Windsor wife says Trinity Alps search revealed fate of her missing husband

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Carrie Morris said she sensed her husband was gone the day after he disappeared on a hike in the Trinity Alps in the summer of 2014.

Morris, 57, rushed from her home in Windsor and arrived in the area on Aug. 3, as the search for Steve Morris, her husband of 36 years, was ramping up.

Surrounded by an evergreen forest at the search command center in the Trinity County hamlet of Coffee Creek, Morris said she attempted to sense the presence of her soulmate and father to their one child.

“There was nothing. Void,” she said. “It was powerful.”

The official search for Steve Morris was called off after five days, with no clear idea of what happened to him on the slopes of 7,342-foot Billy’s Peak, located above Stoddard Lake in the rugged Trinity County backcountry.

But Carrie Morris, bolstered by a cadre of about 100 friends, fellow church members and an array of strangers, including a helicopter pilot, professional trackers and a forensic anthropologist, persevered in a search that continued for the rest of the year, over the winter and through the spring of 2015.

The final answer came in May of that year, when the last in a series of tests — a mass spectrometer analysis — confirmed that hair and tissue found in a ravine 2 miles from the mountain were human. No DNA was found to link it to Steve Morris, but his widow took it as a final answer.

“I want people to know, after all their prayers and support, we’ve had closure,” she said. “I know what it feels like. I think it’s a good thing.”

Carrie Morris waited until this week to make the finding public on her blog “Letters From the Land of Limbo.” The approval of a death certificate on Feb. 9, based on a Sonoma County Superior Court finding, prompted that step.

A petite woman with curly blond hair, Morris sat in the sun on a bench in the Windsor Town Green and recounted her past ordeal, and reflected on life going forward.

“Oh, I do (miss him),” she said. Odd things trigger the pain: a smell, a familiar song, or a household breakdown, the latter because Steve Morris was a master handyman.

“It’s often surprising when those sneaker waves hit you,” she said.

Carrie and her daughter Ellie, 17, have had to learn how to maintain a 90-gallon saltwater aquarium, which was Steve Morris’ pride and joy, that dominates the living room.

“It feels like an amputation,” said Morris, a marriage and family therapist for 25 years. “A significant part of you that you learn to get by without.” The couple married when she was 19 and “grew up together,” Morris said.

Annual camping trip

At the time of his disappearance, Steve Morris, 59, an avid hiker for 40 years, was on an annual camping trip with men from the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Rosa. He separated from another man as they were descending from Billy’s Peak on a hot August day and was never seen again.

Official search and rescue teams from as far away as Southern California combed the rugged terrain for five days before the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office called it off. The volunteer search effort continued, with a boost from Jim Higgins, a helicopter pilot from Chico who declined compensation.

Flying low over the area where Morris was thought to have headed, Higgins spotted a slide of loosened rock that he felt marked Morris’ fall, ending at a spot where searchers said they found footprints that matched the size 9 Keen boots he was wearing.

The search team concluded that Morris had fallen 30 to 40 feet from a granite cliff on the mountain, then tumbled an additional 15 feet, displacing rocks and leaving impressions in the dirt.

Trackers determined they were following the trail of a lone person in a wild area, inhabited by bears, mountain lions and rattlesnakes, where a person would not choose to hike alone, and that the walker’s gait indicated an injury to his upper left torso, Morris said.

Path zigzagged

Jo Peterson, a professional tracker from Siskiyou County, joined the search about 50 days after Morris disappeared and traced his progress for more than a mile. His downhill path zigzagged as he tried to make his way past boulders and around manzanita thickets up to 12 feet tall, some riddled by bear tunnels.

His tracks had been eroded by wind and rain, but Peterson, a 22-year veteran tracker, said she looked for footprints, crushed vegetation and broken twigs — things trackers refer to as “sign.”

“I followed him step by step,” she said.

Trackers would take an hour or two to cover 25 feet, Morris said.

Near the end of 2014, the scant remains were located in the ravine, and were subsequently confirmed as human by a cadaver dog and two laboratory tests. Steve Morris had made his way more than 2 miles to the spot, which was about one-quarter mile from a logging road where he would have been readily found, his widow said.

No one knows how long he had survived, nor if that was his final resting point.

The volunteer search continued sporadically over the winter and resumed in the spring in hopes of finding bones that would yield DNA, the “golden ring” they were seeking, Morris said. A human body in such country would be torn apart by animals in a matter of days and the bones scattered for miles, she was told.

Dr. Arpad Vass, a forensic anthropologist who worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 20 years, agreed to test the remains with a mass spectrometer, which determined they were decomposing human tissue. Morris received Vass’ email in May 2015 and decided to call off the search.

Another factor, she said, was that volunteers on the last of 21 expeditions encountered two bears and five rattlesnakes.

Her faith ‘kept her alive’

Anna Hurty of Oakland, Carrie’s older sister who was with her from the beginning of the search, marveled at Morris’ endurance. “Her faith is what kept her alive,” said Hurty, 60, recalling that Morris prayed with a friend on the telephone every morning they were engaged in the search.

The hardest time, Hurty said, came when freezing winter weather interrupted the active days of the search, forcing “a reckoning of the reality of Steve’s death and the very distinct possibility we might not find anything.”

Her sister is stronger for the experience, resolved to be a single mother to Ellie, following the example of her own divorced mother who raised three daughters, Hurty said.

Morris said she believes her husband’s faith sustained him in his final days, giving him comfort “that he wasn’t absolutely alone.”

Representatives of the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office were not available Thursday or Friday to discuss the case.

The death certificate was supposed to make Morris eligible for Social Security benefits and a life insurance payment, but the insurance company still has not approved her claim, she said.

Final trip planned

She intends to make only one more trip to the Trinity Alps: to place a metal plate on the rock where her husband’s remains were found.

In her blog, Carrie Morris acknowledged the help from people who started out as strangers and became lifelong friends during her ordeal.

“They have been as compassionate to us as ‘God with skin on’ throughout this challenging process,” she said. “Because of them, we not only have closure, but I can say we have found as much healing as pain in our story.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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