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October 2006

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.

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.

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