Thursday, April 12, 2012

Losing my way

When hiking in the Whites I rarely take a map with me.  I know the trails quite well and most of the major intersections have good signs so getting lost isn't really an issue.  Above treeline in the fog or snow I can use a compass and know enough to not head blindly in a direction without cairns, blazes, or a trailbed to keep me on track.  I always carry two light sources, even on a simple day hike, along with extra food and water.  But for some reason I abandoned all that knowledge and preparation for a trail run within earshot of a major highway and it led to a pretty hairy adventure.

I was meeting Robyn at on the Belleview Pond parking area on South Border Road in the Fells for a 7 mile trail run, basically following the mountain bike loop which I have run several times.  We started on the trail at around 5:45 which would have been enough time for the loop.  I was dressing in shorts, a long sleeve top, and carried only my car key.  Just before starting I drank water and had some food. We ran the first 1.75 miles before Robyn said that her knee was bothering her (she'd been having some problems with it, so we knew this was a possibility) and she turned around and headed back to the car.  I continued over to Sheepfold on familiar trails and ran the first 2/3 of the loop without problems.

Ignoring the choice to run without my pack (food, water, light) this is where I made my first poor decision.  I elected to follow the Reservoir trail instead of my usual Mountain Bike loop, thinking that they essentially parallel each other. This was probably less than two miles from the car, so close.  The Reservoir trail was a little rougher than I expected, and didn't seem to be crossing familiar terrain.  As it happens, the trail keeps turning left (east) instead of going straight (south) so I was headed in the wrong direction.  At mile 7 I started getting some pain in my left foot, probably just a bruise but it made me stop running and I had to walk and jog slowly the rest of the run.  I was at a dirt road here, but decided to continue following the Reservoir trail, probably not a great decision either.

So, on I went.  It was getting darker now, and I had the first glimmer of doubt creeping into my mind.  Still no familiar terrain and I-93 seemed closer than it should be.  I came across a trail junction but it gave me no additional information.  There had been no other hikers or bikers for about 30 minutes now, and because I was walking now the chill began to sink in. I stopped at one point and made a decision to navigate by I-93, which I knew was east of me and I could reliably head south which is where I wanted to go.  This was a good decision, and it was accurate.  However, since I was a bit turned around it meant that I ended up back on the Reservoir trail, headed in the other direction!  This freaked me out a bit and I admit that I had a little bit of panic.  I couldn't understand how I ended up back on the trail, even though I thought I was headed in the right direction.  (I was.)

I regrouped a bit and headed out at a jog in the right direction on a dirt road for easier footing in the dark.  I did start seeing familiar sights again including a section of the Skyline trail I ran at around mile 3, so I knew pretty much where I was.  Finally I came across a trail sign that pointed to South Border Road, my destination!  A bit later there was a sign for Belleview Pond, even better!  After another 10 minutes (which seemed like an hour) I came to another dirt road that led to a gate on South Border Road and since I was having trouble seeing the ground on the Skyline Trail I elected to take that.  In two minutes I saw the cars on South Border, then the gate, turned left and soon came to my car parked alone and inviting.  It was now 8:10 PM, dark, and about 49 degrees.

It's a very unusual experience being truly lost, confused, and worried in the woods at night.  During the last hour of my run I could feel panic rising, could observe myself making snap decisions without stopping to reason, rushing around in the dark risking injury when I should have slowed down.  Even at the time part of me knew what I was doing and how I should calm down I really didn't act on those feelings. Headed down a trail I wondered if I had really read the last sign correctly, without heeding the desire to double check the signs and the intersection.  In retrospect I ended up making good decisions, but I could easily have made bad ones; a sobering thought.

Was I in danger of spending a night in the woods?  Possibly, but not likely unless I had gotten hurt.  You're never far from civilization in the Fells and there's always the sound of cars nearby.  My bigger concern was getting hurt by falling or twisting an ankle in the dark which could have led to an unpleasant night for sure. But seeing the cars on South Border road was still a huge relief; I could feel the built up tension release when I stepped out past the gate.  Even with the pain in my foot I was walking easier.

Lessons learned:
  1. Never underestimate the woods
  2. If you start out within 3 hours of sunset, bring a light source
  3. Don't assume you know where trails go, check the maps
  4. Don't panic - you have good woods skills so use them
  5. Explore new terrain earlier in the day
 Here's the GPS track for the run. Replaying it I can feel the anxiety when I realized that I was looping on the same trail and back tracked.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! Glad you made it out safe. The Fells, though so close to town, can post some real danger. People don't realize it.