“It’s not your fault,” said the triple crowner (someone that’s hiked the AT, the PCT, and the CDT) sitting beside me. I was staring into the campfire dejectedly and not really participating in the boisterous conversation.
One of the thru-hikers was missing and I was the last person that saw him. It was not a good feeling. The hiker that was missing (I’ll call him Terry to preserve his anonymity), was the same hiker that had freed my leg from an impossibly deep posthole about a mile away from where I was now camped. After that, Terry and I had braved the snowfields and postholing mine field together as we descended towards RAE lakes.
At the edge of the lake there had been a sign indicating that sixty lakes basin trail peeled off to the left around the lake and the PCT veered to the right. I’d remembered from the map that the PCT crossed an isthmus between the RAE lakes and that the campsite we were headed for was on the far side of that isthmus, definite towards the right. Unfortunately, however, with all the snow and rocks the path across the isthmus was unclear.
“I’ve got a dead end,” said Terry who was slightly ahead of me. “I know the trail crosses the isthmus,” I said as I looked for a path on the boulders above and Terry looked for the path amongst the boulders and snow below.
“I’ve got trail-trail here,” I said as the muddy crease of the trail become obvious on the far side of the snow and boulders. “I’ve got trail on the lake shore here,” Terry countered. We were each on a trail and we were both confident that we were following the PCT. “This is definitely the trail,” I shouted towards him as our paths clearly diverged.
I’d hiked for another couple of minutes and then pulled out my GPS to double, triple, and quadruple check that I was on the right trail and that I had remembered the map correctly since the snow was still mostly obscuring the trail and I was completely exhausted. Yup, I was on the right trail… Just half a mile to go to the campsite.
Terry and I had had similar exchanges both going up and coming down Glen Pass, with me shouting “I’ve got trail-trail,” and him rerouting back towards me after he’d convinced himself that it was true, so I figured that that was what was going to happen this time too.
When I got to the campsite I dropped my pack, and plunked myself down… I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been that tired. Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass all in one day, with 9 days of food, tons of postholing, and a scary steep descent had left me both physically an emotionally worn out. Food and water… That’s what I needed to figure out now… I was guessing that my blood sugar was a little low and at least in part responsible for my miserable mood.
I went about my normal camp chores until about an hour later when Terry’s hiking partner Lisa (name also changed) arrived at the campsite. “Has anybody seen Terry?” She asked.
My heart sank, he should have arrived at the campsite long before Lisa did… She hikes much more slowly than he does. “I saw him about an hour ago, heading towards sixty lakes basin trail,” I said. I then explained to her the conversation that we’d had as we parted ways.
She was worried about him, but also exhausted. They’d gone over Forrester Pass that morning and then Glen Pass in the late afternoon and had had a very long day. She figured, like I did, that when he didn’t find the campsite or any other thru-hikers his way that he’d turn around and make his way back to where we were especially since he knew that I’d been on a trail going in a different direction than he was going in.
30 minutes later when three new thru-hikers showed up and hadn’t seen any sign of him Lisa started to worry more… 30 more minutes and another couple of thru-hikers arrived and still no sign of him… At this point I’d been at the campsite for about 2 hrs and he shouldn’t have been more than 15 minutes behind me… I was definitely worried, especially since Lisa was so worried. “It’s just so unlike him,” she kept saying.
I knew what direction he’d headed in and what trail he was probably on, but I didn’t know what we should do about it so I consulted with the other thru-hikers at the campsite. “Terry is missing, his hiking partner is here and I last saw him about 2 hours ago on the other side of the lake. What should we do?” There was some discussion, but the general consensus was that we should do nothing… Just wait and see if he showed up in the morning… He was a thru-hiker, he had everything he needed to survive the night.
As I sat and ate my dinner I was feeling pretty uncomfortable about things. I knew that it was too soon for us to mount a search and too close to dark, but I had to do something. He’d literally pulled me out of a low spot earlier in the day and doing nothing somehow felt like abandoning him… Lisa was also starting to get a bit frantic.
I had to concede that I couldn’t do much. I looked at the map and it looked the the trail he’d headed out on was a couple miles long. If he’d gone that far before realizing his mistake and turning around he’d probably be getting close to the initial intersection we’d had our debate about around now.
