White Mountain on the far right.
It had been almost twenty years since I last made the short hike from Gibraltar Road to White Mountain. A couple of friends and I hiked up to its rocky crags for an afternoon spent exploring the boulders and caves. As the sun was setting we began heading back. By this time we weren’t seeing or thinking too clearly for one reason and another and we soon lost the trail which disappeared before us. We began combing the area in the fading light searching for the route off the mountain but nobody could find it. Then finally, while off alone pushing my way through the brush for some time, I located the trail and was able to lead the crew back to our vehicle.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon I parked on Gibraltar and took the same unmarked route up a small ravine that leads to the east flank of White Mountain. Off and on throughout the few hours I was out I thought of my last adventure on the mountain and how we barely made it off. It was due to luck brought about by unflagging effort that I had finally crossed over the trail and made it back to the car. It was an amusing experience to think back on as I climbed through the chaparral and manzanita now greatly thinned from recent wildfire and still regrowing. Little did I know I was about to repeat the very mishap that I underwent some 20 years earlier.
I arrive at the rocky crags and sparse pine trees and begin a leisurely look around, scrambling up and down gritty sandstone faces, crawling through tunnels and caves and climbing atop some of the more prominent monoliths. I find a sizable rock riddled with little caves that weave through its innards like mole tunnels, and that has a half bowl-like alcove facing due west looking into the sun, which is by now low in the sky but still above the horizon. I find a comfortable spot and lay back against the warm stone on this cool winter afternoon, pull some snacks from my pack and relax taking in the view of the rocks and pines and the Pacific Ocean thousands of feet below.
I don’t get much sleep these days. It comes in bits and pieces and I’m lucky if I get four hours of intermittent sleep a night. Up on the mountain, one minute I’m lounging on the rock nibbling snacks and the next thing I know I waken. Upon opening my eyes I’m startled and in my sleep fogged mind I’m confused to see how dark and shadowy my surroundings are. A second later I realize that’s because the sun is actually sitting half below the horizon about to sink into the sea. I frantically grab my gear together, sling my pack on and begin charging over the rocks hopping boulders back to the trail.
Despite my concern, the sunset over the coast is too beautiful to ignore so I turn and snap a couple of shots with my iPhone. I know the light will begin fading rapidly and I need to move quickly, but I walk only a bit further before stopping for more photos. As I head onward I’m relieved to find the faint path through the fire regrowth. Just follow it back, simple as it gets, right? But less than a minute later a bad feeling ripples through me. I anticipate the trail disappearing into the darkness of twilight. And sure enough I’m comfortably walking the path one second and in another few ticks of the clock I lose it.
This is about as wide open and obvious as the trail gets in one of the more densely grown areas. Other sections have much less brush and more open soil, which makes this lesser walked unmarked use trail no easier to find in fading light.
I double back and find the path and reorient myself. But I quickly lose the trail where the bushes sprout from the ground in spotty tufts with bare soil surrounding each clump of brush. The trail is indistinguishable from the myriad natural paths formed by the open soil between all the brush clumps, which grow several feet apart. I stop and look over the land before me trying to decide where the trail would most likely lead. It’s getting dark quickly and I need to find my way posthaste. I try to pick out a path but it’s a futile attempt. It’s already too dark to see far in front of me. I carry on at a fast walk looking for any sign of the trail, but nothing shows so I continue in the general direction I feel is the correct way.
I’m no longer concerned. I’m somewhere beyond that. I know maintaining a calm, collect mental state is essential, and I’m not panicking, but I’m thinking nervously about the possibility of not being able to locate the trail before twilight ends and night swallows the land in blackness. I’m starting to sweat with beads percolating up on my brow. I’m wandering in a meander around a sloping hillside searching in vain. I reason that I can’t afford to waste any more minutes searching in circles for the path and so start pushing through the knee-high, sparsely growing brush down the ridgeline that I’m confident I came up. I hope to pass over the trail eventually.
I scamper up over a rock slab and spot a four inch thick chaparral limb long ago sawed in half. I’m thrilled to see the sign and keep heading down slope, but I end up in a wall of brush. I turn right and push my way through the area of least resistance for twenty yards before accepting that I’m going the wrong way. I head back, quickly but deliberately, a slight jog to the sawed limb, and I start again down slope following what I think may be the trail. But once more I end in the same wall of brush.
Twilight is fading as I run back up the semi-clear route I twice followed to no avail and relocate the sawed limb. This time I head uphill and it feels like the right way. It’s open enough to walk without too much resistance. This could be it. But it quickly ends and once more I’m mentally groping around in the thickening darkness.
For the next several minutes I circle around but find no sign of a route. I try this way, that way, this way and that way again. I end up in the same couple of dead ends so I stop to consider my options. I have to make a choice and I feel it will be decisive. It will either lead me out or doom me to fumbling through the brush in utter darkness or worse, huddling through a long cold night. Do I search for the trail? Barge through the brush down the ridge to where the trail might be cutting north back down to the road? Or bust my way through the dense chaparral in front of me toward where I believe the road lies?
