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Backpacker Magazine – May 2010

Lost in the Frank Church Wilderness: What Does It Really Mean to Be Utterly, Hopelessly, Truly, Lost?

We air-dropped a blindfolded Jim Thornton into the middle of a 2-million-acre wilderness to find out.

by: Jim Thornton

Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez
Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez
Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez
Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez

video icon LOST! THE VIDEO SERIES

Part 1:
On his first day lost in Idaho's Frank Church--River of No Return Wilderness, Thornton confronts dwindling water supplies and the daunting task of getting un-lost.

Part 2: On his second day lost in Idaho's Frank Church--River of No Return Wilderness, Thornton battles cold temperatures, conflicting routes, and the onset of genuine fear.

Part 3:
On his third day lost in Idaho's Frank Church--River of No Return Wilderness, Thornton finally finds a potential way home. But fear, exhaustion, and an incoming winter snowstorm threaten to derail his progress.
Sunday morning, I awake on a bed of rocks, then crawl out of the tent into the predawn cold. I turn on the SPOT beacon, powered down last night to save the battery. What little water remains in my bottle has frozen. I shake the Nalgene, melting enough to swallow an ibuprofen.

Yesterday, I hiked past some ramshackle, deserted buildings that flanked the landing strip, then headed cross-country. For two hours, I clawed up a mountainside through felled firs--thousands of crosshatched trunks and splintered branches poised to skewer my eyeballs and groin. Even with two walking sticks, I couldn't stop stumbling. By the time I neared the summit, both of my shins were bloody, my hips felt dislocated, and my lumbar muscles quivered on the cusp of spasm. I didn't have enough water left to boil a freeze-dried meal.

Despite such difficulties, ascending to an unobstructed vantage point had seemed an imperative: my best chance to spy a telltale landmark--a river, perhaps, or a signature grouping of peaks on the horizon--anything, in short, that might correspond to a recognizable feature on a map. Alas, upon finally reaching the summit, I spied an endless panorama of ridges and peaks, all of which looked uniformly similar. The arduous climb had simply revealed the enormity of the terra incognita in every direction. I remove my voice recorder and tape today's first note:

Day 1's goal: Get utterly lost. Check!

Day 2's goal: Find water.


Breakfast is a 100-calorie packet of Orange Burst GU Energy Gel with caffeine, five chocolate-covered almonds, and the last swallow of water. I hoist the pack and only then notice that it's sitting atop a large white bone. Elk tibia, perhaps, or wolf femur? Whacked hard against a tree, it breaks. An omen?

For the next hour, I slog downhill through saplings and thickets. Rocky soil gives way to soggy muck. Near a copse of yellow aspens, a spring trickles from the black earth. I follow the water's desultory progress. Sometimes the flow disappears underground entirely--like a lost hope. I consider turning back and filling the bottles with a slurry of muddy water. But then I press on, not willing to capitulate so easily.

The downslope flattens, and sunlight pokes through the high canopy. At the edge of the forest and another boggy meadow, I encounter a trail, less than a foot wide, meandering from the southwest toward the northeast. It's at this point that I hear much louder water--the rush of an actual stream concealed hundreds of yards away in the gorse-covered muck.

For the first time in the wilderness, I face a consequential choice. If I try to reach the stream while carrying my pack and fall into the water, I risk fouling the beacon and satellite phone alike. If I leave the backpack behind on dry land and can't get back to it, I'll lose not only the safety net but food and shelter, too.

Eventually, like any true believer, I take a leap of blind faith. I lean the pack against a tall tree that I hope I'll see from the distance. I take out my compass and head due east, toward the sound of the stream. It takes 10 minutes to find the creek, which is gin clear and gorgeously sun-dappled. Carefully, I lower myself down the slick bank and fill both bottles, check the compass again, then head back due west. Only when I can actually touch my pack again does my heart rate begin returning to normal. It's barely 10:30 a.m., and I've met Day 2's goal. Goal 3: find my way out of here.

Unlike most lost hikers, I have no illusion that salvation--the trailhead, my campsite, a partner--is just out of sight, so I refrain from crashing through the forest in a panic. Instead, I do what most lost hikers should do: refuel and rethink. I break out the stove, instant coffee, a packet of freeze-dried beef and noodles, and several of the maps.

