Gay hiking

Northern California family who died while hiking were killed by heat exposure: NPR

A helicopter flies over a remote area northeast of the town of Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday August 18. According to the Mariposa County Sheriff‘s Office, the area is believed to be where a family and their dog were found dead.

Craig Kohlruss/AP


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Craig Kohlruss/AP


A helicopter flies over a remote area northeast of the town of Mariposa, Calif., on Wednesday August 18. According to the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office, the area is believed to be where a family and their dog were found dead.

Craig Kohlruss/AP

A Northern California family found mysteriously dead in August on a hiking trail in the Sierra likely died of a combination of hyperthermia and dehydration, the local sheriff who led the investigation said Thursday.

The news highlights a case that has baffled investigators and the public and raised new questions about outdoor recreational activities at a time of rising temperatures and climate-fueled extreme weather.

“This is a real tragedy,” Mariposa County Sheriff-Coroner Jeremy Briese said at a news conference Thursday. “An unfortunate and tragic event due to the weather.”

The married couple, Jonathan Gerrish and Ellen Chung, along with their one-year-old daughter, Miju, and the family dog, Oski, were all found dead, inexplicably, on August 17 on a steep path about 2.5 km from where they had parked their car. The family had hiked along the Hites Cove Trail in the Sierra National Forest near the Merced River. They were reported missing by friends.

Officials have been baffled for weeks as to what killed the family

It was extremely hot that day with local temperatures reaching around 107 to 109 degrees, investigators said. The hiking trail included steep semi-difficult terrain. Briese said the family had an 85-ounce water backpack with snacks and a bottle containing formula. The water bladder was empty when the bodies were found, he said.

It’s a rare event that could become more routine, experts warn, given rising temperatures due to human-induced climate change. Several western states reported record heat this summer. Record-breaking “heat domes” hit Oregon and Washington, killing at least 100 people, but likely many more. In Portland, Oregon, temperatures hit 108, 112 and 116 degrees for three straight days in June.

Hyperthermia, often referred to as “heat stroke”, results from abnormally high body temperature, usually due to exposure and overexertion. The body is unable to regulate its temperature and cool itself. In some cases, it can damage a person’s heart, brain, lungs and other vital organs and cause injury or death.

For weeks, police and national forest investigators were baffled as to what had killed the family. They had explored and ruled out a range of possibilities, including lightning, potentially poisonous gases from abandoned mines, suicide, weapons and foul play.

Friends say the couple, recently relocated from San Francisco to the former gold rush western town of Mariposa, were relatively experienced hikers on a day trip with their baby and their dog.

A leading theory previously was that exposure to water contaminated with toxic algal blooms may have been a major factor. Water not far from the trail then tested positive for toxic algae, including anatoxin-a, also known as very rapid death factor (VFDF).

The deaths caused ‘indescribable pain’

Briese addressed this Thursday.

“We have no evidence that Jonathan, Ellen or Miju ingested this water,” he said. “And we also know that there have been no reported anatoxin-a-related human deaths.”

The sheriff said toxicology and coroner’s reports supported his inquest findings that the family of three died from heat stress. The dog’s cause of death has not been determined, although Briese said he suspects the heat was also the main factor.

In the statement read by the sheriff’s deputy, family and friends said the deaths caused “indescribable pain”.

“Our hearts will never forget the good life of Jonathan, Ellen, Miju and of course, Oski,” the statement read. “They will stay with us wherever we go and in everything we do. In the future, when we sit under the trees listening to the wind blowing through the branches, we will hear them and remember them.”