Commentary 1997:

I posted this message to rec.backcountry around 10/31/90. What I didn't realize at the time was these two sierra club leaders were super-fast hikers. Both have gone on to climb Everest, and the one that lost me has climbed the seven summits, and is one of the fastest hikers in the world. The other leader, said the fast one blew by him (and everyone else) while climbing Everest, like they were standing still. I knew that I couldn't keep up with him at Kern Peak, what I didn't realize at the time was that nobody could keep up with him.

Lost in the wilderness -or- burn, baby, burn

I went on a backpack with the sierra club last weekend. It turned out to be very eventful. We started out sat morning at 8am, and were supposed to hike 8 miles to a small meadow in the Golden Trout Wilderness, which is inside of Sequoia National Forest. About four miles into the hike, I was going relatively slowly uphill, and since I could see nobody ahead of me, and I wasn't sure that I was on the right trail, I sat down to wait for someone behind me to show up. Eventually someone did show up, but told me that he was at the end. Now the sierra club has at least two 'leaders' on a hike, one at the front to lead the hike, and one at the back, to act as a 'sweep'. The leader and sweep are supposed to pretty much stay in contact, either visual or audio, somewhere between continuously and every five minutes or so. But the sweep was ahead of both of us. This was not real good, as the visibility was quite poor, being in the middle of a large hilly forest. I decided to hike on awhile, and then sat down to rest and wait for the leader to find us, or determine that were were lost and backtrack either to the correct trail, or back to the trailhead. Eventually the leader noticed we were missing, and we re-grouped. An omen of worse to come.

So we made camp, eight miles from the trailhead in a small meadow, above RedRock Meadows. We loaded our daypacks and prepared for climbing Kern Peak, 11,510 feet high. Everyone started up except for the person who was behind me earlier. We started out going cross country, and the sweep was behind us. After perhaps a mile, the leader said that he was unsure of the way, but knew that there was an old trail somewhere around here. He also said that the hike to the peak and back would be 8 miles, and that we were running late so that we would have to hike faster in order to get back before dark. He suggested that the slower ones turn around, and said that he would lead the peak tomorrow, also. I decided to turn around then, and was surprised that nobody else did. There was one woman who was perhaps 30 minutes later than most to the peak, and another that had her water carried for her, indication that she was relatively slow. They eventually made it back to camp, and I had started a nice fire for them to see, and keep warm by.

The next day, the leader and I started out at 7:30 am to do the peak. We decided to go the opposite way than was done yesterday, which was a big loop. Since it was cold, I took some warm weather gear, and 3 liters of water for the 8 mile, @3000 foot gain hike. We started up at a good pace. I thought that this was swell, since there was only the leader, and I, and we were in no big rush, just do the peak, go back to camp, and pack out. The leader stayed pretty close while we were on the trail. At a ridge, we left the trail, and went upward towards the peak. The leader went further and further ahead of me, but the going was pretty easy, and the peak stood out. I had not seen him for perhaps 45 minutes, until I reached the top of the peak. We rested for a few minutes, and I asked to see the route down. He got out his topo and showed me the way down.

We started down, and went down a relatively steep slope for 700 vertical feet. I was about 20 minutes behind the leader at the bottom. The slope would have been good for screeing if the rocks would have been much smaller. next, we went along a rounded hill, and were supposed to find a trail down, that they went up the day before. We were in forest again, and the leader went further and further ahead of me. I was having a hard time keeping him in sight due to the trees. He topped a small hill, and disappeared down the other side. I went to where he disappeared, and called his name. No response. I called louder, but still no response. I couldn't see any footprints. I walked around there for about 20 minutes calling his name. But he was gone. Now I regretted not having my own topo map. I started down the hill, looking for the trail. Eventually I found it, along with many footprints going up, and one going down. I thought that I was set, since the leader told me that yesterday they had eventually found the trail going up. I went down perhaps 1500 feet, and ended up in a valley that a remembered from the peak. The problem was that it looked like the wrong valley! But there still was the trail, and the same footprints. I continued on the trail, and eventually came to some trail signs. I didn't recognize any names on it.

This was getting pretty bad. Lost, no map, running low on water. I am in a vast wilderness, no sign of civilization. I know the nearest two roads are at least 10 miles away, if I could find them, and the other roads are very far away. My purifier was back at base camp. I hiked a few miles in the valley, and then decided that I wanted to be west of where I was. So I left an arrow on the trail with my initials, and the time and started out cross country. I went over a hill, and there was another valley. The wrong one. I went over another three or so hills, and finally would up on a large relatively barren hill. I was pleased because I could finally get a good view. I was looking for Indian Head, a distinctive very steep hill of rock. I didn't recognize anything. I decided that I was really lost. I regretted not getting more water at one of the streams that I had crossed earlier. At that time I had about 1 liter of water that had been purified with iodine. I thought that half concentration would be much better than raw water. But I was down to about .1 liters, with no more in sight for miles. I had gone about 7 miles from the peak down. I thought about retracing my steps, going back up the peak, and then back down the trail we went up. It would be very tiring, considering there would be no more water, and it would be dark soon. I decided to spend the night on the top of the hill.