After brunch and a short, restorative nap, I drink a half-liter of water and check the maps. The adjacent creek meanders in a semi-southerly direction, through hills oriented east-west. But there must be dozens, if not hundreds, of creeks that follow this same general pattern. And that's just on the first map I happen to grab, which shows the southeast quadrant of the Frank's south half.

At this point, I'm still hoping to stumble upon an incontrovertible landmark--an Ayers Rock of the Frank, if you will--that I can use to pinpoint my location. My fallback strategy--not so much a Plan B as a Plan F given its likelihood of success--is to pick some direction and follow it unwaveringly to salvation or demise, whichever comes first. I am certain, for instance, that if I just travel east long enough, I will get back home to Pittsburgh, albeit most likely not before 2017.

I fold up the map and head back toward the trail I crossed over earlier, resolving to take it wherever it leads. Twenty minutes later, the path widens, and the first prickling of humiliation creeps over my skin. I round a bend and spy a rough-hewn sign: Stonebraker Ranch: Hunting and Fishing Permitted. One ramshackle building looks distressingly familiar. Five minutes later, I'm back at the airstrip.

In a voice heavy with shame, I record:

I've just spent a day climbing over dead trees and wading through muck, all to end up exactly where I started. Maybe this is some fail-safe mechanism evolution has instilled in simpletons like me, to keep us from wandering off too far.

In the distance, high mountains stretch to the north and east. I tell myself they're the Bitterroots, though this is just a guess. Self-disgust now trumps all sense of fatigue. Surely if I march toward these summits, I can stop the aimless circling I've mistaken for progress. Perhaps if I lose myself completely, I'll have a chance to find the way back for real.




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Reader Rating: -

READERS COMMENTS

Star
oooooo
May 25, 2013

The following are facts about the area where this story takes place, which might give the reader a better perspective of the article:

He was dropped off at Stone Breaker Ranch. It is an old homestead, now owned and managed by the Idaho Fish and Game. Next to the airstrip there are several nice log buildings with solar power, generator power, water systems and a big sign that says STONE BREAKER RANCH IDAHO FISH AND GAME. Most years there are caretakers there. About 150 feet from the edge of the airstrip is a very visible creek, the West Fork of Chamberlain. Other creeks: Ranch Cr, Flossie Cr, Game Cr, Dog Cr, Pup Cr and Chamberlain Cr (more of a river) a person will run into by walking no more than 5-15 minutes in any direction. To the south about 1/2 mile is Chamberlain Forest Service Station, which consists of 6 log buildings, signboards, maps, 2 airstrips and is staffed by a Wilderness Ranger and a trail crew. The airstrip gets an average of 3-4 landings a day in September and is visible from nearly every ridge or knoll from miles around.

From the description he gave about his route to Root Ranch he would have crossed 5 maintained Forest Service trails which have signage at most junctions and are marked on the map he was using. The entire Chamberlain Basin he was in the middle of is criss-crossed by multiple creeks.

The "Fir" trees he saw from the plane are Lodgepole and Ponderosa Pine.

Making it a couple miles to Root Ranch is no-where even close to making it out of the Wilderness (on foot). He would have to go 3-4 times as far to make it to a trailhead, if you ignore the 5 or more highly used airstrips.

From the perspective of a person who knows the area this article is slightly offensive and highly comical. I am surprised backpacker would print an article about such a highly fabricated experience. If the author actually did not fake this I am very surprised at how moronic he must be. At any rate, he and the magazine should be ashamed for printing such non-sense.

rufus k
Sep 17, 2012

From the description, he was dropped at either Chamberlain or Stonebraker airstrip, about 1 mile apart, and walked down the creek east to root ranch. But he did not make it out of the wilderness, just a few miles east to another strip, but still in the middle of the wilderness.

KR
Jun 13, 2012

buildings are old forest service buildings, totally in the wilderness.. he had maps of many places, not just a map of where he was,, he had to first figure out which map to use...I belive he was dropped at the moose creek ranger station/airstip

Karl
Jul 30, 2011

I like the article. Is there a way to find out what gear he was given, including the brand, etc.?

James
Jun 02, 2011

This is so bogus, he was not 'lost', just play acting

idaho native
Mar 31, 2011

Making it to Root Ranch is NOT the same as hiking out of the Frank under your own power. He would still need a plane ride, horseback packout, or long hike to civilization.

