The Tragic Three-Day Disappearance of Hiker Eric Fernandes on Camelback Mountain
The oven-like heat of the late-May afternoon stunned the young Seattle man when he stepped outside of his car.
Ray Stern Cliffs near where Fernandes' body was located on June 3.
In the parking lot of the Glendale motel, Eric Fernandes, 23, put his hand near the grill of his red Pontiac Grand Prix. "Dad, I think the car's overheating," he blurted.
"No," said his father, Maximo Fernandes, 65. "Cars feel like that here in the summer."
On Wednesday, May 28, the day they arrived in the Valley of the Sun during a road trip from Washington, the official temperature was 106. They never had experienced the heat of the Phoenix metro area. They were in town to visit one of Eric's friends, Ryan, whom Eric had met while playing an online video game.
Eric Fernandes, thin and fit with a slight build and a close-trimmed, black beard with no mustache, soon lost whatever concern for the heat he'd had. After lunch the next day, Eric told his father he planned to hike Camelback Mountain's rugged Echo Canyon Trail and even invited his old man to join him.
Eric Fernandes, from his Facebook page.
Maximo declined, saying it was too hot for him -- and maybe even for Eric.
"Dad, trust me. I can make it anytime," his son told him.
About 1:30 p.m., Eric drove to a sporting goods store and bought a Camelbak-style hydration backpack. A few minutes later, he went to a grocery store and picked up a couple of small bottles of vitamin water.
With the blazing sun high overhead, Eric parked his car in the Echo Canyon parking lot near Tatum Boulevard and McDonald Drive. He wore Vans sneakers and didn't have a hat. No matter -- it was only 1.5 miles to the summit. He set off on the steep trail.
Sometime on that 108-degree afternoon, another hiker saw Eric at or near the top of the 2,704-foot peak. She noticed that he was very sweaty and looked tired.
It was the last time anyone would see Eric alive.
Long after darkness had fallen and the air had cooled to the mid-80s, Eric's Pontiac sat under the looming silhouettes of Echo Canyon's sandstone cliffs. It was there when the sun rose on Sunday morning.
Back at the Knight's Inn motel, Max's worry grew. His son, one of three, was a graduate of the University of Washington's Department of Chemistry in Seattle. He was a grown man, and grown men sometimes stayed out all night. Max had been concerned when Eric didn't come home Saturday afternoon but figured he was probably at Ryan's. Now it was Sunday morning, and he made plans to begin their long drive home at 10 a.m.
Something had to be wrong: Max discovered that Eric's mobile phone was either dead or shut off.
He drove to Ryan's. Eric wasn't there. They called police. Just before 4 p.m. on Sunday -- more than 24 hours after Eric started the hot hike -- rangers confirmed that Eric's car was still in the parking lot. Several rangers started looking for him on the mountain's main paths -- Echo Canyon Trail and Bobby's Rock loop on the mountain's west side, and Cholla Trail on the east. A Phoenix police helicopter began circling the 400-acre park.
A general description of Eric was conveyed to dozens of recreational hikers going up and down the trails, with the request to keep an eye out for him. If a 23-year-old man had collapsed or cried out for help on Echo Canyon Trail, which receives an estimated 750,000 visitors a year, surely someone would notice and call 911.
But after nobody reported seeing him, it was clear that Eric was perilously lost on one of the most popular hiking trails in America's sixth-largest city.