Monday, September 01, 2008

Lost on Blackerby Ridge

There are a lot of gray areas to the state of being lost, but the moment of realization is always definitively clear. Gut-piercingly sharp and as heavy as lead, it's the moment you realize what it means to have absolutely no idea where you are.

To have no idea whether you're moving forward or back the way you came.

To have no idea which way is safe and which way is going to drop you straight off a cliff.

To have no idea what's more than five feet in front of you, because everything beyond that is fully shrouded in fog.

And it's hard not to panic. It's hard.

And I probably would have panicked, however briefly, however unjustified it would have been. I probably would have panicked had I not been hiking with a friend who I had invited (i.e. tricked) into heading up with me early this morning because "the fog is supposed to burn off. It did yesterday. It will today." I would have panicked if he hadn't been there, having equally no idea where we were, and following me with full faith.

I did not want to lose face. So I gulped it down. I death gripped my GPS. Even viewed from the 500-foot setting, my dotted path was a mess of curvy, crossing lines created when my friend and I lost each other briefly. There were times we double-backed. Then we would move forward a little more. We were so close to the base of the peak I have wanted to reach since 2006, but it was always too far away. Today, we were close. So close. I could see it. On my GPS screen. But everything else was fog. Just fog.

But it wasn't until shortly after I decided it was still too far away for today and turning around that the reality of the fog sunk in. The line of the wide ridge was invisible. Its rising and dropping contours were distant memories. We were nowhere. And it was so disorienting that I only had to turn around once, and suddenly I didn't remember whether I had made a 180-degree turn, or a 360. I did not know if I was facing up the ridge or down it, or maybe looking off to the side toward an unknown drop-off. There was no discernible trail, no landmarks. There was only my GPS, and its confusingly erratic dotted line that marked the way we came, so I had to follow it.

After a mile or so of successfully sticking to my electronic "trail," I became overconfident and stopped paying attention. We diverged off a side ridgeline and walked down it until we came to a sloping dead end. We were dropping too far. I held up by GPS and saw the big "Y" it had drawn. I had no idea how far the ridge dropped below us, or whether it was possible to reconnect. So, with panic bubbling back up my gut, we backtracked.

After that, I did not take my eyes off GPS. Hiking was like playing a video game, trying to trace the existing line as perfectly as possible and losing hard-earned anti-panic points any time I veered too far away from it. I loved that dotted black line. I love my GPS.

And I hate being lost. It's interesting how unsettling it is even when you have a GPS or compass - it's the sinking feeling that you are no longer able to rely on yourself. You are no longer in control of your situation. I have no doubt that had I not had the GPS with me, we would have been wandering in circles on top of that ridgeline until the clouds lifted or night fell, whichever came first. And I can all-too-clearly imagine the urge to panic in a situation like that ... well, did I mention I love my GPS?

I love my GPS.

And I've learned my lesson about hiking in fog. I had no concept before of just how truly disorienting it is. Plus, it's pointless. Nothing to see, no reason to go. GPS told me that we ended the day with 5,700 feet of vertical elevation gain and about 12 miles of hiking (its slow-moving mileage readings never seem even close to accurate, so I usually go by map estimates.) The whole debacle took seven hours, but it was pretty mellow aerobically. Add to that my three hours of Mount Jumbo on Saturday, with 3,300 of climbing and five miles of walking, and I've had a full weekend. Feels like my "high-impact" fitness is right where it needs to be - knees feel strong, legs feel strong. Hip flexors are a little sore (my hips seem to be a particularly weak point in my weight-bearing fitness. Need to work on those.) But the thing I feel best about is just being off that $%&@! mountain.

I love my GPS.