Lost in the Sierra Nevada

We were lost in the Sierra Nevada, and it was my fault.

I climbed up to the top of a rock and looked out at the best view we had had in close to an hour. My heart sank. The valley we were following led down to a narrow gap between two granite spires and plummeted into an unfathomable ravine. We were cliffed out.

To make matters worse, we had no overnight gear or much of anything that the wilderness experts insist we should carry. We’re just going out for a little dayhike, I thought. We hardly need to carry all that stuff.

I invited the others up to look at the map of the Carson-Isberg wilderness with me. It seemed larger and more threatening now that we were lost in it. Caroline and my wife Lindsey joined me, Peter and Brian stayed below. Strapped to my back was my 16-month-old daughter, the only one of us who wasn’t stressed out and tired.

These are the lessons I learned from our day lost in the wild.

Arrogance doesn’t feel like arrogance
What sort of outdoorsman takes people into the wilderness unprepared and unequipped? That’s the way I always thought when I heard about people who needed to be rescued. These people were obviously inexperienced or unprepared.

The thing is, arrogance doesn’t feel like arrogance from the inside. It feels a lot more like rational confidence based in experience. I have thousands of miles of wilderness travel under my belt, hundreds of them off-trail. I’ve been in plenty of difficult situations, and places where I really didn’t want to return the way I came, but I’ve never once felt like I was lost. Which is why I didn’t think I would get lost.

Assume you could get lost
Almost every poor decision I made stemmed from this one simple belief: that I wouldn’t get lost. I have a strong sense of direction. I can read a topo map. We weren’t going far. We were headed up to a ridge, where I would be able to see the lay of the land easily. The chances of getting lost seemed minuscule, not worth considering. That was my first, and biggest mistake. Not only did I fail to bring a compass, but when we arrived at the parking area for the St. Mary’s Pass Trail and couldn’t find the trailhead, we decided to skip the trail and just walk up to the pass. It was open forest and tundra all the way up, and we just had to follow the drainage. I had done this sort of thing tons of times. Easy as pie, right?

Pay attention to the macro
On the way up, I kept track of terrain features that could help us find our way back. The nearby ridges, the rock outcroppings, unusual tufts of trees. These would all have helped us orient ourselves and find our way back easily if we had found our way back to the same drainage. What I wasn’t paying as much attention to was relationship between the valley and the imposing ridge between Leavitt peak and Night Cap peak across from us. If I had, I would have noticed almost immediately when we started to descend into the wrong valley. In fact, it was my wife’s observation that the mountains seemed to be in the wrong place that finally clued me in that we were lost. It goes back to my belief that I wouldn’t get lost: I took the macro landmarks for granted and paid attention to more immediate landmarks because I tend to trust my sense of direction. My wife, who has a less-developed sense of direction, was more observant of the macro and that would save us later.

Watch out for points of potential confusion
After we reached the pass, we headed up to an unnamed peak to look across at the stunning Sonora peak and down the valley at Clark Fork Meadow. It was beautiful, and I focused on photographs rather than orientation. From the top we could see a trail that paralleled the ridge a little ways down—since there was only trail marked in the area, we figured that must be the one we had missed on the way up. We cut down to it and followed along, ate lunch near another pass, and then returned along the trail. When it petered out, we were left to our own navigation with none of the familiar landmarks that I had watched for on the way up.

Can you see the points of potential confusion? The first was when we left the pass (and our original drainage) to follow the ridge. Close observation of landmarks at that point might not have saved us, but it would have helped. The second was when we decided to follow the trail back. Although it seemed like the easiest way back and closely paralleled our original route, the view was different enough that all the valleys seemed similar, and we began to descend down the wrong one before we realized it. It would have been better to retrace our route exactly.

Keep track of time
When we descended into the wrong valley, it was because we thought we had traveled the same distance along the ridge that we had covered on the way out. Sense of time is easily distorted while hiking, but if I had kept an eye on my watch we would have had another data point to indicate that we probably hadn’t hiked back far enough before turning downhill.

Be willing to admit you’re lost
Once I realized that I wasn’t sure of our location anymore, I was worried about freaking out the other people I was with. Though we hadn’t designated a trip leader, I was the one with the most wilderness experience, I had chosen the hike, I was the one with the map, and my friends were looking to me for guidance. I knew the off-trail experience was already a little out of the comfort zone of some of my friends, though they were all capable and courageous hikers. Would that change if I suddenly revealed that I had no idea where we were?

When I finally admitted that we were lost, they took it with stoic understanding. We began to problem-solve as a group, and while it caused tension to realize that we had different ideas about where we were, I was able to piece together a better idea of where we had gone wrong when I added other people’s memories and observations to my own.

Listen to everyone
When we got to the place where I realized the valley was going to turn into a canyon and then a cliff, we had to figure out which way to go next. The map wasn’t much help from where we were—there wasn’t enough detail and I didn’t have a compass to orient to the few peaks we could see. Peter and Brian thought we were too far east, while Caroline and Lindsey thought we needed to go further in that direction. Lindsey admits she has a poor sense of direction, and she and Caroline have very little off-trail experience After me, Brian has the most experience outdoors and the best sense of direction, so it would make sense to trust his instincts. But it was Lindsey and Caroline’s observations about the relative position of the mountains across from us that convinced me we had descended west of our intended destination.

