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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.

The word “lost” comes from the ancient Indo-European leu, which means “to loosen, divide, cut apart, untie, or separate.” Lost love, lost minds, lost hope, lost causes: There’s no shortage of metaphorical ways we can become unmoored in our lives. But for those who trek deep into nature, a more primal and frightening prospect looms. Getting lost in the wilderness isn’t a metaphor; it’s the root meaning of bewilderment.

Peter Kummerfeldt, former director of survival training at the United States Air Force Academy, knows firsthand how disorienting the experience can be. “I’m 65 years old this year, and over the course of my life, I’ve been lost eight or 10 times,” he says. “It scares the hell out of you.

You’re cut off and isolated with no food or water. You start worrying that wild animals are going to attack, that you’re going to die out here, that no one will ever find you. These fears just build and build and build until you panic.”

Such fears, alas, are far from groundless. Robert Koester, author of Lost Person Behavior, is the coordinator of the International Search & Rescue Incident Database (ISRID), which has amassed more than 50,000 incident reports. Of 3,837 lost hikers since 1984, six percent died, and another 16 percent suffered often-grievous injuries. “Without a doubt,” says Koester, “many of these would have perished, as well, if they hadn’t been rescued in time.”

What makes getting lost even scarier is how easily it can happen. A freak snowstorm buries the trail; you take a wrong turn at an ambiguous juncture; an animal track leads you astray. Reliance on technology has brought new problems, too: You head uphill in search of cell-phone reception, then lose your bearings on the ascent or jump the trail on the way down. Or you lose your GPS or it runs out of juice.

Astonishingly, given our species’ long history of getting lost–and fearing this prospect–we’ve had little understanding of how the human mental map really works. But recently, in fields ranging from mathematical search theory to neuroscience, researchers have been learning more and more about how we navigate terra incognita–and how we react, psychologically and behaviorally, when we’re unable to find our way.

One study published last year in the journal Current Biology provides the first empirical evidence that humans do in fact walk in circles when they have no directional landmarks. The tendency is so strong, in fact, that when volunteers are blindfolded, they virtually never travel more than 100 yards from their starting point, no matter how long they are given to walk. And by examining links between brain regions like the hippocampus, where we form mental maps, and the amygdala, which initiates the fight-or-flight response, researchers are beginning to understand why panic reactions are so common when we realize we’re lost.

In many ways, it’s this emotional deterioration–as much as being lost itself–that poses a high risk to our survival. Just when we most need to think clearly and act rationally, the psychological fallout of disorientation can steal the very faculties we must depend upon.

When lost victims die, says Deep Survival author Laurence Gonzales, death results from many different factors–a “destructive synergy” of exhaustion, dehydration, hypothermia, hunger, and injury. “But everyone who dies out there dies, too, from confusion,” he says. “Being lost is not so much a location as a transformation. It is a failure of mind.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that is the crux of this dastardly experiment, and my real challenge in the Frank: Can I go from lost to found without suffering from a failed mind?

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