Lost: True Tales of Wilderness Treks Gone Desperately Wrong

From snowblindness to wrong turns, everyday wilderness adventures can turn ugly if you're not prepared for everything.
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From snowblindness to wrong turns, everyday wilderness adventures can turn ugly if you're not prepared for everything.

Snowblind

"We were tired, wet, and cold, and knew that we would not survive another night," recalls Bob Morris, his memory still frighteningly vivid a few months later. "We were becoming truly scared."

Lost and separated from their tent after a day of peakbagging, Bob and his wife, Blynn, both 43, had been forced to bivouac during a surprise summer snowstorm. The couple had set out the day before from a basecamp beside Gourd Lake to tag 12,296-foot Cooper Peak, an isolated granite spire deep in Colorado's Indian Peaks Wilderness. On the way up the 4-mile off-trail route, Bob referred frequently to his map and compass, and the couple topped out as scheduled at 1 p.m.

After savoring the view, they began their descent. But on the way down Bob spotted a series of small lakes that he misjudged as being one large body of water and therefore Gourd Lake. "On the map, you see two distinct lakes and the mistake is obvious. But as we descended, they looked like one lake instead of two because the stream connecting them is large."

"My wife said it looked wrong. She wanted to go back and make sure we were right. I convinced her we were on the right track," recalls Bob.

The Morrises proceeded to drop into the wrong drainage. They soon realized their error, but then made another mistake that compounded their problems. "The prospect of climbing up the way we came down, through more talus, was daunting. To go directly east to Gourd looked impossible because of a cliff. We decided to go south and then east, walking a bearing with the compass," says Bob.

Bushwhacking through thick forest, the couple hiked in circles until dark. Their situation worsened that night when the storm arrived.

In the morning, cold and miserable and confused by the fresh snow, Bob and Blynn tried to pick up where they had left off. But when Bob checked the altimeter on his watch, he realized they had overshot their mark and were now 800 feet lower than Gourd Lake.

After turning around to hike back uphill, the couple stumbled upon the Gourd Lake Trail, its outline visible in the melting snow. They were soon back at camp gobbling bowls of oatmeal.

EXPERT ADVICE

1. Leave bread crumbs

Mark your descent route while you're on the way up, says navigation instructor Bob Speik, who runs www.traditionalmountaineering.org. "Build a small cairn (or tie ribbons) that you remove on the way down."

2. Trust the map

"Bob began 'forcing the map'- that is, deceiving himself into believing that the visible terrain somehow matched the map features," says Kenneth A. Hill, Ph.D., author of Lost Person Behavior.

3. Listen to skeptics

"When someone in the group thinks things don't look right, pay attention," says Don Davis, who manages Colorado's Larimer County Search and Rescue. At the first sign of doubt, verify your location and route to everyone's satisfaction.

4. Retreat

"Bob's reluctance to turn around is typical lost-person behavior," says Hill. "More often than not, backtracking to a known location is the smartest option available."

5. Stay level

"Contour!" exclaims Greg Crouch, author of Route Finding: Navigating with Map and Compass. With a closer examination of the map and their altimeter, Bob and Blynn "could have stuck to the same elevation and just contoured around the nose of the ridge separating them from Gourd Lake."

Lost in the Mist

"I was hurtling toward the crevasse, thinking, 'You're finished. You pushed your luck and now you're cooked,'" recalls Sam Black of Vancouver. Luckily, instead of plunging into the blue maw of the Brandywine Glacier–and almost certain death–Black skipped across the opening to land on the opposite side. But he was still surrounded by crevasse-riddled ice. And lost.

Six days earlier, Black had embarked on what was supposed to be an overnight trek. The backcountry enthusiast planned to challenge his newfound route-finding skills on an ambitious, off-trail solo ascent of Brandywine Mountain, in British Columbia's Coast Mountains.

On Friday night, he hiked to an off-trail campsite on a narrow ridge. The next morning Black opened his tent flaps to discover rainy, socked-in conditions; he couldn't see 30 feet. He knew continuing would be foolhardy. As he attempted to backtrack, Black got hopelessly turned around.

The topo map he'd printed on 8.5"x11" office paper turned to pulp in the steady downpour.Without a compass, he was lost at sea. He pitched his tent and rode out the storm.

When Black failed to return on schedule a search was launched, but SAR crews were hampered by low clouds. Black attempted on Tuesday and Wednesday to climb to the far side of Brandywine Mountain, where he knew a trail led to safety.

When the route became technical and slippery, Black stopped to consider his quandary. Somehow the dense fog and tricky terrain convinced him to make his biggest mistake yet. Until now he'd stayed off the ice, but in his mind, only one option remained. "I believed that traversing the glacier to go west was the only exit," he recalls.