It was dusk, but still light enough to see the trail so I decided that going the 0.5 miles back to the split in the trail was something that I could do safely, especially since one of the other thru-hikers had offered to accompany me for the walk back down there. I didn’t know if it would help, but it would make me feel better, and I hoped that we’d find him walking up the trail towards us.
We retraced our steps for 0.5 miles around the lake… The scenery there, nestled amongst the lakes and mountains as the sun was setting was absolutely spectacular, but we didn’t see any sign of Terry. At the edge of the lake near the trail intersection we called out his name hoping to hear a response, some sign of where he might be. Nothing.
We turned around and headed back to camp… There wasn’t really anything else we could do until morning, other than hope that might show up sometime in the night or at least hope that he was ok. When we got back to camp someone had made a fire and everyone was sitting around the campfire warming their toes and chatting.
I sat down and just stared into the fire, “it’s not your fault,” said the triple crowner. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but I wished that I had been more forceful or insistent about being on the trail when we’d parted ways. I didn’t know Terry very well, I’d just met him that day, but I sincerely hoped he was ok. Lisa tried to reassure herself (and me) that he was fine… “He’s an experienced backpacker,” she said. “He knows what to do…” And he had his own sleeping bag, tent, and food, he should be fine… “It’s just not like him…” She trailed off.
As I headed off to bed I did not anticipate a good nights sleep… I was worried about a man that I hardly knew, but that I’d been the last person to talk to. All the stresses and emotions of the day erupted into a silent sob… It was all just too much.
One of the other thru-hikers walked by me on the way to his hammock and said, “Here Patches, you look like you could use some whiskey.” I choked back the sob and tried to smile… “Probably so,” I said as I took a swig.
I curled up in my sleeping bag and stared at the stars… It was going to be a cold night.
I spent a lot of that night gazing at the stars and trying to lose my thoughts in the Milky Way… I didn’t sleep well… Not at all. Morning came and there was still no sign of Terry. I packed my stuff up so that it would be ready for whatever we decided to do and then Lisa and I called another group meeting… What should we do?
First things first, we decided that we should go down to the lake and call out for Terry, hopefully he was just somewhere along the shore and would hear us.
Down at the lake we shouted for him a couple of times, but there was no response. We shouted a few more times just for good measure… Suddenly we heard something at the far end of the lake. We shouted again just to be sure and there was definitely a response!!! “Are you ok!!!!” Shouted Lisa. A garbled multi-syllable response came back, but the voice didn’t sound injured or panicked… We had at least some idea of where he was!
After talking to Lisa we decided that she would stay put and I would follow the PCT North (with a buddy), towards the far end of the lake, where it sounded like the voice was coming from. We assumed that as I got closer we’d be able to pinpoint where Terry was. We agreed that two short bursts of my emergency whistle (repeated after a delay) would signal that we’d found him safe and sound and that she could proceed up the trail to find him whenever she was ready. SOS (three short three long three short) would mean that we needed help and we’d send my buddy as a runner back to camp with details and figure out what to do from there.
I set off up the trail with a huge sense of relief. We had a plan and had an indication of where he was and that he was ok enough to shout, which meant he was pretty ok. A mile or so up the trail we found Terry, looking wornout, but completely fine. “Lisa’s been worried sick about you!” I said as I dropped my pack and pulled out my whistle.
“I got lost and bushwhacked my way around the lake. With all the postholing, by the time I got here I was just too exhausted to go any further,” said Terry. I nodded and gave two short blasts of the Emergency whistle. “Do you think I should head down the trail to where Lisa is?” He asked. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea,” i said before giving two more short toots of my whistle, happily signaling the all clear. As he trotted down the trail to meet up with Lisa I happily signaled the all clear on the whistle one more time.
I wasn’t sure whether Lisa was going to hug Terry or kill him when she saw him, but I had no doubt that there was going to be a long and interesting conversation when they reunited in a few minutes.
As I put the whistle away and hoisted my pack back up onto my shoulders my camera crashed to the ground, my beautiful telephoto lens separating from the body of the camera. I picked up the pieces… The camera still worked but the telephoto lens was busted. *sigh* No more bird pictures for me, but in the grand scheme of things loosing the lens seemed like a very small price to pay for finding Terry ok.