Lost and Alone: A Solo Thru-Hiker’s Perspective

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26 days lost, alone, and starving. Inchworm (Geraldine Largay) had gotten lost while backpacking along the Appalachian Trail and had survived for at least 26 days before perishing in the backwoods of Maine. I didn’t want to imagine it, but as I read the heart-wrenching words in her journal, imploring whoever found her body to let her loved ones know that she was dead and where to find her, I couldn’t help it. It’s the kind of thing that both tragic heroes and horror stories are made of.

I’d had similar thoughts in far less dire circumstances on my solo PCT thru-hike in 2014. Deep in the high sierra, alone, exhausted, hungry, and trudging through the snow with no trail in sight, no people in sight, and surrounded by nameless white peaks I was was overwhelmed by the realization that if I was truly lost, I might die out there and my body might never be found. I’d thought that I’d come terms with the risks and solitude of solo backpacking, but the thought that if something happened to me my family and the people I cared about might not even find my body… it haunted me as I doggedly plunged through the snow, postholing along the route where I imagined the trail to be.

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As it turns out, I wasn’t lost. I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Sure, I’d like to imagine that my experience, my GPS, my map, and my compass, would prevent me from ending up in a situation like Inchworm’s, but I have enough experience to know that sh** happens, the mountains are unforgiving, and nobody is perfect.

Instead of second guessing Inchworm’s decisions and her personal character (read this article in the New York Times and this one in the Portland Press Herald if you want to reassure yourself that this could never happen to you because you’re a better outdoors-person than Inchworm was), let’s take a more objective look at how prepared she was.

Bushwhacking through the dense forest in Maine a couple of miles away from where Inchworm was found.

Did she have the “10 essential” pieces of gear every hiker should carry?

She had at least 9/10 of the essentials listed on the HikeSafe website:

  1. Map (yes)
  2. Compass (yes)
  3. Warm Clothing (yes)
  4. Extra Food and Water (yes)
  5. Flashlight or Headlamp (yes)
  6. Matches/Firestarters (yes)
  7. First Aid Kit/Repair Kit (yes)
  8. Whistle (yes)
  9. Rain/Wind Jacket & Pants (yes)
  10. Pocket Knife (unknown to me)

It looks to me like she was fairly well prepared (in terms of gear). Besides, she had enough stuff so that she was able to survive for 26 days after getting lost, which is pretty damn impressive if you ask me.

FYI: Many thru-hikers I know skimp on this list (especially the map, compass, and whistle). I didn’t carry an emergency whistle on my AT thru-hike until I was gifted one by the folks at the Mt. Washington Observatory on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. I’ve carried it ever since.

Did she share her travel plan?

According to the HikeSafe website you should “tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you will return and your emergency plans.”

Inchworm shared her travel plan. Her husband knew her planned 3-day itinerary, saw her off, and planned to meet her at the next trail intersection.

Graphic: James Abundis/Globe Staff (Note that peak labeled Redington Mountain is not the 4000 footer; Redington Mt. is unlabeled)

Did she S.T.O.P.? (Stop, think, observe, plan)

If you get lost on an outdoor adventure, the general advice is that you should stop (or sit), think, observe, and plan (STOP). All of the evidence suggests that Inchworm did stop, think, observe, and plan, although it can be argued that she should have stopped sooner. The more detailed advice provided by Hike Safe says, “if the last known location is within a reasonable distance, try to go back to it. If you can’t find any recognizable landmarks by backtracking, stay put,” and further elaborates, “you may need to be on higher ground in order to identify landmarks such as streams and ridges.”

The evidence suggests that Inchworm followed this advice, perhaps to a fault. After realizing she was lost she headed to higher ground to try to get her bearings (and to try to get cell phone service) and then she stayed put. With 20/20 hindsight it’s easy to criticize her decision to stay put, but “staying put” and “charging on” are both considered reasonable actions after a few days of waiting for rescue according to some sources.

Did she do the “5 things” you should do if you can’t rescue yourself?

