June 16, 2018. A day forever engraved in my mind; the day I got lost in the Medicine Bow National Forest. My feet traveled more trails in the forest than the average person. I spent the previous summer hiking the quiet, less-trodden paths. But I never hiked the backside of Medicine Bow Peak. From pictures it looked less crowded than the main trail and on June 16th my soul needed an adventure.
Mistake #1: My weekends filled up with part-time work at the Chamber of Commerce office serving tourists. I answered their questions on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. I got off work on June 16th at 3 p.m. I’ve been in the mountains in the late afternoon in the past. Many times I cut my trips short or peeled a soaking wet sweater off afterward. I headed to the mountains anyway.
When I got to the Lake Marie parking lot several people headed back to their cars after a day of recreating. I spotted others around the lake as they continued fishing.
I grabbed my trekking poles, threw my sweater and some snack bars into my pack and started up the trail head.
Mistake #2: Not far into my hike, snow covered the trail. I post holed through the first section of snow, but once I got through no path alpine grasses and mud sat underneath my feet. I looked across the horizon line, found a cairn and hiked my way to it. A burst of confidence surged through me once back on the trail and in good in hands. I continued up along the backside of the Snowy Range and again found snow covering the trail. I scoped out the next cairn and walked around the snow. I did this one more time until I looked upon my destination. A light gray cloud hid Medicine Bow Peak.
Mistake #3: I’ve hiked in the rain before, so I continued. Until I saw lightening. It flashed like lightning, but I didn’t actually see a bolt. Not ready to die, I turned around. Except the path no longer existed. Snow blinded me. Not a single cairn emerged from the drifts. My footprints couldn’t be seen because I had stayed on top of the snow most of the way up. I came from the west, so I headed back in that direction.
And that’s where the real adventure began. I scrambled down and around jagged rocks hoping to see the Lake Marie Parking lot and my car. My knees rammed into the wet slabs of granite as I slipped and fell many times.
Finally I saw a pair of lakes. But it didn’t look like Lake Marie, Mirror Lake or Lookout Lake. I slid to the bottom of the hillside and walked around the bank of the lakes. The landscape didn’t offer anything familiar.
After looking up how far I was from my car two days prior to posting this, I discovered I was 9,374 feet from where I parked my car.
I saw footprints around the bank of the lake even though drifts of snow at least two feet deep bordered the water. I made my way around the bank in the direction the footprints appeared to be heading. Halfway to the other side of the lake the footprints disappeared until I came to a dirt road. The footprints returned and I followed them down the road.
What sun remained sunk behind the mountains as storm clouds continued to roll in. I left the house at 9 in the morning. I sat in my car parked at the gas station at about 3 p.m. when I sent the last text of the day to my boyfriend detailing my plans. He might be wondering why my four hour hike lasted much longer.
My phone bounced from one to two bars as I searched my contacts for my boyfriend’s name. He answered.
The first words out of my mouth, “Okay don’t be mad or scared, but I’m lost.”
We did the best we could over a phone with hardly any signal to determine my location. I describe the road I stood on though I couldn’t tell him its name or where it started or ended. I promised I’d follow it down to the highway. His plan consisted of driving up and down the highway until he found me. Then my phone died.
As I continued the road became impassable with water gushing through a cut in the dirt path and roaring down into the dark abyss.
Throughout my hike I stayed on higher ground west of the highway. I decided to follow the fast-flowing stream downhill.
I tripped and fell over tree branches and rocks as I meandered around the water and down the hill. Once it got too dark for me to see the water from a safe distance from the bank. I quit walking. I found a fallen log and dug underneath it with my hands and pocket knife until I made a hole big enough for me to fit.
My sweater clung to my body but didn’t offer any warmth, so I took it off and draped it over the log. I pulled a long sleeve shirt out of my backpack to replace the sweater. I ate half of a bar and pulled my sweater back around myself as my teeth chattered.
