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Missing in America

Experienced hiker Samantha Sayers still missing weeks after going on solo hike in Washington state

Lisa Sayers says her daughter, Samantha Sayers, moved from their Pennsylvania hometown to Seattle, Washington because she loves all the city has to offer.

Samantha Sayers, 28, was last seen on August 1 at Vesper Peak in Washington. Lisa Sayers

“We always went camping, but she fell in love with the west,” Lisa told Dateline. “She loves nature and she loves that area.”

Samantha’s free spirit also aligns with Seattle, her mother Lisa says.

“I have called her my little hippie in the last few years, because she is all about peace and love,” she said. “She’s just got this light that comes from her.”

Lisa says her daughter has always been strong, as evidenced in how she dealt with having Alopecia, an autoimmune disease which results in hair loss. Samantha’s developed between her junior and senior years of high school.

“She tried to wear a wig in high school, but she hated it,” Lisa recalled. “She said if she was going to be bald, she was going to do it her way.”

Lisa told Dateline about one particular act of strength in high school. Samantha addressed the entire student body one morning, explaining why her hair looked different and what Alopecia is.

“She took her wig right off in front of everyone,” Lisa told Dateline. “She has really empowered a lot of people through that journey.”

Samantha’s boyfriend Kevin Dares, whom she met when she moved out west, says she also empowers him. They like to hike together and enjoy the nature surrounding their Seattle home.

On August 1, 2018, Samantha decided to go on a hike by herself, as she often does.

Samantha’s mother Lisa told Dateline that for some reason, call it mother’s intuition, she was nervous about Samantha going on this particular hike. Samantha had planned to summit Vesper Peak in Washington’s North Cascades, a route she’d taken before, and told family she’d be gone from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Family says Samantha Sayers is an experienced hiker who has hiked Vesper Peak, the trail from which she disappeared, many times before. Lisa Sayers

The morning of the hike, Samantha said goodbye to her boyfriend Kevin and left for the trail. Kevin said that after Samantha left the house, he texted her to remind her to be careful.

“The last text I sent her that morning was me saying ‘I know you don’t need me to tell you this, but the terrain can be dangerous.’ And she just replied something like, ‘I know. I love you’,” Kevin told Dateline. He added that he was “110% sure he’d see her that night.”

Authorities would later learn that hikers saw Samantha on her way up Vesper Peak around mid-morning. Another hiker would later report eating lunch with Samantha on the trail, and seeing her again around 3:00 p.m. at the summit.

Samantha’s mother Lisa told Dateline it only would have taken a couple of hours for Samantha to make the descent from the summit to her car. If she was at the summit at 3:00 p.m., Lisa said, she should have made it back to her car by 6:00 p.m. as she said she would.

But Samantha never made it back to her car. Her boyfriend, sitting at home waiting for Samantha’s call, grew concerned.

“By 7:00 or 7:15 p.m., I was on the road. The reason I jumped to it so quick, is because she is prepared. She sticks to her timeline,” Kevin told Dateline. He says he drove to the trail after picking up a cheap flashlight at a nearby gas station.

“I hit the mountain around 10:00 p.m. I didn’t have any gear with me: It was a sad state of affairs,” Kevin said, adding that his flashlight broke a few hours later. He called 911 to report Samantha missing around 1:00 a.m.

Lisa, who lives across the country in Samantha’s hometown of Girard, Pennsylvania, didn’t find out her daughter hadn’t returned from the hike until she woke up on August 2nd and saw that Kevin had posted on Facebook asking if anyone knew where Samantha was.

“I just lost it,” Lisa told Dateline, thinking back to when she first read the news. Lisa says “Kevin was in panic mode,” and had been out searching the mountain with forest rangers, so she didn’t find it odd that he hadn’t contacted her first.

Samantha Sayers, left, with her mother, Lisa Sayers. Lisa Sayers

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office reports that more than a dozen agencies sent volunteers to search for Samantha, who they describe as an “experienced day hiker.” After finding Samantha’s car still parked at the trailhead, authorities brought in three K-9 teams to help scour the mountain.

“The King County Search and Rescue is on scene this morning conducting an air search using FLIR (thermal imaging cameras),” the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office said in a release the weekend after Samantha disappeared. “SNOHAWK1 conducted air search operations for 33 hours over the weekend including a FLIR search operation.”

Photos posted by the Sheriff’s office show “the steep, rugged and complex terrain personnel and volunteers from more than a dozen other agencies are working in” to find Samantha. Samantha’s mother Lisa says that when she and Samantha’s father Ron traveled to Washington a few days after their daughter vanished, she saw the dangerous mountainside herself.

