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Lost in the (Actual) Wilderness: Ventana Big Pines Report

Posted Jun 01 2010 12:00am

“Just because I'm hurting, doesn't mean I'm hurt –
Doesn't mean I didn't get what I deserve –
No better and no worse –
I just got lost ... ”
- Coldplay, “Lost” (video after post)

Each time I’ve ventured into the Ventana Wilderness, at some point or another the same thought has occurred to me: it would suck to get lost in here. The steep canyons and rugged terrain are inhospitable to human intruders even in the best of conditions; to get stuck (or worse yet, disoriented) in one of these remote areas seemed like a great way to invite tragedy upon yourself.

So it might have been a case of subconscious curiosity (you know – the thing that killed the cat) which led me to accidentally venture off course in the midst of a group run two weekends ago. Or perhaps it was due to poor trail conditions. Most likely of all is that I’m just an idiot. I’ll tell the story, and you can decide for yourself.

The morning started off unremarkably, as several of us set out from the trailhead with the goal of reaching a peak called Big Pines, approximately 9 miles away. Truthfully, “trailhead” might be a generous term, since the trail was almost completely overgrown; what you see here in the first mile is about as well defined as it got all morning long.

If there’s an upside, it’s that much of the overgrowth consisted of wildflowers, in particular the purple lupine that would eventually prove to be a lifeline of sorts for me later in the day. Then again, the wildflowers might have been my undoing to begin with – but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here.

Believe it or not, we weren’t off trail here; just neck high in wild grasses that caused us to stop and orient ourselves to maps and landmarks much more frequently than any of us expected.

This landmark was easy: Blue Rock Ridge obviously takes its name from this distinctive granite outcropping nestled between two adjacent peaks. It’s also where I’d receive an impromptu lesson in survival tactics before everything was said and done.

Remember this post from March, when I complained that a full morning of running hadn’t even brought us to the official wilderness boundary? Needless to say, when we passed this sign less than a quarter-mile past the blue rocks, I was feeling pretty satisfied with myself.

So much, in fact, that I really didn’t mind that long stretches of the “trail run” had pretty much turned into a “bushwhacking hike” as we tried to navigate sections of trail that were just barely navigable.

The official trail is supposed to intersect and cross this firebreak at several spots. The break was bulldozed by the California Department of Forestry a couple of years ago as a last line of defense against wildfires that seriously threatened Carmel Valley, and it has since proven to be a safety measure for wilderness explorers as well. The conventional fallback plan for hikers who lose the official trail is to stay on the firebreak, and you’ll eventually be able to locate the trail – and if not, you’ll at least be able to find your way back to the starting point again. File that piece of information away for later.

Also, on the subject of the firebreak: it was pretty remarkable to all of us that the most prevalent feature of the overgrown breakline was the abundance of lupines that stood out for their grayish purple hue in the distance. It was the trail equivalent of following the Yellow Brick Road through the vast, mysterious, potentially dangerous Land of Oz. Or maybe that was just me.

Every now and then we’d catch a break and find a fairly well-described portion of trail to follow for a while, and I found myself drifting a good distance behind the rest of the group …

... mainly because I was snapping my camera like crazy at the wildflowers or canyon vistas that were prevalent in every direction.

Even when the trail started to get overgrown again, I didn’t worry too much about it …

… because the trees of Big Pines were visible off in the distance, so I knew we were getting close to our destination. Or so I thought.

By the time we started the final climb to Big Pines, I had drifted pretty far behind the others – and this photo would end up being the last I saw of them for three hours. Apparently shortly after this point, I somehow veered off of whatever consensus trail existed …

... most likely distracted by taking pictures of this area, which no one else in the group seems to recognize. We were in a section of the forest that had been severely damaged by the recent wildfires, and one of my favorite scenes to witness in nature is the way life regains a foothold, time and time again, even in places of horrible destruction. It’s a powerful metaphor on a lot of different levels, and, um … it’s possible that I might have become lost in my thoughts somewhere around here and stopped paying attention to the trail.

But here’s the thing: it took me a very long time to realize I was off course, because this particular section of the hillside wasn’t any more overgrown or indecipherable than the previous 8 miles we had just trudged through. The fact that I couldn’t actually see a trail didn’t automatically trigger an alarm of any sort – and I had been trailing the group so routinely that I always figured they were just out of sight around the next curve. It probably took me about 20 minutes to figure out that wasn’t the case.

By the time I concluded I was off trail, I figured that my chances of actually retracing my steps and finding the official, ‘very hard to distinguish the first time around’ trail might prove difficult. Since I saw blue sky overhead, I decided that I’d just keep going uphill, and eventually make it to the top of Big Pines and meet up with the rest of the group.

And that plan might have worked … if the rest of the group hadn’t figured out I was missing and started backtracking to see where I went off course. Turns out I probably should have thought of that.