As for a means to similate genuine panic over being lost, that's as good of place as any. Besides being scores of miles across, the entire place is cut by the second deepest canyon in North America (the MF Salmon). The lower end, to east of his lcoation, is known as "Impassable Canyon" for a reason. The only way in or out of Impassable is by boat, and even then it's Class IV whitewater!

Jim H
Oct 15, 2010

Now I have an idea for my next vacation. Pay some fellow with a Cessna to drop me off in the middle of nowhere. For at least the first couple days, I would love it. The main concern, in this seemingly very dry and arid place (i.e., bitteroots are an arid/dry-existing plant) would be to locate a water source. Next, I would be so happy to be away from the junk of civilization (noisy neighbors, loud thumping bass systems in car stereos, the sound of the freeway that never goes away). I'd sleep like a baby every night, I'm sure. Personally, I wouldn't be too anxious to find my way out. Instead, I'd be considering staying a few extra days. (Minus loud bass systems in car stereos and the neighbor's screaming bratty kids...) Water... more than finding my way out, I would be looking for water. Because is just a few days, you can go without food, but without water you're done for. And if any of the maps he was given were USGS Topographical maps, jeesh, might as well paint my way back home. Once you gained the bearing on the Topos, its pretty hard to stay lost, once yiu find key locations on the Topos, and you have a good compass.

Let's go, I'm game. So, how much for my story after the fact... I can just submit it to Backpacker "on spec" and if they approve for publication, we can negotiate the terms later.

:-)
.
.

Jim H
Oct 15, 2010

Now I have an idea for my next vacation. Pay some fellow with a Cessna to drop me off in the middle of nowhere. For at least the first couple days, I would love it. The main concern, in this seemingly very dry and arid place (i.e., bitteroots are an arid/dry-existing plant) would be to locate a water source. Next, I would be so happy to be away from the junk of civilization (noisy neighbors, loud thumping bass systems in car stereos, the sound of the freeway that never goes away). I'd sleep like a baby every night, I'm sure. Personally, I wouldn't be too anxious to find my way out. Instead, I'd be considering staying a few extra days. (Minus loud bass systems in car stereos and the neighbor's screaming bratty kids...) Water... more than finding my way out, I would be looking for water. Because is just a few days, you can go without food, but without water you're done for. And if any of the maps he was given were USGS Topographical maps, jeesh, might as well paint my way back home. Once you gained the bearing on the Topos, its pretty hard to stay lost, once yiu find key locations on the Topos, and you have a good compass.

Let's go, I'm game. So, how much for my story after the fact... I can just submit it to Backpacker "on spec" and if they approve for publication, we can negotiate the terms later.

:-)
.
.

Taylor
Oct 15, 2010

If you think Charlie made a good point, first make sure you know what the definition of 'simulation' is.

Fun interesting article! I like that there's video to go along with it.

Charlie
Oct 15, 2010

This did not simulate being lost...he knew that people were aware of his location, that he was not really in danger. Being really lost means no one else knows where you are either...not just you. Good luck getting any lawyers to approve simulating that.

steve quinne
Jul 14, 2010

the same as above , before that plane was off the ground , my maps would have been out and locating that before I moved an inch !!! how hard is that ?
ive been in worse and made it just fine

northsister
Jun 08, 2010

Why are you guys assuming there are buildings?? This is the wilderness! Have you ever seen wilderness?

Seth
May 28, 2010

There's no mention of buildings. It's a remote airstrip, just a flat stretch without trees. No buildings I think.

Shane
May 27, 2010

This kinda reminds me of Man vs. Wild, and Survivorman. Both of which I highly, no, Astronomically recommend to watch, for the casual "outdoorist" and the serious survivalist.

scott r
May 27, 2010

lost 4 days in bitterroots - would add, daily crying jags that would end with a laugh and me talking out loud "might as well lay down and die". The biochemical dump had me so wound up that I could not eat and survived on a jar of honey that I would force myself to eat knowing that I needed to eat. Checked the compass (after deciding that I was going to move southwest)every 5 minutes, had the common sense to back track when path was too steep and lastly, I was so tired at the end of the day I stopped imagining bear and cougar.

Mike
May 27, 2010

When I read this article my first thoughts were, "You're at a known, named location with buildings. You have maps. Sit down, pull out the maps, search for buildings." But perhaps there was a rule against doing this on the first day?

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