Throwback Thursday: On Getting Disoriented on Trails

Only twice have I legitimately feared that I may not get back to a trailhead safely because I might just be lost. Both were horrifying in the moment, mostly because I pride myself on not being ‘that’ person. You know, the one who goes off into the woods ill-prepared and with no route-finding abilities whatsoever. There’s a reason I stick to front country trails. They minimize my need to understand where I am in relation to the landscape. Also, there is a greater likelihood that, if shit goes south, another hiker will stumble upon my injured body or corpse in due time and at least my family will not suffer the horror of never knowing what happened to me. Yes, this is actually how I think.

Up until last year, I carried little in the way of survival gear. And by little, I mean I carried nothing. Like nothing. I carried a tiny trail running backpack with a questionably sufficient amount of water, maybe a rain jacket (if skies looked grey), sometimes a lara bar and, if I was feeling particularly mindful, a pair of gloves. It is truly amazing that I have emerged from so many hiking adventures completely unscathed.

Alas, here is the tale that changed my ill-prepared ways.  After this, I started to carry a more suitably sized backpack.  After this, I also started to carry more food and layers.*

Let us travel back in time to last summer’s four-day weekend in Mount Rainier National Park last year, during which time I had an unobstructed view of Mount Rainier for a grand total of, like, 20 minutes. At any rate, I was on a cattle-call type trail called Burroughs Mountain, which has three peaks.

The first peak is a tourist mecca. It is teaming with people, like a scene from Walking Dead. It’s a short and relatively undemanding hike to get there and supposedly the views are fantastic.  The second peak is a little less crowded as it requires a smidge more effort and distance.  The third peak…well, let’s just say I’ve visited it twice and the only signs of life I encountered was a herd of goats.  It’s a somewhat less defined trail, unmarked, and involves a more lengthy (but still not all that challenging) climb.

So, on this cloudy-and-constantly-threatening-to-rain day, I decided to continue to the third peak, hoping the clouds would miraculously part and reveal Rainier (spoiler alert: they don’t). Instead, the clouds rapidly descend and shatter my hopes of seeing anything.  Suddenly, I am standing in a sea of low cloud. I can see roughly five feet in front of me.

I decide fate is not working in my favour and I opt to make my way back to the promise of warmth in my car. Like most things in life, I walk off with a sense of purpose and certainty, tromping along like I’m on a mission.  I pass a cairn that marks the way and keep on truckin’.  Within 10 or 15 minutes, I stop dead in my tracks.

Suddenly I realize the trail I’m on a) doesn’t look right b) doesn’t look familiar and c) doesn’t really look like a trail anymore.  However, I assume that I cannot possibly be off course on a front country trail in one of the most popular spots in a national park. I also know that I am the world’s most unobservant human and figure it looks unfamiliar because I probably wasn’t paying attention on the way up.  After a few more minutes, however, I realize with certainty that I am off course.

The anxiety I felt was completely visceral. People talk about sinking feelings in their stomachs.  My stomach was somewhere around my knees.  My breathing was shallow. My intuition was like “yeah, you’re pretty screwed right now.” You’re probably thinking, so why didn’t you just retreat and follow your footsteps? Here’s the thing. That low cloud was like the thickest fog I’ve ever stood in and I literally couldn’t see beyond 3 or 4 feet. There were no landmarks to work with. There were no mountains to give me a sense of my general direction. There was no trail to simply follow back to the summit.

In the back of my mind, I was trying to think of it would really be better to stay where I was. After all, I had a safety check in place.  Then again, she wasn’t expecting to hear from me until 6 or 6:30 (a good four hours later) and, really, I imagine most safety checks aren’t going to go straight for contacting search and rescue. They’re going to wait a while, assuming you are just running late or forgot. On the flipside, I could become even more hopelessly lost if I tried to just follow my instincts and get back to the trail. Conundrum.

I started to think worst case scenarios, like mentally preparing for a night in the cold with my tiny, trail-running backpack and my water-resistant but not waterproof jacket. I wondered if you could actually get hypothermia at this elevation in the summer just from being improperly dressed.  Then I started wondering if the herd of goats would sense my fear and then huddle with me for warmth, which actually made me smile because that would have been sort of awesome. Then I imagined search and rescue discovering me amidst a herd of goats, warm and content, saved by my spirit animals (yes, I said spirit animals).  Of course, I’d still have to hang my head in shame as they would clearly be asking me how the hell I got lost on such a popular trail.

Weighing my options not at all carefully, I decided to go with a solid 180 and literally retrace my steps for 10 minutes. If, at that point, I was still lost, I would figure out what to do next. I walked. I analyzed the ground. I fantasized about the clouds lifting.  My anxiety grew exponentially.

And then, a beautiful thing happened which is that I stumbled upon that little cairn that I had passed earlier and which I had mistakenly assumed meant ‘come this way’.  What I hadn’t noticed the first time around is that, about four feet to the left, was another virtually identical cairn. That sly little bastard had been hanging out there the whole time and I’d just blazed right past it.

I have never felt so relieved to see a cairn, and the trail to the side of it. I obviously made it back to the car safely, and promptly downplayed the whole scenario to friends and family who already worry enough about my solo hikes.  I know the truth: my spirit animals, the goats, were sending powerful vibes into the universe guiding me back to the true trail.  You may think I sound crazy, but trust me when I say that I lack the navigational aptitude to have done it on my own.

*Now, I can actually say that I have  a solid assortment of emergency supplies so that, if I somehow stumble off-course, I can at least make it through a night in relative comfort and safety. That’s less to do with this adventure, though, and more because my boyfriend is a safety bear and bought me everything I needed for trail emergencies for Christmas.

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