We are lost. I’ve known it for about half an hour but keep telling myself I can get back on track. I’m headed in the right direction. We’ll make it to the parking lot soon.
“Just keep moving buddy!” I keep saying to the second person who’s lost with me in one of Colorado’s 14ers. The hike was labeled easy for beginners but I somehow still managed to get off trail and ended up knee and hip deep in snow with no sign of human traffic for as far as I can see.
We started with a group of four but frustration and desire to get back to the car before the sun went down propelled two of us ahead of the others, unfortunately in the wrong direction.
I knew it the moment we were off trail. The first half an hour I replayed this point in my mind repeatedly torturing myself mentally while the terrain and varying snow depths challenged me and my partner physically.
I had an app on my phone that was supposed to tell me where the trail was and where I was to help guide me on my way. When I checked it to try to figure out a way back my phone said it had one percent battery left. Deflated, I told my partner to keep moving, to keep me moving as much as him.
We trudged on seeing a lone snow shoer ahead. I called out,“Do you know where the trail is?” He replied not turning toward us,“If I did, I wouldn’t be here.”
Again, I scanned the area and saw no sign of the trail. I began to follow our fellow lost adventurer because at least he was another human out here and maybe we’d find our way back.
He too had an app but had trouble using it. We conversed a few times throughout the following half hour trying to find our way back to the trail. Ultimately he said we had to go back up the mountain.
My partner was shorter than me and struggling to make his way through. I knew telling him we had to go back up the mountain was going to break him but I also knew I didn’t want to get farther away from the only other person we’d see since we lost the trail.
He shed a few tears but powered through. He sighed and struggled. I knew he was facing off with snow with each step. Each time the margin between winning and losing narrowed. But we did it, we made it to the trail. We gladly stepped freely. The ice that accumulated in our boots began to melt making it feel like walking in puddled water inside our shoes. But we were grateful. We began to get feeling back in our hands and we were moving, the blood was moving and we were making progress.
And just like that the trail vanished before our eyes, as did our fellow hiker. I asked my partner can you see him. He called, “Sir?” and his far way reply was mumbled. We asked where the trail went, again we barely heard mumbled sound. We began to get more scared. We called for our other two hikers as we had since we’d been lost. Up to this point we never heard a response. My partner started to really fear what was going to happen. He called more often for our partner and finally he heard us and responded. Tears almost immediately filled my eyes. This was the first moment I thought we might actually make it out tonight and together.
“Just follow my voice,” he said. But our other lost hiker had told us to stay where other tracks had been and we ventured farther away. Our partner on the trail recognized we were moving in the wrong direction, still.
“Do you want me to come to you?” he said.
Frankly, I just wanted someone to come and carry us out so we could be sure we weren’t lost anymore. We could finally see him and we started to walk through the deep snow in his direction. As we got within arm’s reach, we were paralyzed by the best sight we’d seen in the last hour. The sight of our person who knew how to get us out of here.
He helped us get back on the trail and then quickly piled on more coats and jackets. He put hand warmers in our gloves as our hands didn’t bend anymore. We were covered head to toe in snow that turned our clothes into ice. He guided us down the mile that separated us from the warm vehicle and transportation home. He kept us from slipping and falling. He kept talking to us to keep us focused, though our responses were sometimes gibberish.
He found us and he saved us.
This may sound dramatic but I haven’t been that scared in as long as I can remember. What made it worse was my lost partner was my 11-year old son, and I was responsible for him being lost. I was responsible for getting him into a spot that I couldn’t get us out of alone. His dad was the one who eventually saved us. And as soon as I saw him the other lost hiker vanished from my consciousness. My husband returned to him his ski poles and thanked him for his help. I had nothing. I could only see my husband. The father of my kids who once again got to us “not a moment too soon.”
What we did right: We had plenty of provisions, water and gear. We mapped out the trail. We knew the time it would take and when we’d have to turn around in order to beat sunset. We stayed within eyesight of each other and stayed on the trail as we progressed up the mountain.
What I did wrong: I wasn’t familiar enough with the app to use it accurately. I left my phone backup battery in the car. We didn’t have additional resources to be able to communicate with each other on the trail—none of our phones had service. We didn’t eat or drink anything once we began hiking and began depleting our reserve pretty quick (especially in the deep snow). We didn’t stay together.
We’ve lived in Colorado for nearly 20 years. We hike regularly as a family. We’ve taken other winter treks with no issues. I am a planner and we planned in order for this to be a safe family activity. Even with that, things can go wrong. I take no joy in sharing this experience other than to prevent someone else from being over confident in some of Colorado’s great outdoors. Please be careful. Please be prepared and hike with a group and stay together.