Focus on facts and evidence, not feelings
At some point while we were lost, every single one of us was guilty of starting a statement with “I feel like…” As in, “I feel like we hiked too far and we need to go back that way.” When Peter said “I feel like we parked that direction,” Caroline said something that woke me up and made decision-making much easier. She asked him “Why do you think that? I want to understand how you came to that conclusion.” It was like a veil of confusion was pulled away. Peter’s reasons were valid, but it was really Caroline’s question that helped me realize that we needed to stop trusting instincts and focus on the evidence.

Forget what you think you know
Closely related to instincts and feelings are assumptions. At one point I told the group “all of the drainages lead to the road, so we can just go there and walk along the road to the parking area.”
“Why do they all lead to the road?” asked Caroline. Although I knew it was true, it was difficult to explain the bowl contour of that part of the land and the placement of the road within it. The attempt to explain forced me to examine my assumptions (one reason why it’s always good to have a scientist like Caroline along) and caused me to realize that even though it might be true, it didn’t mean the route down to the road would be passable. At that point I realized that it didn’t even matter if I was right; I was operating under assumptions that I couldn’t continue to hold onto.

We also thought we knew that the peak above us was the one we had summited earlier, which seemed like it should put us in the right valley. We didn’t allow for the fact that any peak has more than one drainage face descending from it. It wasn’t until I dropped the idea of the peak as “the one” that I allowed myself the possibility that we were in the wrong valley. And that’s how it turned out: right peak, wrong valley.

Don’t make things worse
We were tempted to continue descending. I was asked more than once “why don’t we just go down that way?” My answer was “because if it doesn’t go through, then we have to come back up.” It was steep terrain, and I think everybody understood why we wouldn’t want to come back up. I was also worried that as we got deeper in the canyon, we’d be able to see less and we’d have less information to work with.

When in doubt, get more information
There was also a temptation to head in the direction that we thought the car was in and adjust as we went. Instead, we hiked up to a nearby ridge between two valleys. From there, we could see that the next valley over combined with the valley we had hiked up from, and headed to the same plummeting edge. We still couldn’t agree on which direction to head, so we had to make the difficult decision to undo all of our downhill and hike up to the top ridge where we could see better. We were tired, hungry, and growing impatient, but it was the right decision. Once we ascended, we would have more information for a better decision.

Focus on agreements when possible
At this point, Brian and Peter wanted to go west, Caroline and Lindsey wanted to go east. I was leaning toward Caroline and Lindsey’s interpretation of the terrain, but a heavy dose of humility had just been dealt to me and I wasn’t ready to take any definitive stance without more information. If we had tried to come up with a complete plan of action right then, we would have mired ourselves in argument and created winners, losers, anger, and resentment. Luckily for all of us, we had to climb toward the peak before we could go in either direction. I hoped that we could come to agreement about what to do next when we arrived at the top, and so I tried to keep us focused on that intermediate goal.

Be flexible to capitalize on opportunity
As we approached the ridge, Brian caught sight of a hiker at the top of the peak. We checked in with each other and then he ran ahead to intercept the hiker. It was a stroke of luck, but if we had stubbornly insisted on staying together in that moment, we would not have been able to capitalize on it.

As it happened, while Brian was talking with the hiker, the rest of us reached the ridge. From the top, it was clear which direction we needed to go. We even found the patchy trail that we had missed on the way up. The hiker was able to confirm that it was the trail he had come up, and much to our relief, it took us all the way back to our cars.

Sometimes, a bad decision can lead to a good outcome: if we had hiked down the canyon and found a route to the road, it still would have been a bad decision. Likewise, a good decision can lead to a bad outcome: if we had hiked back up to the top and still been lost, it was still the right decision to go where we had more information. Luck and other forces are sometimes out of our control, but on the whole, good decisions are more likely to lead to good outcomes.

Clearly, I made some poor decisions at the beginning and middle of the hike. That was a blow to my confidence, but I think it was a good dose of reality. I’m very unlikely to make those mistakes again, or to assume that I know where I am.

On the other hand, once we realized we were lost, I found that I was with a group of people that were able to communicate effectively and who brought out the best decision-making skills in each other. Even if we hadn’t run into that other hiker, our process was effective and led us to a point where we were able to figure it out on our own.

So there you have it, a few lessons from a day lost in the Sierra Nevada. Before your next outdoor excursion, you might consider what you would do if you find yourself in a similar situation. Not only how you can avoid getting lost, but how you will react and make decisions if you do.

As a final note, I’ll mention that our sense of calm was aided by our plan of last resort, which was the Garmin SOS device I carried with me. Had we still been hopelessly lost as dusk approached, I would have triggered it and put a search-and-rescue into action.

But I was sure glad I didn’t have to.

Here’s my best reconstruction of the route we took. Red is on the way up, Blue is the way back.

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