The Sagebrush Mountain Incident has had an outsized footprint in popular culture in the years following 1997. It was helped by the early internet, which spread the information as a brutal and unsolvable mystery–a process that continues to this day, as it is a notable feature of YouTube videos and clickbait lists of American mysteries (or murders). Its reputation as the “American Dyatlov Pass Incident,” an appellation it could easily share with other mysteries like the Yuba County Five, has doubtless contributed to this over the years. But anyone who has done serious research or writing on the subject is invariably asked: “what do you think really happened?”

There is, of course, no way to know for sure. All the witnesses are dead, the investigators have retired, and John Smithson no longer grants interviews on the subject. He was 51 years old in 1997, and at 75 years old as of this writing surely his memories of the incident, other than what is documented on his tapes, is fading. However, one sequence of events does seem to be the most likely given the information available, and it is sadly nowhere near as melodramatic or sensationalistic as the furor around the deaths might suggest.

In this version of events, Patricia Mercer puts together a hiking team by calling on her current and former high school students as well as her only daughter. Her motivation seems to have initially been to be a more active hiker, as her boyfriend was, since Ms. Mercer’s hiking and climbing activities had fallen off in the previous few years. However, increasing delays, difficulties securing permission, and clashes with her daughter appear to have bred a case of the sunk cost fallacy–having put so much effort into preparing the hike, Ms. Mercer was unwilling to abandon it despite clear signs of trouble.

Although the group consisted of several experienced sportsman, a former Boy Scout, and were in good physical health, there were a number of frozen interpersonal conflicts among the various group members that would have made a harmonious hiking experience almost impossible–something Mercer might have suspected, even if she had not know for sure. Furthermore, the weather forecast had been looking progressively bleaker and it should have been clear on the morning that the hikers set out that it was going to be much more difficult than they had anticipated. But still, the trip went on.

The inclement weather, which would have quickly soaked the hikers, and the unfamiliarity of the terrain meant that they would have fallen further and further behind, with an ever-faster pace being required to meet milestones. This, along with the personality conflicts in the group, would have further weakened the group emotionally and physically. It is speculated, though unproven, that the hikers burned through their food at an accelerated rate and may have been put on half-rations midway through the trip.

All of these factors, plus the high altitude, were enough to cause William Reznik’s weak heart to begin to fail. The early signs of a fatal cardiac episode can look like fatigue or even laziness, which may have exacerbated the situation; when Reznik died, Mercer’s CPR having failed, that was the catalyst for the group to completely break with reality. Mass hysteria, fugue states, or something similar; the shock of Reznik’s death caused the other hikers to attack each other and themselves, particularly Mercer, who would have felt a strong sense of culpability, and Maria Cruz, Reznik’s girlfriend. Carrie Mercer and Cassidy Daniels were the only ones to react by fleeing; simply and instinctively choosing another part of the “fight or flight” response. The others, exhausted or wounded, would have succumbed to the elements or animal attacks some time later.

The fact that Mercer and Daniels fled not in any organized fashion, but instinctively and in an altered state of consciousness, explains their inability to find their way down the mountain, their hallucinations, and Carrie Mercer’s disappearance. It is likely the younger Ms. Mercer simply wandered away and died of exposure. Furthermore, the elevated levels of stress, lack of food, and harsh conditions–perhaps aggravated by eating some toxic plants–caused Daniels to experience the organ failure that later killed her after rescue.

Granted, this sequence of events does not and cannot explain many of the strange coincidences and contradictions inherent in the case. Then again, nothing can. Perhaps every case, every disppearence, indeed every moment of our lives is rife with such oddities–but it is only in sifting for truth after something tragic that they make themselves known.

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