No sooner had he taken several tentative steps onto the ice than he lost traction–and went hurtling over the crevasse. Spared from death but deeply rattled, Black began picking his way across the glacier's surface. Before he could slip again, a helicopter appeared and whisked him to safety.

EXPERT ADVICE

1. Don't play the victim

There's a word for a novice hiker attempting a highly ambitious solo trek, sans compass, with only a photocopied map, cautions Hill: pre-victim.

2. Track your progress

"Black appears not to have done any navigation on the way to his first camp, since he was following a trail," says Davis. "Continuously plot your location on the map, even when hiking on trails."

3. Get the big picture

"Maps printed from mapping software [on 8.5"x11" paper] may not show the whole picture of the area that you are going to be in," says Davis. Always get detailed topos.

4. Weatherproof your maps

A map double-bagged in a pair of gallon-size zipper-lock bags is every bit as waterproof as a map case, advises Crouch.

5. Don't budge

"Stay put until help arrives," says Davis. "During a search, the first place crews look is the route that the person is supposed to be on."

6. Keep your head

"Fear negatively affects problem-solving by reducing the number of options we can consider, and hypothermia impacts our ability to assess the quality of the decisions we make," says Hill. Hence Black's irrational attempt to traverse a glacier.

In Too Deep

What business Greg Cone and Glenn Zimmerman had being on North Sister - the expert-class peak in central Oregon's Three Sisters group–is anyone's guess. Its easiest approach, the standard route up the southeast ridge, involves churning upward through thousands of feet of shifting talus, plus a long traverse with gut-wrenching exposure. The right equipment and skill might land you on top; Cone, 46, and Zimmerman, 55, both of Eugene, had neither.

As near as searchers with Deschutes County Search and Rescue can determine (Cone and Zimmerman did not return BACKPACKER's phone calls), the duo intended to climb North Sister from the difficult north side. What most puzzles rescuers is the approach route the pair chose. Rather than stroll in on the easy Pole Creek Trail, Cone and Zimmerman planned to bushwhack up the Alder Creek drainage.

"We've never seen anyone try to go in this way," says Wayne Jack, who coordinated the search that extricated Cone and Zimmerman. "North Sister is a highly technical climb. At best, these guys were prepared for an easy dayhike." Between them, Cone and Zimmerman didn't have an ice axe, helmet, rope, picket, map, or compass.

At 2 p.m. on October 4, 2003, the pair reached timberline exhausted and hours behind schedule. Despite possessing a newly purchased GPS, the two hikers could not reconcile where they were with a safe route to the summit. Running out of time, they decided to return to their car. Midway down the Alder Creek drainage, they were overtaken by darkness. Late that night, SAR officials received a call about two overdue hikers. The women on the other end could only tell authorities to look around North Sister, since neither of their husbands had mentioned where they would park or what route they planned to take.

When searchers finally located the disoriented hikers the next morning, the volunteers checked the men's GPS unit. Cone and Zimmerman said that it had malfunctioned. "They didn't have the know-how to use their GPS unit to navigate from the parking area," says Jack. "We found no waypoints punched into the unit." Considering the hazards waiting up high, getting lost was probably a blessing in disguise for these two.

EXPERT ADVICE

1. Get real

"They overestimated their abilities and underestimated how long things really take," says Davis. "That's a common mistake." You should also know what specialized gear your route requires, such as rope and an ice axe.

2. Do your homework

"They made a critical error by failing to study maps," says Speik. "A call to the ranger might have revealed Pole Creek Trail as the best approach and pinpointed the climber's route that leads to the summit."

3. Use trails

"Bushwhacking is always a bad call when there's an approach trail going to your objective," says Davis. "There is no such thing as a shortcut in the backcountry." If you do need to go off-trail, be smart.

4. Practice at home

"Their GPS unit didn't malfunction," says Speik. "The users did." Learning to use a GPS is best done near home, where there's no penalty for mistakes. Also, pack extra batteries and a backup compass.

5. Leave word

"Cone and Zimmerman even botched the 'travel-itinerary-given-to-friends' part," says Hill. Tell someone you trust your license plate number, where you'll park, your route, when you'll call to say you're safe, and who to call if you don't.

Trail to Nowhere

Linda Voll is willing to admit that her fascination with big trees got her hopelessly lost on a nature trail, of all places. The 57-year-old Voll was visiting Michigan's Upper Peninsula when she decided to check out the behemoths at Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary. For a short dayhike on a nature trail, Voll was, if anything, overprepared. "Every walk I go on I carry raingear, plenty of snacks, a flashlight, water, warm clothes, plastic bags, and a Therm-a-Rest stadium chair," says Voll. But there was one glaring omission on her checklist: a compass.