This is ridiculous. Absurd! My mind sets aside the search and my thoughts turn to self-denunciation. I can see the city lights. I can see cars with their headlights on driving up Gibraltar. But I’m effectively lost. Walled in by chaparral. I know where I need to go, but I can’t get there because I lost the thin trail through the impenetrable bramble. This is just pathetic! ******* idiot!
I pull my cell phone from my pocket and see that I have reception, but only 14% of my battery remaining. I turn it off just in case I am forced to use it at 3:30 in the morning when I’m shivering my way toward hypothermia in the winter night with only a short sleeved t-shirt on and thin nylon pants. Even then I don’t know that I’d call. I really don’t want to suffer through a long bitter night on the mountain, but I’m a big believer that what one gets themselves into they must, if at all possible, get themselves out of without relying on help from others. Self-reliance not dependence. Anything but dependence. I despise dependence with pathological contempt.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog that “I’d rather spend a cold miserable night lost in the woods and have another try at finding my way out next morning, rather than call for help. I’d die sooner from embarrassment than exposure.” And this case on White Mountain is no different. There was no way in hell I was going to call for help! If I couldn’t find the second, alternative trail out that leads in from the north, then I’d call my wife and let her know I had some dues to pay for my stupidity and that I’d see her tomorrow morning some time. Maybe I’d call a friend to come up the trail and give a few shouts to guide me back. Worse case, I’d find a cave in the rocks to hunker down in, start a small fire and shiver my way through the night.
Of my options I’m pondering which choice to make. Only a slight, faint glow of sunlight remains and I only have time for one option. And so I make the call. (To be continued. . .)
I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.
Louie L’Amour always said to, ” check your back trail ” . I do that frequently. That has kept me from getting lost more than once. But then every place else doesn’t all look the same as our rolling SoCal mountains do.
Good post from Jack.
Hey Jim. Funny you should mention that. I actually have an entry that I posted a year or so ago about checking your backtrail in which I quote L’Amour writing about how country looks different on the way back and how it is important to look closely at the land you pass over to avoid being lost. In that post I mention one fatal case of two guys getting lost as well as another local guy’s experience with this sort of thing down in Tar Creek. The post is called Lessons From Louis or something like that.
Maybe you should consider adding an emergency flashlight to your pack for just such occasions? Mine has come in handy a couple times when finishing a walk or kayak trip that lasted longer than I thought it would.
In my next yet-to-be-published post about this hike I mention my lack of a light. As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, I actually routinely carry a headlight in my pack. But, as it always seems to happen in these types of situations, I had switched packs and didn’t bother to transfer the light. I didn’t even have a long sleeved shirt or jacket. It was the classic, ‘I was only going out for a few hours’ scenario.
Here it is:
“Busy as I was now a-talking, I found time to check my back trail. A man who travels wild country gets to studying where he’s coming from, because some day he might have to go back, and a trail looks a lot different when you ride over it in the opposite direction.
Every tree, every mountain, has its own particular look, and each one has several appearances, so you look back over your shoulder if you want to know country.”
Louis L’Amour, Mojave Crossing
Hi Jack, I’m not sure having a torch would have helped you with all that thick brush (that would be the standard thing you’d need to carry here where there isn’t much thick vegetation). But one thing I would suggest – even if you’re going out in really nice weather and hope to make it back in daylight, I’d always carry warm clothes (I just tie them round my middle). You can also get light bivvy bags – I carry one of those in winter too. But I think if you’d managed to find a cave and make a bit of a fire, you’d probably have been fine.
Another useful thing I carry which is very cheap to buy is a ‘lightstick’ – it’s a long thin wrapped stick (probably about 6 inch long and only 3/4 inch wide and very light) and you just unwrap it and snap it in half for about 8 hours of bright light. I hope you carry spare food too…
Makes for a good story though 🙂
Hey Carol. Thank you for the suggestions. I’m usually far more prepared than I was on this day.
You truly do have an amazing guardian angel. Allowing you to wander off course, but then to find yourself again. Risk taker aren’t you? Glad you made it home safely. Maybe time for a Garmin?
I have switched packs and left some of my ten essentials behind… make a survival bag, one of those waterproof stuff sacks with your ten, a bivy and some high calorie snacks…if you read the search and rescue lit., most survival issues come up on short day hikes that go bad.. great blog, live in Nor Cal so love to explore your area through your site…
Hey Roger. Thanks for stopping by.
what a cool spot
I always called it Mission crags. Don’t know where we got that from but it stuck. Been up there allot but not in years! I think every time I went (or we) had trouble getting out. All those chaparral pig trails look the same.Me and a buddy took girls up there once and they got all scratched up trying to get back down. They were good sports though. I think we even dropped down the ridge to mission creek once and down through 7 falls with no ride back up. Haha great memories, and great writing as always Jack.
iPhone? Just download the flashlight app. Worked great for me last time I was up there to watch the sunset and the full moon rise. Best to take your time and go a little slower at night though, trying to rush back at night is a sure way to loose any trail.
Hey Richard. Thanks for stopping by.
The problem with going slow on this night up there was that the trail is nearly non-existent to begin with, and once the twilight faded to full blown blackness, because there was only a crescent moon which did not rise until well after 11 pm, it would’ve been impossible to see what little trail there is no matter how slow I walked.