I wondered if my boyfriend called the county sheriff’s office. I heard the beating a helicopter rotor. A spotlight scanned the forest. Each time I heard the helicopter it sounded like it would hover away before coming back. Later I learned that search and rescue didn’t come out during the night. They followed direction to wait until the sun came up the next day, so I didn’t actually hear or see anything.
I slept for some period of time even though I shivered all night. When the sun came up I felt wide awake. I scrambled out from underneath the log I lived under until morning. I continued following the water down the hill. In the distance I saw a culvert. Water goes through culverts to avoid washing out a ROAD! I’ve never been happier in my life to see a culvert.
I hopped onto the road and started walking one way. Then I second guessed myself and headed the other direction. When I came to a “No Trespassing” sign I turned around and followed my first instinct.
I turned around and headed back the way I started. I passed a vacant truck and then came upon a second where I saw a couple packing up.
“Excuse me sir,” I said to the man loading something into the back. When he looked up I asked, “Do you know how far I am from the highway?”
“Not too far if you keep going the way you’re headed,” He replied. “Are you lost?”
Not anymore. While I didn’t know my exact location I could find my way to the highway and follow it to my car. I explained I got lost while hiking.
“How long have you been lost?” his wife asked with concern.
“Since last night.”
Getting ready to leave their campsite, the couple said they would drive me to my car after they finished packing up their gear. My car looked inviting, sitting and waiting for me at the Lake Marie parking area. The parking lot, filled with vehicles the afternoon before, sat empty with only one truck with my car.
Once I got inside my car I took off my sweater, now dirty, cold and wet. I plugged my phone into the car charger and pulled on my winter coat. I thanked myself for leaving the jacket in the backseat even though the weather at home didn’t call for it anymore.
As I drove down the highway off the mountain toward home, I saw search and rescue vehicles headed up.
“Damn, that’s for me.” I mumbled. Tears welled in my eyes with mixed emotions. People out there care about me. If my brother never bothered to teach me survival skills, the service these guys provided would become essential to my life.
I drove to where the highway turns off and parked off to the side. I turned my phone on and saw a text from a woman who works dispatch for the county sheriff’s office asking me to call. I obeyed and told her my location. She told me a deputy would meet with me to make sure I didn’t need medical attention and to take a statement.
The search and rescue crew came first. They all checked in on me asking if I planned to report on my incident for the radio newscast on Monday. Famous in a small town. Soon the deputy arrived. He asked me if I needed care, if I ate and drank enough food and water while lost and if I could drive home. After assuring him a warm house and a nap would cure me, the deputy sent me home.
I got home and hugged my boyfriend. After I recounted the brief version of the story, I took a hot shower and slept for a few hours.
Press release from the Sheriff’s Office:
Were you scared? I heard this question many times for the next month. I can honestly say no. I didn’t allow myself to get scared. My anxiety tried to take hold of me a few times, but I reminded myself that being scared wouldn’t help my situation. I needed to use my head to get through.
Each time anxiety tried to creep in, I took a moment to pray. A calmness washed over me and I trusted myself to move forward.
I hope somebody can learn something from my “adventure.” You can know the right steps to take in any situation and still make mistakes. Sometimes you let your desires and your confidence overtake your common sense. The tools to make the right decisions were in my brain, but I let my wish to hike the backside of Medicine Bow Peak intervene and take control.
There are a few items I wish I would have had with me now that I’ve experienced being lost in the forest. Most of the items are things I can easily store in my backpack and will become some of my essential items. One of those items is a space blanket to help me stay warm. I also keep my winter coat in my pack these days. I additionally have a backpacking stove and matches that I intend to keep in my pack for my adventures.
Most importantly, I always bring a GPS with me now. I have an app on my phone called Avenza Maps that works great! (Not sponsored) I’m obsessed with it and will have a blog post later about how great it is. It’s a free map app with a library of almost any map you could think of. Sometimes the maps cost money, but I haven’t seen any that are over $5. And you safety is worth more than that. Today I have three maps that cover the area where I was misplaced.
My last message for you is to donate to your local search and rescue! I’m truly grateful for the team we have here in Carbon County. Also thanks to the couple who brought me back to my car!