According to hike safe the 5 things you should do if you can’t rescue yourself are:

  1. Stay warm and protect yourself from the elements. If possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.
  2. Try to remain hydrated.
  3. Put bright clothing on, or put out something that’s bright to attract attention.
  4. Continue to blow your whistle at regular intervals
  5. Don’t lie on bare ground. Use the equipment you brought to protect yourself from the elements.

At first glance the evidence suggests that Inchworm did all 5 things. However, there’s that second sentence in step 1, “if possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.” Inchworm’s camp was in a warm and protected space, but it wasn’t readily visible from the air and ground. It seems likely that she looked for an open space and didn’t find one, so opted for higher ground not knowing that there was a nearby ATV road. There is evidence that she tried to increase here visibility by hanging her mylar blanket in the trees and there’s eveidence that she tried to light signal fires.

A campsite in an open area near the Appalachian Trail in Vermont

FYI: Open spaces can be hard to come by in New England’s backcountry, and most of us are used to pitching our tents under the cover of trees. This is especially true since we know that the fields are full of ticks (Lyme Disease is endemic), and camping is strictly prohibited in most other open areas along the trails in the Northeast. “If you can’t see them, they can’t see you” is a helpful reminder if you’re only hope is a helicopter rescue. It’s also important to know that most searches on the ground never get more than 1/2 a days hike from the nearest road, so if you’re backpacking in a remote area you’re best hope is probably going to be getting sighted by someone in the air.

Conclusion

Based on the Hike Safe Hiker Responsibility code developed by the White Mountains National Forest and New Hampshire Fish and Game, I’d have to declare Inchworm a responsible (and prepared) hiker. In TV survival shows like Naked and Afraid they drop people into the wilds and see if they can survive for 21 days. Inchworm survived for at least 26 days in the wild, and in my opinion that deserves a heck of a lot of respect. Misfortune, tragedy, and death should not be mistaken lack of preparedness, lack of moral fiber, or irresponsibility. Were there things that she could have done differently? Undoubtedly. Does the evidence suggest that she was ill-prepared, or incompetent? No.

Our Role: The Hiking Community

Although there has been lots of discussion about what Inchworm did wrong, and a lot of second-guessing of her actions, I haven’t seen much reflection on what we, as a hiking community, could have done better, or things that search and rescue could have done differently. Take a look at the reduced search area where efforts were focused after the first 7 days.

Map of the narrowed search area for Inchworm

Now take a look at the location where Inchworm was found.

Though earlier searches had come very close to her actual location, later searches focused on a different section of the trail. Why? How did they end up focusing on the wrong stretch of trail? I’m sure that there are a lot of reasons, but one contributing factor could be “a tip the warden service received about a hiker who reportedly stayed with Largay at the Spaulding Mountain lean-to the night before she was reported missing.” Certainly when I hiked through the area in late September the prevailing opinion was that she had gotten lost somewhere between the summit of Lone Mountain and the Carrabassett River (and I’d thought that the river might have done her in). We were all wrong.

She’d made a wrong turn at Orbeton Stream, and was found  much closer to the Poplar Ridge Lean-to than anyone expected (GPS Coordinates of her final location: N44 59.011 W70 24.099). When you look at the time, effort, and heart that went into the search for her by both search and rescue and the hiking community it’s impossible to find fault, but it is a reminder that we should be careful when trusting our memories, and with our reporting of events.

This map shows the tracks of searchers and the location where the remains of Geraldine Largay were found.

Heartbreaking map of the search areas, with a yellow dot showing Inchworm’s final location.

Yeah, but what did she do wrong?

Let’s take a look at the things people say that Inchworm did wrong.

Inchworm hiked alone. Inchworm started out with a hiking partner, but when her hiking partner got off of the trail due to a family emergency she decided to continue on. Although there is no guarantee that hiking with others will keep you safe, there is also no doubt that there is “safety in numbers,” and Inchworm was hiking alone when she got lost.  There are lots of reasons why people hike alone. I always invite other people to join me on my adventures, but when I can’t find people to join me, I frequently make the decision to hike alone. I love hiking and backpacking, and I have no intention of letting the fact that I’m solo deter me from following my dreams. For me, the benefit is worth the risk. That said, I try to minimize that risk as much as I can… lost, alone, and starving to death is not my idea of a good time!

