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.