The Mountaineers

The Mountaineers

Karen Sykes Shared Her Love for Trails with Thousands

Guidebook author Karen Sykes died over the weekend in Mount Rainier National Park. If you were inspired by her articles and guidebooks, or went on a hike with her, share your memories here.
Lace Thornberg Lace Thornberg June 23, 2014

The hiking community lost a passionate champion for trails this past week when hiking columnist and guidebook author Karen Sykes died in Mount Rainier National Park.

The search effort along the Owyhigh Lakes Trail in Mount Rainier National Park was called off on the afternoon of Saturday, June 21, after searchers found a body believed to be Karen Sykes’s in steep, rugged terrain.

At this time, Karen’s family is considering a public memorial service. Please watch this post for details as those are made available.  

Karen directly introduced hundreds of people to the outdoors through the countless hikes, scrambles, and snowshoeing trips she led for the Mountaineers, and tens of thousands more through her “Trail of the Week” columns for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, her freelance articles for the Seattle Times Outdoors section, and the guidebooks she authored.

“Washington’s hikers and climbers were Karen’s community. She paid tribute to those who came before her and became a leader in her own right. Her depth of knowledge was hard earned, and punctuated with joy,” Mountaineers Books Publisher Helen Cherullo reflected. 

In Hidden Hikes in Western Washington, her first project with Mountaineers Books, Karen shared lesser-known trails that offered solitude.

“Some of these trails go nowhere in particular … in the usual sense of the word … What you will get from exploring these trails is the thrill of discovery, a sense of play, the fun of following ‘clues’ and looking for treasure,” wrote Karen in her introduction to the book.

Her willingness to share tips and tricks earned on the trail, as well as hidden hikes that others would have kept all to themselves, inspired a new generation of hikers.

For her next project with Mountaineers Books, Best Wildflower Hikes, Karen carried a torch that was passed to her by prolific guidebook author Ira Spring. Ira, author of the classic “100 Hikes” series, had been working on this book when he was diagnosed with cancer. When Ira was unable to get out on the trail any longer, Karen stepped in for him. She put her own projects on hold to complete the fieldwork for him so the book would be up-to-date - a credit to his memory. Fellow Northwest icons Art Kruckeberg and Craig Romano joined Karen in completing this work.

“Karen was gracious, strong, and passionate about the outdoors. She was committed to being physically engaged and she was inquisitive—seeing and documenting through words and images the beauty and daily surprises of the wild natural world,” recalls Cherullo.

The Mountaineers and Mountaineers Books send our deepest condolences to her family and close friends and also to the hiking community she inspired, knowing that Karen’s passion for the sharing the joys of the wilderness will live on for generations to come. 

We will remember Karen as playful, knowledgeable and curious, with a boundless sense of wonder. Tell us how she touched your life in the comments section below.

Public Memorial

The Mountaineers are hosting a public memorial for Karen at our Seattle Program Center on Monday, July 14. Read more information about her memorial and please leave your memories of her in the comments below.


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Janelle Walker
Janelle Walker says:
Thu, Jul 24, 2014 8:17 AM

I first read Karen's amazing articles in Seattle Times, she was gifted in her art that was clear. Years later i actually ran into her at Sunrise on the trail after i had seen a bear, i was super pumped! She listened intently to me describe the details, i was so siked! After 10-15 mins she said her name and I was thrilled to meet the famous writter i've read so many articles she had written! I ran into her a few more times at Sunrise of course, then i moved over to nwhiker forum and we continued to comment on each other's trips. Most recently i had the pleasure of speaking with her at Visit Rainier summit and we hoped to hike together. She was so concerned for my safety when we last spoke she said she wanted to take me to this waterfall hike we were chatting about personally and show me the way because it can be sketchy at the bottom. How sweet was that! She grabbed my arm and gave me her card and i had hoped to hike with Karen, not just bump into her on trail. She had so much knowledge and spirit! Unfortunately, that didn't happen. I'm so sorry for the loss to our community. I will think of her when i'm hiking Rainier my fav place. I hope that i'm only so lucky to go out on the mountain, i love so much. Cheers Karen, i'm sad you had to go so early, but we will cherish all you have given us! Your writings, photos will live on for many generations to come!