I scraped a large cross in the ground, and put my backpack at the center of it. I thought that the leader would report me missing soon, and people would be looking for me. It would be much better to be at the top of a barren hill, than in the middle of a forest. I looked around and saw a large log. I decided to build a shelter next to it, using it as a windbreak. I dug a shallow ditch, thinking I could cover it with dirt and branches to keep warm. I put on all my clothing, and I lay down and tried to rest. After awhile I decided to start a small fire to keep warn. Perhaps people would be looking for me and see the smoke or fire. There was the base of the tree that had fallen over about 6 feet from the log. It was about 7 feet high and hollow. I took out a match, and made some kindling from the soft core of the log. It started nicely, and the base provided wind shelter for the flames. I added some small pieces of wood and they started nicely.

In a few minutes, not only was the fire burning nicely, but the entire base was engulfed in flames. In some way that I don't understand, the flames leaped over to the log. This log was perhaps 70 feet long, 3.5 feet in diameter, and lying in barren dirt. There was a tree at the far end of the log, and another tree perhaps 12 feet from the base of the tree. Nothing else to burn nearby. Now the log is burning very well. Within 5 minutes the entire length is engulfed in flames. If anyone was in the air, anywhere nearby, they would be sure to spot it. The far end of the log actually touched the other tree. I couldn't break it off, and the fire was very hot nearby. In retrospect I could have heaped lots of dirt along the last 10 feet of the log in an attempt to stop it from burning the tree. But no. The tree catches on fire. I make sure there is as good a firebreak as I can manage between the base and the other tree. It is around 4 pm, and I have drunk the last of the water.

Around 5pm I see a helicopter heading straight for me. It circles overhead, three times, perhaps 1000 feet up. I wave madly. It flys away. I am very confused, but I think that they know where I am. At 5:20 pm, another helicopter flys straight for me. It also circles three times, perhaps 200 feet up. I wave madly, someone inside waves back. It flys away. I am more confused. I think that any minute I will be rescued. It gets dark. No helicopter comes. I decide to stay by the fire for the night. The ground for about 10 feet around the log is charred or smoking. There are tiny pieces of wood and stuff burning. I lie down one some dirt near the fire. Soon I am very warm. I notice the ground is hot. I move. The dirt is cold; too cold. I move near the base. The fire is too hot close by, and too cold farther away. I find a middle ground. The smoke shifts often, making me change position about every 30 minutes. The base has burned down to the roots which are still burning. I add some wood that was near the middle of the log, but is small enough to break up and move over. I heard some small aircraft during the night, as well as a very fast fighter plane, and I hoped they reported the fire. The fire sounds like a helicopter to me. I know this is not right.

By morning, the middle third of the log is gone, moved by me to the base and burned. I scratch 10 foot high letters where it was saying HELP, in case they don't know that I am in trouble. Around 8 am a helicopter shows up and finally lands. The forestry service comes out to fight the fire. They put it out. They give me a helicopter ride, trying to find my gear at base camp. Although I describe the area, they are unable to find it, and drop me off at Black Rock Ranger Station. The ranger drives me to my car. I decide that I don't want to abandon my gear, so I hike in to get it, and hike out. 16 miles and I am very tired.

I guess that my big mistake was not having a topo map. I will also carry iodine tablets. I think that the leader didn't do the best job either. I am provisional leader, and I hope to do much better.

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain; and all the children are insane.


Some background info:

I have always like the outdoors. I starting hiking around 1968. After I graduated college, I started hiking and climbing with the Sierra Club. I started rock climbing around 1984. At my climbing partners urging, I went on my first hike with the SC, with the Rock Climbing Section (now disbanded due to insurance reasons). After awhile I decided to join the SC. After awhile I realized that there were places that I wanted to go hiking that the SC leaders weren't going. With the encouragement of some very fine leaders, I decided to become a leader. The Angeles Chapter of the SC has a specialized leadership training program. They certify leaders at 5 different levels. On each outing, 2 leaders of the appropriate rating are required. This way, the chances of a problem happening during the outing are minimized. At the time of the Kern Peak hike, I already was the basic 'O' type leader. See the table below for details. My goal was to become an 'E' rated leader. For anything above 'O' going on 2 cross-country backpacks were required. I had done many cross-country backpacks with friends, but not with the SC. The primary reason that I did the Kern Peak hike was because it was a cross-country backpack.

Here is a list of Sierra Club leader levels, and the requirements at the time I did each one. A higher level implies all the requirements of the lower levels.

I am now a 'M' rated leader. Perhaps one day I will get the 'E' rating, but I need more snow climbing skills, and the SC requires national approval on a per-event basis for 'E' events. I am much more likely to do these events outside of the SC.
I have passed the advanced rock climbing test (skipping the basic test), the advanced nav test, and the basic snow test, as well as led several 'M' events. I have been teaching navigation with the SC since 1991, as well as privately. I have been teaching rock climbing privately (due to SC insurance problems) since 1991. I do some guiding, including guiding 12 college students on a backpack in the Grand Canyon for 5 days. I also teach backpacking, basic survival, basic mountaineering, and related subjects.

If you have comments or suggestions, Email me at

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