Inchworm may not have known how to use her compass. Inchworm’s friend Jane Lee said that even though Inchworm carried a compass she didn’t know how to use it. Regardless of whether or not this assertion is true, it serves as an important reminder that your safety gear is useless if you don’t know how to use it. If you are a hiker that carries a compass, when is the last time that you used it? Chances are pretty good that a little practice and review with a map and compass would do you good. I think that it is also worth noting that most of the “concerning evidence” reported about Inchworm’s incompetence comes from the hiking partner who had to leave Inchworm and the trail because of a family emergency. As her hiking partner is human, it is incredibly likely that Inchworm’s disappearance was traumatic for her and that she was struggling to understand her friend’s disappearance and trying to bridge the gap between knowing that her friend’s disappearance was not her fault, and feeling like Inchworm wouldn’t have gotten lost if she had still been there hiking with her… Coming to terms with those feeling in the immediate aftermath of Inchworm’s disappearance may have caused her to overemphasize her concerns.

My impromptu backcountry campsite nestled under the trees near Mt. Abraham in Maine

Inchworm stayed in one place for too long. This criticism largely seems like a hindsight is 20/20 kind of issue. Inchworm followed conventional wisdom, sheltering in place, near water, and minimizing her hypothermia risks. I haven’t seen any guidelines that say that you should abandon your camp and move on if rescue hasn’t arrived within a day or two (please comment and share if you’ve found any). Bumbling around in the woods, especially after you’re been lost and when you have a dwindling supply of food, puts you at a high risk of injury and will cause you to burn calories and eat through your resources more quickly. I don’t think Inchworm stayed in one place for too long, it is more likely that she stayed in the wrong place for too long.

Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her. The missing person’s report states “SPOT@hotel.” Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her! Why? Why would it be listed as “SPOT@hotel”? Why didn’t she have it with her? My guess is that it’s absence from her gear and her person was 100% accidental. Why she’d taken it out of/off of her pack we may never know (perhaps to replace the batteries?), but this is the most tragic example of “your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you” that I have ever heard! Would Inchworm have been found? Would she be alive today if she’d had her locator device with her and activated it? Probably. Is there a lesson to be learned here? Yes! Your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you!

An InReach satellite messenger lent to me by my friend Root Beer Float

What would I do differently?

If I get lost, I want to get found!! When I think about what I could do differently one thing immediately comes to mind. I can carry some sort of personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger with me. Sure, it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll be found and rescued, (Kate Matrosova had a GPS, a PLB, and a sat phone with her when she perished in the White Mountains in the winter of 2015), but it certainly increases the chances.

The only question is, which device should I carry? Since I’m looking for a device/technology that my life may depend on, I’ve done a lot of research on the current SOS/locator/messenger technology and devices available. Stay tuned for my analysis, gear-review, and decision based on the three main options:

For more information on what you should do if you get lost and how to avoid getting lost, check out NOHLs “What to do when you’re lost in the woods” post.

USGS Topo Map showing the GPS Coordinates where Inchworm was found along with the AT and 4WD roads nearby.

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My 10 Most Awe Inspiring Hikes

Someone posted a link to Outside Magazine’s 10 most Dangerous Hikes on my Facebook Timeline a couple of weeks ago, which got me thinking about what my version of that list would look like. Weather and lack of preparation can combine to make almost any hike dangerous, but when The mountains are beautiful and amazing, but they should always be approached with respect, proper preparation, and a malleable plan so that you can adapt and deal with the unexpected. When I think back on the last 20 years of hiking and backpacking that I’ve done around the country and around the world there are a some hikes that stick out in my memory as having filled me with awe… Here is the list of my top 10 most awe-inspiring hikes:

