Dying in Oregon

James Kim is not the only person to die in the snow in Oregon. He’s just the one with the most media friends. On CNET’s News.com site, where his co-workers worked to post the latest and most exhaustive news regarding Kim and his missing family and the subsequent discovery of his wife and children (safe) and him (dead of exposure), a number of readers attempted to comment on what can be learned from Kim’s death. They were attacked quite enthusiastically by those who believed the comments on the News.com site should be used for condolences and recollections. Personally, I respected their wishes. But now, on my blog, I wish to register the issues of import to those with no personal connection with the Kims.

I have not followed the story religiously, though I have followed it, hoping and really almost expecting James Kim and his family would be alright. So, if I get a fact wrong, by all means correct me. I think the main thrust of my comments will remain valid, though.

James Kim and his family went off the main road in the snow in an Oregon wilderness area, using an online map, with no local help, ignoring warning signs, carrying a minimum of supplies, in a two-wheel drive station wagon without four-wheel drive, with no familiarity with the area. James Kim left his family to try to find help, marking his route by throwing away pieces of clothing. He lacked a topographical map, was unfamiliar with the area, inexperienced with wilderness survival, and died of exposure while the rest of his family was found.

Here’s what should be learned from the death of James Kim, and from the loss and death of others in Oregon in the last year and in the years before.

  • If it is in Oregon and it has snow on it, it can kill you.
  • If you are not from here, don’t go off main roads in any weather.
  • Stop and ask local residents for directions and road conditions.
  • If you are not used to driving on mountains, or in the wilderness, or in snow, don’t.
  • Carry maps.
  • If you are relying on online mapping services, don’t.
  • Carry proper clothing and lots of it.
  • Carry excessive amounts of food and water.
  • Carry materials to communicate and signal.
  • Your cell phone won’t work.
  • If you’re stranded, and don’t know the area, stay with your vehicle.

People who have gotten lost and risked, or lost, life and limb this year alone include the Hill-Stivers family, lost for 17 days in the same part of the state where Kim lost his life; Samuel Boehlke, an eight year old lost and presumed dead on Crater Lake; Tony Douglas and Shawn Shoberg, lost in Marion County; Roger and Brian Rouse, lost (Roger died) snowmobiling near Mt. Bachelor; and, the latest on the list, Kelly James, Brian Hall and Jerry Cooke, lost on Mt. Hood since December 7.

Some visitors to Oregon come to the state equipped with a fatal confidence. Some Oregonians mistake the Kalmiopsis Wilderness for their housing development in Beaverton. Oregon is wilderness with some towns in it. It’s not San Francisco. It’s not Los Angeles. It’s not Chicago. It’s not New York. It’s also not 2006. It may as well be the Pleistocene. Email won’t save you when you fall down a cliff. We have mountains, snow, ravines, rivers, floods, bears, mountain lions, breakers, desert and marsh. Wilderness is not extinct. And it can kill you.

Again, what have we learned from James Kim’s death? Before you come to Oregon:

  • Research.
  • Pack.
  • Double-check.
  • Presume the worst.

The wilderness will never change and is never to blame. It’s all on you.


For more information on winter survival, consult this Outdoor Life guide.


  1. pril says:

    reports are that they did not use an online mapping service- although every map i have of Oregon (and i have several dozen) shows that route as a Forest Service Road. Their Saab was an all-wheel drive model and not quite a station wagon, but not quite a sedan. The throwing clothes as a trail was probably NOT him leaving a trail, but suffering from one of the last stages of hypothermia, in which you are so cold, you are past the numbness and your skin is burning, it makes you feel hot, so you take the life-preserving layers off. so, i have my own to add-
    1. All wheel drive is not 4 wheel drive and even 4 wheel drives get stuck (they pulled a guy out of a “shortcut” near Willamette Pass a day or so before they found James Kim, and he was in a 4wd truck).
    2. In Oregon, if you miss your exit to the coast, turn around and go back to it. The Kims had about two hours to flip a Uturn and get back to the 42, and at least 20 exits to do it on. In fact, there are 3 exits on the 5 to the 42. I can see missing one, but not all 3.

    Truly a shame those kids lost their dad because he didn’t think to turn around and go back to the 42.

  2. Carolyn says:

    Other lessons learned:

    1. If you work for CNET as a tech editor, borrow a free GPS from work and use it on your 1700+ mile roundtrip through the Pacific Northwest so you don’t miss your turnoff.

    2. If it is 9 o’clock at night and you have a baby and a preschooler with you and you have 150 miles to go through the mountains at night in bad weather in the late fall in Oregon where you haven’t been before MAYBE you should forgo the deposit on the chi chi lodge at the coast and get a hotel for the night.

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