A photo of peak in the mountain range from which Samantha Sayers disappeared. Snohomish County Sheriff's Office

“She hikes hard. She’s a beast. People don’t realize how rugged it is,” Lisa said. “The paths are pretty wide but there are areas where there are cliffs.”

But Lisa trusts her daughter’s hiking skills and knows “she wouldn’t have done anything stupid.”

“People saw her go up. A gentleman spoke to her at the summit. But nobody ever saw her come down. Did she go off trail to go to the bathroom? Or because someone made her feel uncomfortable?” Lisa speculated to Dateline. “We won’t know until we find her.”

“The hard thing with not knowing is that it could be any situation,” Kevin echoed. “It could be that she is stuck in a crevice, or she could have panicked and been on the move for several days. She could be so far outside the containment zone of Vesper Peak by now.”

Lisa says Kevin is out on the mountain every day, searching for Samantha.

“It’s hard being in the mountain for 26 days, you start to hear and see things and when the visibility goes and the cold sets in, it gets worse and you feel like you spend half of your time chasing ghosts,” Kevin said in an August 26 Facebook post. “It also reminds me of just how difficult this task can be at times and makes me think on the countless others who have sacrificed both their bodies and their minds to our family… We owe all of you, whether you have spent 1 day with us or 26, you have all made the greatest of differences and we are more than humbled and forever in your debt.”

“We tell [Kevin] to take care of himself, because [Samantha] is going to need him to be strong when she returns,” Lisa’s mother told Dateline, adding that she tries to stay strong herself, with the goal of bringing Samantha home.

Samantha turned 28 on August 13, nearly two weeks after she disappeared. She already had and especially difficult birthday hike planned out for that day, her mother said.

“It was the first time I didn’t talk to her on her birthday. My husband’s birthday was just one day before hers, and he refused to even acknowledge it. We’re both just numb,” she said.

After more than three weeks of constantly looking for Samantha, authorities suspended search operations on August 23. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office reports that in those three weeks, search operations included 357 hours for air operations, 105 hours for drone operations, 82 hours for the Marine Unit to support search teams going into the search area from Spada Lake and 329 hours for Sheriff’s Office SAR personnel.

"We have exhausted all leads and tips. We've interviewed all witnesses who have come forward. We have checked and double-checked the possible routes we believe Sam could have taken," Search and Rescue Sgt. John Adams said in a press release. "If there was a place we thought she could get to, we put people there to look for Sam, often putting our volunteers and personnel at great risk due to the rugged, remote, and dangerous terrain."

Lisa says that, although some people were angry at the investigators’ decision to suspend the search, she understands that “they can’t spend their entire budget on one person.”

But that doesn’t mean Samantha’s loved ones have stopped looking. “People have been stranded in the wilderness a lot longer and survived,” Lisa told Dateline. “Until there is proof, my daughter is alive. We are going to keep searching.”

“We have known this day was coming and have been making preparations for some time," Samantha’s boyfriend Kevin told NBC station KING-5. “[Authorities] have gone above and beyond in the search for Sam and I will always be indebted to them for their efforts.”

Kevin added that search efforts are ongoing, as “volunteer mountaineering groups are stepping up hard and covering a lot of ground.” Lisa said Kevin has also arranged for drones to fly through the hard-to-reach mountainsides where Samantha could be stuck.

“The greatest thing we have had is the compassion of the community. We launched a massive social media campaign to get this information out there,” Kevin said. “We have people who are scouring Facebook and Instagram for clues. And that’s the way we have found a lot of the witnesses who saw her on the mountain that day.”

Kevin continued to say that the countless volunteers who have helped – donating everything from $10 to their own private helicopters – have helped restore his faith in humanity. He says he has seen the same love on the mountain that Sam exudes every day.

“[Sam] has love for all. She wants inclusion for all. It doesn’t matter what you dress like, what you look like. She’s a very strong proponent for LGBT rights. Everything she pushed for was about fairness and love,” he added.

Samantha Sayers' head tattoo. Lisa Sayers

The Facebook group #FindSamSayers says she was last seen wearing dark gray pants and a maroon hoodie. She also had two hiking poles, a blue backpack, a beige sun hat and a dark gray wool beanie. Samantha is 5’8” tall, weighs about 125 lbs., has green eyes and is bald due to her Alopecia. She has a tattoo of a tree on her back and tattoos of stars on the side of her head, designed by her mother Lisa as a symbol of strength. If you have any information on Samantha’s whereabouts, please call the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office at (425) 388-3393.

If you have a missing friend or family member, send a private message to Dateline NBC on our Facebook page and tell us your story. We may feature the person’s case in our Missing in America or Cold Case Spotlight series.