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.


  1. What kind of GPS? Those new Oregons from Garmin look sweet! Pricey though.

  2. Glad you made it safely back!

  3. A GPS is fine for showing us where we are and where we have been. It doesn't do such a good job of showing us where to go. Keep a map (in plastic or laminated) and a compass. GPSs go down, satellite signals get blocked, batteries die. Keep track on the map.
    We would hate to lose you to battery failure.

  4. I understand, because I love my GPS too! Even on longer trips I always save enough battery juice to get a fix on my location and to make a choice about my route. Even when I am not where I want to be; at least I know where I am. On that basis I can make decisions about how to handle the situation. Here in New Mexico I mostly use it to find springs and water sources. I am glad you had it with you and knew how to use it. We don't want to lose you.

  5. I go with the basic plan of:

    1. Eat all your food.
    2. Drink all your water.
    3. Move rapidly as you can along the path of least resistance.

    works great.

  6. Juan,

    That works well when you are only 100 yards from your car!

  7. GPS? Your missing the point of getting lost.

  8. Hi Jill,

    Completely off-topic but very interesting article on exercise and nutrition -

  9. Getting lost, figuring out how to deal with it, and getting back home safely is a very grounding experience. Glad you didn't have to spend an unexpected night out in the fog.


  10. dV8 - it's a Garmin Vista HCx. It's been a great little GPS, both in tracking my mileage and using it for navigation. It has embedded topo maps, so it's like having a "you are here" that I can go and compare to real paper maps. It was a real anxiety soother during the Iditarod, but this is the first time I have used it to actually find my way out of a situation that I would not have been able to find my way out of otherwise.

    I like your tips, Juancho, except for the last one. The path of least resistance off a ridge is always very fast, and very fatal.

    Eric - I was telling that to my friend. Blackerby was definitely a good "lost" situation, because there was never any real danger, but there were brief bouts of bewilderment that I had to push through. Learning how to deal with my tendancy to overreact in lost situations is a good lesson.

    Even the unexpected night in the fog wouldn't have been the end of the world. I always travel with an emergency bivy, and I had pretty warm gear, water and food with me. It would have been uncomfortable, though, and would have started to get dangerous if the fog remained low through the following day.

  11. I'm glad that you were prepared. When I had smaller kids we took them on a hike and stayed out too long. Well, we found ourselves halfway down the mountain in the dark without a flashlight. We still talk about my wife and I both carrying kids on our backs literally feeling our way down the trail. I was really scared but I couldn't show it because it would have freaked the kids out. We finally made it to the trailhead safely. I always over prepare now. Better safe than sorry.

    Mike J


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