After several minutes of scrambling up slopes that proved much steeper than they initially appeared, I found my first sign of hope: the Purple Flower Road that marked both the firebreak, and a certain route back to civilization at some point. But instead of heading back down to the first trail junction I recognized, I went to the top of the hill and started shouting my fool head off, hoping to hear some sort of response from the rest of my group. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing like crazy, and all my shouting was pretty much futile.

Finally I decided to start the long haul down the firebreak, with the ridgeline flowers visible in the distance to reassure me that I’d ultimately make it back in one piece. It was at this point, however, that I began to worry about what the rest of the group might be doing - that they might be concerned that I was lost or hurt or something worse, and sacrificing their own plans and schedules to spend extra time tracking me down. That’s not exactly a pleasant feeling.

Once I finally reached the last known trail junction, I noticed this hat – which seemed odd, because I didn’t remember seeing it on the way in. At first I thought, maybe someone in my group left it? But then …

… Nah. None of my group works for the US Census. Couldn’t be them. Oh well.

(So here’s a little test for you: what should that hat have told me? The answer follows shortly.)

The ridgeline return wasn’t nearly as easy as I was hoping; apparently the reason the official trail frequently goes off the ridge is because the slopes that go straight up and over each successive peak are incredibly steep. And remember how the firebreak was created? By bulldozer, which meant that underneath the tall grass lurked unseen rocks, broken branches, potholes, and all manner of debris. I lost my footing more than a few times here, and emerged with some fairly bloody legs by the end of the day.

On the plus side, the views were still nice. Whatever.

When I passed the sign marking my exit from the official wilderness, I had to admit that my journey here wasn’t quite what I hoped or expected – but I suppose that’s why they call it the wilderness, anyway.

This is my friend Brian, who’s a decent enough guy; I’ve always liked him in a regular dude way. But when I saw him chasing me down - followed closely thereafter by the rest of the group -while I rested at Blue Rock Ridge, I swear that part of me wanted to sprint across the field and jump into his arms like a soldier coming home from war. I haven’t been that happy to see somebody in a very long time – because I knew I had finally been found.

Brian’s also a super-experienced outdoorsman who feels as much at home in remote, desolate wilderness areas as you and I do on our living room couches. On that note, here’s what he said I should have done in my situation, and the answer to the blue hat question …

Once I figured out I was off trail, my best course of action would have been to backtrack the last known trail spot and hold my position. Apparently only idiots keep looking for the top of the hill. And even though I doubted I could retrace my steps to the trail, I might have recognized some landmarks that would eventually lead me to the vicinity (as in, possible shouting distance) of where I had ventured off.

And the hat? My friends did put it there. Further up the trail from Big Pines, they came across a campsite and found it abandoned on the hillside. Knowing its color would attract attention, they put it on the last known trail junction that we were together to let me know that they had been there, and were doubling back and forth on the trail to look for me. Which means I could have saved them a lot of looking if I hadn’t kept moving towards the car at that point.

Here’s my favorite part of Brian’s story: once they returned to the hat a second time, the way they knew I was alive and moving back to the car was by tracking me through the grass like hunters. He used my imprints to determine which way I was heading, and could tell every time I missed the official trail to stay on the firebreak. I’m sure they could probably see all the spots I stumbled as well, but they were polite enough to not tell me.

Thankfully, we were all together again as we saw the dam that marked our entrance point to the wilderness, and the rest of the run finished without incident. The whole way down, I couldn't help dwelling on what an idiot I had been.

I wish I didn't have to be an experiential learner on this one - because getting lost in the wilderness really does suck. I wasn't even in any grave danger, but the whole experience made me feel bad for what I had put the rest of the group through when they were wondering what the heck happened to me. Maybe the bad day was what I deserved for being an idiot, but I wish I hadn't contributed to a bad day for anyone else.

So ... yeah. Don't get lost, kids. It's not as glamorous as it may seem.

On a completely unrelated topic: I wore my VivoBarefoot Evos for this adventure, and aside from the dozens of grass burrs stuck in my socks, they felt pretty comfortable all day long. I obviously had some footing issues on the super-steep ridgeline, but these weren't exactly groomed trails I was traversing. On the whole, I was confident enough in how they performed to try using them for my 100K this coming weekend.

The way things are going for me lately - going off course at Quicksilver, along with this run - footwear may be the least of my concerns at the race. As long as I stay on course, don't venture off trail, and make it to the finish line in one piece, I'll consider the day a success.

I know, I know ... I like Coldplay. We've discussed this before. And I'll even concede that the studio version of this song was a little sleepy for my tastes - if you'll admit that the percussion-heavy live version that follows below is pretty darn cool.

Coldplay, "Lost", live in Tokyo (click to play)

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