The California Family That Died Hiking In The Sierra National Forest Were Victims Of A Common Human Flaw

We’ve all made this mistake at some point in our lives.

Bev Potter

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Photo: Steven Jeffe

It’s easy to think that Ellen Chung, Jonathan Gerrish, their baby daughter, and their dog died from something sinister. When their bodies were first discovered on August 17, 2021, with no obvious signs of trauma, investigators ran through a list that included lightning, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, cyanide exposure, illegal drugs, alcohol, suicide, and toxic algae. Officials wore hazmat suits when handling the bodies and investigating the scene.

Jonathan’s body was found seated with the baby and dog nearby, while Ellen’s body was found further up the trail. How could an entire family, including their pet, die so peacefully? Wild theories bloomed to fill in the blanks. Killer bees. Secret government experiments. Aliens.

In the end, authorities determined that the Gerrish-Chung family died mundane and preventable deaths as a result of heat exhaustion and dehydration. They simply weren’t equipped to hike a steep trail through the Sierra National Forest in mid-August, where shade had been burned off by earlier fires and temperatures ranged between 107 and 109 degrees Fahrenheit.

Humans are very bad at judging risk.

When I first learned that hyperthermia had been ruled the cause of death, I thought, “No way. Wouldn’t they just turn around when it started getting hot? Especially with a baby and a dog?”

But people are very bad at judging risk. They also think they’re more in control of their surroundings than they actually are. Judging from photos and comments made by friends to the press, the couple enjoyed hiking and being outdoors. They ventured with a baby into an area with no cell phone service, clearly anticipating a quick, easy hike with no foreseeable dangers.

When it started getting hot, things like sunk cost came into play. They’d already hiked that far, they might as well keep going. By the time they realized they were in trouble, it was probably closer to keep going than to turn around, which would explain why Ellen’s body was found further up the trail. She may also have…

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Bev Potter

Legal secretary by day, insomniac by night. Ally. BA, MA. Humor, pop culture, and things that make you think. My weekly-ish newsletter is bevpotter.substack.com