Monday, September 28, 2009

Easy To Get Lost

A close friend of mine recently spent an unplanned overnight high on a mountain with his son. Unplanned anything in the wilderness is the fast track to a survival incident. But his story is compelling by the ease of how it all happened.

My buddy and his son were part of a large group of Scouts trekking the high country of western Washington. The group intended to stay over the weekend, but scheduling conflicts prompted my friend to separate from the rest one day early and return home. That was the plan. That didn't happen.

It was Saturday afternoon when my friend and his son parted company with the rest of the group, and headed back down the trail the way they had come. Somewhere a few miles away, at the bottom of the canyon, their vehicle waited for them in the parking lot. They expected that it would take just a couple of hours to hike down, climb in the car, and they'd be home by supper time. That didn't happen either.

What did happen was that, on the way down the trail, they met a fork in the path. They hadn't seen that on the way up, because their attention was on the trail ahead, and this other trail sneaking through the forest and merging at an angle was never noticed. But coming back down off the mountain, my friend was suddenly confronted with the split in the trail and, as the guardian of the chalice in the Indiana Jones movie The last Crusade said, "he chose poorly."

Without a clear knowledge of which was the correct path to take, it was a flip of the coin. They had a 50% chance of getting it right. That might sound pretty good, but imagine playing Russian Roulette with half the cylinders loaded. Not good odds when life is on the line.

Had these guys followed one simple rule during the hike up, they would have been able to avoid the misery that came next. The rule is to study your backtrail often. Just look over your shoulder at the scene that you will face when returning on the trail. This is critically important, because the scene looking back is totally different than the scene looking forward. A perfect example is the sneaky trail, unseen looking one direction, totally obvious looking the other.

But, of course, they didn't do that. So they took off on the wrong trail and followed that for several hours until it became painfully obvious that they were not going the right direction. Fortunately, they bumped into some other hikers, asked directions, and were told how to get to the parking lot.

Unfortunately (isn't it crazy how an unfortunately can follow a fortunately in a story?) those other hikers were full of beans. So my buddy and his son hiked for several more hours until, at 2 o'clock in the morning they collapsed in exhaustion and spent the rest of the night sitting in the blackness of a deep forest night, shivering in the chilly wind, feeling the desperation known to those who are lost.

My buddy's feet were a wreck. He had hiked them to blisters. Without food or water, both he and his son were exhausted. The conditions conspired to lead them from discouragement to near panic. As a father, I understand clearly how panic can ensue when you think you've led your child into harm's way. The panic is sometimes worse than the cold or the hunger or thirst. Panic makes you do irrational things like get up and go running down the trail as if your hair was on fire.

Long story short, early the next morning, our intrepid hikers encountered another bunch of folks on the trail, asked directions and, this time, got it right. Walking on tender feet, my friend was able to lead his son to safety.

Behind the scenes, rescue efforts were underway. When the guys didn't show up on schedule, a family member drove to the parking lot and found the vehicle still there. But it was already black night, and so the real search and rescue effort was set to get underway at first light the next morning. As soon as they guys got to a spot where there was cell phone coverage, they called home and let everyone know they were okay. The SAR was called off, and everybody lived happily ever after.

Doesn't always work out so cleanly. It is amazing how easy it is to get lost. It's happened to me, and I wrote the book about how to keep from getting lost. Well, at least I wrote a chapter in the book specifically about that topic.

Speaking of the book, I had always intended to give my friend a copy of my book. And now I was kicking myself for not doing it earlier, because if he had read it he might have been spared this miserable episode. So while he was forced to stay down and let his damaged feet recover, I took him an autographed copy and pointed out some specific places to read.

In hindsight, some things were done right and some weren't. Not to be critical — because most folks don't know what to do and what not to do — but besides studying the backtrail, there's also the consideration of when to stop moving, sit down and figure things out.

Being lost, by definition, means you don't know where you are. And if you don't know where you are, you don't know where you're going. So stop moving.

Stop early, establish some kind of camp before it gets dark, so you can rest and get your wits back in the game. If you don't have a tent, improvise a shelter so you're not sitting out in the wet and the wind. Build a safe fire so you can stay warm and dry, and have the psychological companionship of the flames. The fire might also attract the attention of people who are searching for you. Since you don't know where you're going, stay there, get some signaling efforts going (smoke by day, flames by night). Set yourself up in the most visible position possible, so a search by air can spot you. Help the search by using colorful items of clothing or equipment laid out in the open. Make noise. Use a signal mirror. Do everything you can to attract attention to yourself.

But for heaven sake, don't keep hiking until, in the blinding darkness, you fall off the mountain or stumble and injure yourself, or until your feet are bloody and blistered, you're weak and exhausted, and you're so discouraged you're on the verge of panic.

My friend and his son didn't stop early. They kept going until they dropped, and then they sat there in the dark, wounded and letting their emotions feed off the gloom.

But they did some things right. Most important was that they let people back home know where they were going and when they intended to return home. That way, when they didn't show up on schedule, a search could be started.

It's easy to get lost. Never think it can't happen to you.

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