1. The Daikiretto in the Japan Alps

I was awed by the heights, the exposure, the foreignness and the beauty of this trail. The Daikiretto in Japan is a climb along one of the most beautiful, most exposed, and most adrenaline-inducing knife edges in the world (from Mount Hotaka, 10,466′ to Mount Yari, 10,433′). Full of tough rock scrambles, skittering scree, precipitous drop-offs, rusty iron chains to grasp, and blasted footholds in sheer cliff faces, it manages to get everyone’s adrenaline pumping for the hours it takes to get from one side to the other. Accidentally kicking a rock and watching it go careening down thousands of feet reminds you that if you don’t respect the mountain and your position on it you’ll end up like one of the dozen or so hikers that die there each year.

2. The Bisse du Ro in Switzerland

I was awed by the heights, the exposure, and the history of this route. The Bisse du Ro carried water through the mountains to Crans-Montana from the 15th century until the 1940’s and was maintained by local villagers throughout that time. Crouching under the overhangs with nothing more than two wooden planks separating you from the sky is not for the weak at heart (they even have a sign posted to that effect at the beginning of the trail). Plaques commemorating both the people that died while maintaining the aquaduct and the people that died hiking it are inset along the cliff-face with dates ranging from the time it was constructed through the present, and provide a not so gentle reminder about why your adrenaline is pumping.

3. Crater Lake, Oregon.

I was awed by the solitude and the sheer volume of snow on my midwinter backpacking trip. Crater Lake in the Southern Cascades of Oregon gets an average of 44 feet of snow each year as it is transformed into a winter wonderland. Setting off into a world of white and shadows in the middle of a blizzard made me pause, our car sat alone in the parking lot, letting us know that we truly would have the park to ourselves as we set of into the expansive white nothingness. There was no trail, no road, no views, just white shadowy dunes of snow constantly shifting and sliding around us and transforming the world into a winter wonderland of it’s own design.

4.Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland

I was awed by the freshness of the mountain, still glowing red and venting ash, and the contrast between it and the surrounding glaciers. Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption, less than a year before I visited, had caught the world by surprise. Surrounded by ice and fire, hiking over such newly formed mountain was a truly incredible experience! Realizing at the end of the day that the soles of our shoes, the tips of our hiking poles, and in some cases even our packs had been singed or melted as we hiked added some sobering perspective. Retracing our steps on a night hike later that evening revealed that the trail was still glowing red hot in many places!

5. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

I was awed by the strangeness, the altitude, the beauty, and the people. At over 19,000 feet, the sheer altitude of Kilimanjaro sticking up out of the surrounding plains is awe-inspiring. Struggling for breath as you wander through her glaciers at dawn with everything sparkling from the ice, the light, or perhaps just a pinch of hypoxia is truly amazing. I found that Kilimanjaro also left me in awe of the giant chasms in privilege and wealth between those climbing the mountain and those living in the surrounding areas.

6. Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Switzerland and Austria

I was awed by the history, the scenery, and the weather. The Alps are the birthplace of mountaineering, and as a mountain climber, I had been hearing about them since my childhood. Hiking in the alps was, as I anticipated, breathtakingly beautiful, and arriving at mountain huts and being offered cold beer and fresh cheese was certainly awe-inspiring. The summer blizzard that rolled in as we were hiking, quickly concealing the trail and any sign of other hikers or civilization inspired an awe of a different sort. As we hiked along bouncing between the border of Switzerland and Austria, I concocted my worst case survival scenarios, which included using the sound of the distant cowbells to guide me off of the mountain and enacting a scene similar to Luke Skywalker and the Tantuan’s Belly… Somehow I managed to keep us on the trail and get us out of the mountains, but I hope to never be in a position of seriously considering a Star Wars based survival plan ever again!

7. Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica

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Cerro Chirripó

I found being able to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the summit of a single mountain to be awe-inspiring. Most of the hikes I do somehow make the world feel like a impossible big place, standing on one place and seeing both Oceans seemed to make the world feel a little bit smaller and more connected and in a good way. Though the elevation Costa Rica’s tallest mountain, Cerro Chirripó, at 12,533 feet doesn’t land it amongst the tallest mountain I’ve climbed, going from swimming in the ocean one day to the summit of Chirripó less than 48 hours later made the altitude (and it’s effects on my body) more obvious than on some of the much taller mountains that I’ve climbed. The changes in the flora, fauna, and terrain as you hike can be as stunning as those on Kilimanjaro.

8. Mount Rainier, Washington

The glaciers and snow on Mount Ranier (14,409′) as well as it’s spectacular beauty were awe-inspiring. Watching the sunlight hit the glaciers at dawn while roped up to your closest friends to make sure that nobody disappears down into the crevasses is an amazing experience. The sheer beauty and power that the glacier, the ice, and the cold have to shape our world is awe-inspiring. The fact that these glaciers are slowly melting or sublimating away and may not be there for the next generation helps me face the cold (I hate being cold) and inspires me to do my part to preserve them.

9. The Appalachian Trail (Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine)

Doing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail has to be in your list of most awe-inspiring hikes if you’ve done it. During my five months of hiking there were so many amazing moments with amazing people at amazing places that I can’t list them all here. There are moments that push limits you didn’t even know you had, and moments that you just sink into and enjoy. There are a few places and moments on my journey that stood out as getting my adrenaline pumping more than others: the Tornado Sirens and thunderstorm I got caught in outside of Pearisburg, VA,  severe weather on Mount Washington, NH, crossing through Mahoosuc Notch, ME with a full pack right before/after it turned to ice (but not during!), attempting to ford the Carrabasset River, ME after a flash flood, and summitting Mount Katahdin after walking there all the way from Georgia.

10. The Grand Canyon, Arizona

Heading into the Grand Canyon for a backpacking trip I was filled with awe at the sheer immensity of it. Seeing it on TV and standing on the rim only doesn’t prepare you for how amazing the canyon really is. Spending a night or two down in the canyon at Indian Garden Campground or Bright Angel Campground as you hike rim-to-rim-to-rim is a joy as long as you remember to carry enough water and don’t burn yourself out on the way down because the only way to go from there is up!

Honorable Mentions:

I consider rockclimbing and caving to be close relatives of hiking and mountaineering and couldn’t finish this post without these two honorable mentions:

11. Red Rocks, Nevada

Rockclimbing at Red Rocks I found that both the terrain and the exposure were awe-inspiring. It was three pitches up on a climb at Red Rocks that I learned that I have a fear of heights. It was beautiful and exhilarating, and I was absolutely terrified. I was dangling off of the cliff face, responsible for both my life and the life of my climbing partner, hanging from a bolt in the rock, and it was a very *very* long ways down.

12. Grutas Calcehtok, Mexico

I find that the complete absence of light and sound deep within the heart of a cave is awe-inspiring. As the guide turned out the lantern in a cavern deep within the Calcehtok caves we were enveloped in complete darkness and an almost oppressive silence. We sat there in awe, there were just three of us and the only noise was that of our heartbeats and our breath. There was absolutely no light. If our guide abandoned us there, would we be able to find our way out? We’d been on an adventure in the caves for well over an hour at that point, simply following the guide with his gas lit lantern as he led us through countless turns, intersections, and obstacles. Most of my caving adventures have been done with Spanish speaking guides, and I’ve learned that the darkness and silence are eerie, but I don’t get really spooked until the guide utters the phrase “pecho a tierra,” chest to the ground. When the only way to get through a passage is by wriggling or squirming on my belly, I can’t see where the rock opens up on the other side, and I’m not confident that I could successfully wriggle backwards out of the crack, that’s where I start to dislike confined spaces.

These ten hikes (and two honorable mentions) are the first ones that come to mind when someone asks me about my most awe-inspiring, incredible, and/or adrenaline-inducing hikes. The thing that unifies them all is that they forced me out of my comfort zones and helped me to think about myself and the world in new, beautiful, and amazing ways.