night arrival. A dry, rocky streambed empties into the Duke River here, and only the toughest vehicles carry on any further. Gerull might have seen a parked car or two at the site, although it was still early in the year for an attempt on the Donjek.

"Weather conditions, especially at higher elevations, may change dramatically. You must rely on your own skills and discretion when choosing your route. Self-reliance is essential.”

Maybe he camped here, then hit the trail fresh the next morning, or maybe, with the endless daylight, he decided to put a few kilometres behind him. From the streambed, an old mining road climbs the hill above the river, forking a couple of times before rising above treeline—within an hour or two, if the day was clear, Gerull would have seen snowcapped mountains appearing around him, the tree cover dropping away behind. The trail, framed by fireweed and tall grass, winds through the subalpine between small ponds and lakes, crossing one broad, shallow creek—another obvious camping spot. It’s easy walking after that first long climb, just occasional ups and downs, for 10, 15 kilometres. Then the more treacherous hike begins. 

*                      *                      *

In Parks Canada terminology, a “route” is distinct from a “trail.” A trail implies something tangible, a path or a sequence of cairns or something relatively clear to follow; a route is more of a suggestion, a description of a journey that others have taken before.

Here’s what Parks Canada has to say about the Donjek Route:

“A route is not a trail. Routes are not marked with signs or maintained in any manner. The route described here is only a suggestion that may help guide you on your trip. It describes only one of many options for hiking to the Donjek Glacier. Wilderness travel experience is essential, including excellent route finding skills, map and compass skills, and creek/river crossing skills. Some hazards hikers may encounter on this route are high and fast rivers and creeks, rock fall, difficult terrain, inclement weather and wildlife encounters. Changes such as creek and river levels, weather, bear sightings, may require hikers to vary their route considerably. Weather conditions, especially at higher elevations, may change dramatically. You must rely on your own skills and discretion when choosing your route. Self-reliance is essential.”

When you consider its combination of length, difficulty, and isolation, the Donjek Route is a strong contender for the toughest established hike in the Yukon. But for that first day, it’s deceptively easy: follow an ATV trail and enjoy the views. Then, after 15 kilometres of clear-cut trail, hikers have to leave the old road behind and cut across the Burwash Uplands, a rolling stretch of open tundra that rises above 1,600 metres before eventually tumbling down to Burwash Creek.

It’s a miserable stretch of ground to cover. What looks from a distance like an open meadow is often more of a bog: dark mucky water lying in shallow channels between fat hummocks of grass that twist and roll beneath your feet. False summits line up one behind the other, so that you reach the crest of one slow hill only to see the next appear ahead. Finally, you reach a long grassy slope that drops to the wide gravel creekbed below, and you climb down and then follow the creek upstream as the mountains narrow around you, crossing over the official national park boundary as you go.

Just past the boundary, there’s a locked warden’s cabin sitting on the hill above the creek, its metal chimney glinting in the sun—the open area around it forms another popular campsite. Chances are, Gerull pitched his tent at this spot on his second, or third, night out from Whitehorse.

From here, the grassy slopes fall away and the creek funnels through a rocky canyon that leads the way up to Hoge Pass. 

*                      *                      *

The searchers began training in early 2014. The search, planned for soon after the snow vanished from the trail, would be the largest-scale recovery effort ever attempted in the Yukon. There were nearly two dozen volunteers from Whitehorse search-and-rescue and Kluane search-and-rescue, supplemented by staff from Parks Canada, an archeologist who worked with the Coroner’s office, and the RCMP.

Though no one could say so officially, they all knew what they were looking for: remnants of a body to go with the backpack, human remains that had been waiting in Kluane for almost three years. Parks Canada closed the Donjek Route before the work began.

They gathered on May 22, a Thursday, and were flown in to their target area on Friday. They searched all weekend, gathering the scattered pieces of evidence. There was, they observed, not as much left as you might expect.

After they were through, the coroner went to work, comparing the recovered evidence to a DNA sample that had been provided by the Gerull family back when Till was first declared missing. On June 19, Chief Coroner Kirsten MacDonald confirmed what everyone had long since assumed: the remains, like the pack, belonged to Till Moritz Gerull.

So what happened on the Donjek Route in mid-June of 2011? Based on what was left after three years of wind, weather and scavengers, the Coroner was unable to determine cause of death. The Gerull family, their hopes ruined, declined to comment for this story, preferring to grieve and wonder about their son’s fate in private.

In Whitehorse, people speculated about a bear attack, or a catastrophic fall. (Although with the help of local carnivore biologists, Chief Coroner MacDonald has been able to rule out death by grizzly—leaving a constellation of other possibilities.) This writer, after a bout of hypothermia in a Yukon summer a few years back, bet on exposure creeping in; another Whitehorse resident who’d recently hiked the Donjek figured on a fall. Others murmured about Christopher McCandless, about half-baked notions of living off the land, about suicide. Maybe, they said, Gerull had never intended to board that flight home. Lacking even enough facts to build a credible rumour, Yukoners projected their own fears, their own perceptions and judgments of a young outsider seeking the wild.

The sad, staid reality of most deaths in the Northern wilderness, though, is they lack the drama of a bear attack or a radical lifestyle change gone awry. Gerull’s fate needn’t have resulted from a death wish, extreme adventure, or a major, fatal error. Most often, in the Yukon, people die from hypothermia. They get wet, or cold, and their brains and bodies begin to shut down before they even realize they’re in trouble. It can happen fast or slow, and it can happen even on a sunny day in mid-summer.

Could Gerull’s lonely death have been prevented? Maybe. He didn’t register with Parks Canada—a requirement, and one he’d complied with when he visited the Donjek area in 2010—and although he was an experienced hiker he broke the first rule of wilderness survival: he didn’t, it seems, tell anyone where he was going. At the very least, his family could have been spared three years of waiting for news. But he was only two days into a 10-day trek when he fell, or fell ill, or suffered whatever he suffered. Even if anyone had known to go looking when he didn’t emerge from the Donjek Route on schedule, eight days later, odds are they would have been too late to save him. Even a perfectly executed hike deep into the backcountry carries inherent risks.

It’s always tempting to try to wring lessons or insights from a death in the wilderness: about the deadly, seductive lure of the big lonely North, about hubris, about our need to fling ourselves into challenges, to test ourselves against the wild. But sometimes the moral of the story is a more prosaic one. In this case, there’s a practical takeaway—tell someone where you’re going—and a more existential one: there are no guarantees, in the wild or anywhere else life takes us.

The investigation into the death of Till Moritz Gerull remains open.