Smith: Three years later, missing Sebastopol hiker Riley Zickel's family gets closure

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Sebastopol dad Robin Zickel is back home after a terribly tough and painful but also settling trip to Oregon.

Zickel made the drive because earlier this week searchers went to valiant lengths to recover from a treacherous mountain slope the remains of his son, who’d been missing for just more than three years.

An exuberant and nimble backpacker, 21-year-old Riley Zickel had on July 27, 2016, ventured alone into the Mount Jefferson Wilderness east of Salem.

Riley had graduated from Sebastopol’s Analy High School and was studying chemistry and music at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.

During a summertime break in 2016, he readied his backpack and drove his silver Mazda SUV from Portland to Breitenbush Lake Road and a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail near glacier- capped, 10,497-foot Mount Jefferson. He intended to hike and to camp one night, then return to his car and drive to Seattle to meet a friend.

When Riley failed to appear in Seattle, a search was mounted. Ultimately, thousands of dollars were donated to the effort and more than 340 people put in more than 5,000 hours combing about 350 acres of heavily forested, often starkly precipitous and snow-blanketed Willamette National Forest wilderness.

The searchers included some of Riley’s friends and his half-brother and frequent hiking buddy, Noah Churma. The elevation of the search, which was joined by several Oregon sheriff’s departments and other public agencies, ranged from about 5,000 to 7,500 feet above sea level.

Oregon Army National Guard helicopters and a Cessna with the Civil Air Patrol scoured the wilderness from above.

The search continued for a week and ended with no sign of Riley. His father and his mother, Erin Zickel, held a memorial service for him in the Bloomfield area of west Sonoma County in October of 2016.

“We’re coping,” his mom said at the time. “The truth of it is he was only 21. But it’s kind of a beautiful story in the sense that he died doing something he loved so much more than anything in the world, and now he is literally part of the mountain.”

About three weeks ago, climbers reported to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office that they’d spotted what they believed were Riley Zickel’s remains on a glacier on Mount Jefferson.

On Tuesday, a team from the county’s Search and Rescue squad, Corvallis Mountain Rescue, the Civil Air Patrol and U.S. Forest Service went to the area of the reported discovery.

Informed of the possible development in the search for his son, Robin Zickel headed once again for Oregon.

He said the area in which the hikers found human remains couldn’t have been searched well three years ago. “It’s in very rockslide-prone terrain,” he said.

He noted, too, that his son’s backpacking clothes and gear blended with the terrain, making the search in 2016 more difficult.

Robin Zickel was at a trailhead Tuesday when members of the recovery team emerged from the Mount Jefferson Wilderness Area with the remains. Though he has no doubt that they are Riley’s, he knows that making a positive identification through DNA and other tests will take time.

Zickel has only praise for the professional and volunteer search-team members who pulled out the stops in 2016 and also those who, this week, placed themselves in peril from sheer terrain, loose rock and potential avalanches to recover his son’s remains.

He singled out Marion County Sheriff’s Sgt. Shane Burnham for the focus and professionalism he brought to the search for Riley three years ago. Burnham, who acted as incident commander in 2016, and his team of deputies and Search and Rescue volunteers “never gave up,” Robin Zickel said. “They were absolutely devoted to seeing this through to the end.”

I tried but was unable to contact Sgt. Burnham. The sheriff of Marion County, Joe Kast, said in a statement on Tuesday, “We are grateful to the many organizations that helped make today’s recovery of Mr. Zickel possible.

“Without their contributions, we would not have been able to bring closure to the Zickel family after these three long years.”

The Zickel family will return Riley’s remains to Sonoma County once the testing is done and they are released by Marion County authorities.

Riley’s dad said Wednesday on his drive home from Oregon, “I believe that when you suffer a loss, you learn to live with it. You never get over it, but you learn to live with it.”

But over the past three years, Robin Zickel added, “I was not able to learn to live with not knowing what happened.”

So knowing, as painful as it is, is better.


ON THE WALL: Several people you might know, or almost certainly know of, will be in Sebastopol on Saturday for the dedication of their names on the town’s Living Peace Wall.

This makes five years that advocates of peace and justice both living and dead, local and international, are honored as inductees to the granite wall on a lawn near Rialto Cinemas and the Sebastopol Town Plaza.

A public celebration at 11 a.m. Saturday on the Plaza will honor former member of Congress Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma, Sebastopol music man and activist Jim Corbett, Sonoma County Peace & Justice Center pioneer Dr. Earl Herr of Petaluma and Tula Jaffe of Sebastopol, a veteran advocate of social justice who died last November at 79.

Among the names already on the wall, created by Sebastopol’s Michael Gillotti, are Dolores Huerta, Daniel Ellsberg, Therese Mughannam, Alicia Sanchez, Holly Near, Dee and Don Schilling, Barry Ponneck, George Houser, Jimmy Carter, Lucy Forest and Nelson Mandela.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707- 521-5211 and

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