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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.
Lost or found? I don't know anymore. My brain's not working right and hasn't been for some time.

The creek I hope is the Whimstick is swollen from last night's downpour. The temperature has fallen into the 30s, and snowflakes now mix with drops of rain. It was too wet last night to light the stove for dinner, too wet to cook breakfast this morning. I'm not hungry anyhow, but my muscles twitch from exhaustion, cold, and low blood sugar. Yesterday's celebration now seems like hubris, punishable by god only knows what will come next. If I am reading the map correctly, the trail crosses the Whimstick here and just one more time about two miles upstream. Just two crossings, then a straight shot to Root Ranch. The map gives no hint about what's there, but I'm holding out hope there will be at least a partial roof remaining, a place where I can light the stove.

The Whimstick current is deep and swift. A small part of me knows I should cross it barefoot to save my socks and boots from a drenching. A larger part of me is just too cold to do so. I fabricate waders out of Hefty bags and cinch the flimsy plastic handles to my hipbelt. Balanced by the walking sticks, I quadruped through the whitewater.

The Hefties for the most part hold up, but getting wet is inevitable. The trail cuts through drenched bracken, and soon my pant legs are soaked. Moisture infiltrates my boots. An hour later, I reach the final crossing point.

On the far side, the trail immediately ascends up a ridge, leaving me wobbly-legged by the top. It's snowing harder now. I hike until I'm too tired to go on, then rest 'til I'm too cold to stay put. My hands are freezing, and I try to remember where or even if I packed gloves. My brain has entered that befuddled state where simple thoughts are hard to hold. The map says this trail should be bearing south, but the compass says it is southeast: close enough.

Another descent, another lengthy slog through a rain-slick bog. The trail disappears in a profusion of plants, then reappears briefly before dead-ending at the creek.

This can't be. I've already crossed it the final time. My eyes skitter from one bank to the other but find no hint of a trail on the opposite side heading south. My stomach sinks, and my skin burns as if shocked. The anxiety that's been brewing for hours transforms in an instant to full-blown panic. Have I been bending the map, and now broken it?

Before I can stop myself, I bolt across the stream, boots flooding as I plunge into knee-deep water. On the other side, I charge through smothering vegetation for signs of the trail. There's nothing but a bewilderment of wild roses, alpine bamboo, and orange-leafed bramble, all of it soaked with rain starting to ice. After three minutes of frenzy, I'm totally exhausted. I reverse course back to the creek, take off my boots, dump the water out, and wring my socks with fingers white as bone.

Again, I try to spy the faint outline of a trail on either side of the ravine, and finding nothing like what the map says should be here, I begin to shiver. I can't remember ever being quite so tired or dispirited. Quite so lost. I register a truth our ancestors surely knew: For all the majesty and inspiration the wilderness can provide, it couldn't care less if it heartens or breaks us.

I reach for the satellite phone, but it only makes me feel more depressed. I am as close to crying as I've been in years. My brain is too cold, tired, and low on fuel to articulate why, but I sense using this phone will only lock me in a much worse place. I put it away and grab the map and compass instead, will my breathing to slow, tell myself that if I can't think fast, there's nothing wrong with thinking slowly.

Minutes later, I've made my decision. I head once more through the smothering plants, but slowly this time and with eyes sweeping side to side, the better to look without desperation. The process takes much longer than I'd like.

But I finally find the trail again.

This time, I have no illusions that salvation is imminent, nor, for that matter, permanent. Over the next hours, I lose my way two more times before coming upon the single hardest obstacle of the trek: a section of trail too steep to circumnavigate on either side, but blocked by dozens of ponderosas felled by a mud slide.

Not long after I've clambered across the pines, the trail spills onto a high meadow. I follow this to a paddock where a herd of 20 mules and horses turn in unison to look me over. Behind them is a modern hunting lodge, smoke rising from the chimney.

Orange light glows in the lodge's windows, cutting through the gathering dusk. A hound dog starts to bay, and pretty soon a man comes outside and gestures a welcome. Never in my life have I been so relieved to see a complete stranger.

The sanctuary a wilderness can give us is inestimable, and even in my exhaustion I know I'll be returning to a place like this one day soon. But when nature is at her pitiless worst, being lost is dreadful. It's not just the panic and physical deprivation. Absent reliable bearings to reckon our place in the natural scheme, we lose our sense of belonging here at all. Is there anything worse for a backpacker who cherishes the freedom of wide-open wilderness? Getting lost, I've learned, is an excommunication, a fall from grace. Whatever measures it takes, I'm determined to never let it happen to me again.

For now, the scent of roasting meat floats in the smoke--a promise of nourishment, safety, and heat. Despite legs bowed from exhaustion and still twitching from cold, I can't stop myself from dancing the last steps to deliverance.

Jim Thornton has jet-skied from Alaska to Siberia and swum with sharks in the Bahamas. Neither was as hard as being lost in the Frank, he reports.


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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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