Susan Chew
Susan Chew says:
Thu, Jul 3, 2014 4:28 PM

In the late 80's, Karen gave a Hiking Seminar for the Mountaineer's for shnooks like me who had never carried a backpack on a trail. On the following week-end, Karen led the first Trail Trip I had ever taken with the Mountaineers, and I loved her for it. The hike was to Ingalls Creek in April, and to this day it remains among my favorite hikes. No views, just a beautiful river walk with so many beautiful things to see (waterfalls, plant life, rushing waters). When she told me I was a "strong hiker", I was overjoyed! No one had ever told me I was physically strong at anything. Among all the hikes, scrambles, and cross-country ski trips I have taken with the Mountaineers, the hike with Karen will always be the one I treasure the most.

Valerie Nelson
Valerie Nelson says:
Fri, Jun 27, 2014 1:44 PM

I am lucky enough to have known Karen since sometime in the 1980's. First trip I remember doing with her (not the first, just the first I remember) was Johnson Medra, my first "MS" ever. I was a relatively new hike leader then, and as was common on all my hikes back then, I paid a lot of attention to other leadership styles.

I learned from Karen that enthusiasm and joy go a long way to making a hike successful: that while a leader needs to be mindful and "in control," control can be with such an easy hand that it seems absent entirely.

Back in those early 80's, Karen was already contributing to hiking websites (which I terribly envied, as I had no computer). We used to "plan" to be the next Ira Spring/Harvey Manning and be the next generation of hiking authors/photographers.

On Mazama Ridge, April and roughly 1991, we competed to take the best snowshoe photo for the upcoming new snowshoe book - but alas, my slide film wasn't developed until the cover contest was over.

I was at Spray Park some years back with Karen and her daughter, in early summer. We'd never seen the Avalanche Lilies so profuse up there. Karen and I were down in the dirt (on the trail, or on rocks if off trail), up close to the flowers, having the time of our lives (early mosquitoes did not faze us - we had FLOWERS to shoot and views to marvel at).

I hadn't hiked with Karen in a number of years, for no particular reason other than "life happens." We had communicated recently, and I was hoping to get together -hiking, of course.

Karen: here's to an afterlife where one always has time and energy to round the next bend, crest the next hill, and plenty of time to stop and smell the flowers (with no biting bugs!).

Thomas Overlin
Thomas Overlin says:
Tue, Jun 24, 2014 7:31 PM

I have know Karen Sykes personally for only 9 months. In that time we have hiked, explored, snow-shoed, gone on photography excursions, laughed and carried on like we had been friends for decades instead of only months.

In that time i found her to be extremely knowledgeable about all things outdoors. Rarely did she not know the name of a flower, or a peak in the distance, what the elevation gain of a particular hike was. I am still amazed at the places she has been over the years. I would ask her about a particular trail and she could describe it in detail, from memory.

She inspired me, she made me laugh with her jokes and antics. She quoted poetry, wrote very moving poetry, was a close confidant i could confide in on personal issues. She was always smiling, always full of questions and answers and suggestions.

I was amazed at her energy and stamina and determination. She out-hiked, out-climbed and outlasted the rest of us. She was indomitable. We had to reign her in at times because she never quit, never gave up, while the rest of us (mere mortals) needed food, rest and water.

Her loss is tragic. She will be missed greatly by all who knew and loved her, but her spirit and gentleness and warmth, her love of the outdoors will live on in the ones whose lives she touched, either directly or indirectly.

This world needs more people like Karen, someone who can inspire people to get off their couch, away from their computer games, away from the television, away from the comforts of home and the rut of everyday life. Get out and see what the world has to offer, get your children outdoors and into the wilderness, to experience and learn. That would be the lesson i learned from Karen - get out there and do it! See what must be seen, experience all nature has to offer.

I am a very fortunate man to have known Karen. People like her come along rarely in a lifetime. She was a treasure. Rest well, Karen, and thank you for all you have done for me and all who know of you.

Jena Gilman
Jena Gilman says:
Tue, Jun 24, 2014 10:08 AM

Karen was a great individual. I never had the honor to hike with her but I did meet her.
One note on the tradition of great guidebook authors...if you don't give credit to Harvey Manning for the 100 Hikes series, you are dismissing one of the greatest guidebook authors in living memory.

David Cummings
David Cummings says:
Mon, Jun 23, 2014 5:42 PM

I won't ever forget her smile and passion fot the outdoors. She always had an incredible energy about her.