Earlier that week a violent gale had ripped through Estivant Pines, knocking down trees and obliterating trail signs. Still, Voll managed to stay on track until she decided to take a detour on an unmaintained spur trail that led toward the stump of a big pine. But on her way back Voll lost the path. "I had been following a game track. I looked around for the trail and couldn't make it out," she says. The park's handout trail map offered little clue to her whereabouts, so Voll tried to retrace her steps. Nothing looked familiar. Flat gray light suffused the forest, further distorting her sense of direction. When she came across a fallen tree she knew she'd seen before, Voll realized she'd been hiking in a circle.

"I've always had a pretty good sense of direction, but I was so twisted around that I couldn't trust my own instincts," says Voll.

Tired and confused, she could feel panic creeping in. To calm herself, Voll sat down and dug into her pack for a snack. "I remember thinking, 'What's the worst that can happen?' All I had to do was pick a direction, start hiking, and it might take a day or two, but sooner or later I'd hit Lake Superior."

Resolved to hike until she was too tired to go farther, Voll resumed her search for a trail or road. Twenty minutes later she stumbled upon her car at the trailhead. "Two things I never do anymore: believe anyone who says a trail is easy to follow, or forget a compass," says Voll.

EXPERT ADVICE

1. Pack for anything
"There is no such thing as being over-prepared," says Davis. While Voll's supplies would have seen her through an unexpected night outdoors, she obviously didn't expect
to get lost on a short nature trail; hence, no compass.

2. See the forest

"Her main navigation error was being oblivious to her surroundings," says Davis. "This is a common error that birdwatchers, mushroom pickers, and berry pickers make." Map your bird sightings or berry patches as you go, incorporating your hobby into sound navigation.
3. Plan your escape
"Before starting, Voll should have picked a safety bearing - a general direction that you'll travel if you become lost," says Hill. For any hike, it should be a direction that will lead you to a sure escape route.

4. Make an investment

"With a $6 topo, $125 GPS, and some simple skills, she could have pinpointed her location within a few yards," says Speik. Crack open the wallet if off-trail travel is in your future.

5. Don't trust luck

"Voll's decision to travel a particular–apparently arbitrary–direction is not the most effective strategy for becoming unlost," says Hill. "Fortunately, it worked."

Wrong Turn

Robert Perkins, a fit 42-year-old professor, and his son Matthew, 15, had a big hike planned for a long August day. The pair would ascend central Oregon's Middle Sister and South Sister, and exit to Devil's Lake trailhead, where Robert's wife, Mary, would pick them up. It was a fairly straightforward route for experienced, well-equipped hikers like this father-son team.

One thousand feet below the summit of Middle Sister, with evening approaching and a storm brewing, the pair reached a decision point. "It was getting late, and I asked my son, 'Do you want to finish this mountain, or do you want to just go on over to South Sister where your mom's meeting us?'" says Robert. "We didn't have time to do both, and the weather was changing." Matthew voted to keep going up.

They figured they could catch a ride to meet Mary once they were down. After topping out in near whiteout conditions, the two descended along the ridge they had climbed earlier. But in the fog they missed a crucial turn and decided to follow a drainage system that Robert guessed would eventually dump them onto one of the many trails that surround the peak. No such luck.

With night falling, it was clear they'd have to bivouac. Robert rose early the next morning, on a cloudless day, and ascended a ridge in order to get cell-phone reception. He dialed 911 and, adding to a string of miscues, gave the dispatcher incorrect coordinates. Rescuers went off on a wild-goose chase well north of the Perkins' actual location. (Robert would later learn from searchers that the compass on his watch was miscalibrated by 28 degrees.)

Later, Robert called to leave a voicemail message for Mary, informing her that he and Matthew would hike out to Devil's Lake trailhead. When she delivered the message to searchers, they abandoned Pole Creek and drove 50 miles around to a new location. But father and son, still confused about their whereabouts, hopped on a climber trail approaching from Pole Creek–taking them away from their rescuers and right back where their saga began.

EXPERT ADVICE

1. Be conservative

"Robert should not have let his son's enthusiasm override his cautious instincts," says Crouch. "Retreat is always an option up until the point that you lose control."

2. Break the Chain

"One mistake seldom gets someone into serious trouble. Chains of mistakes do that. The Perkinses should have aborted at the first complication; they shouldn't have continued to the top in a grayout," says Crouch. "By the time they made their navigation error, their late start meant not enough daylight to fix it."

3. Put yourself on the map

"If they could have found their location on the map 'by inspection'–using major land features–they might have seen their bivouac was only about two kilometers from the well-traveled Green Lakes Trail," says Speik.

4. Bring the right tools

"A GPS and USGS quad would have overruled the maladjusted compass and saved the day for these adventurers and 40 volunteers," says Speik.

5. Don't be overconfident

"Despite their experience, the Perkinses walked about 10 miles in what was obviously the wrong direction before coming out at the wrong trailhead," says Hill. Make it a habit to double-check your route.