SFGATE’s David Curran recalls the night he and his wife found themselves lost in the Sierra wilderness. He shares the advice he learned the hard way.
There we were, sitting under a tree by a pristine creek in the Sierra wilderness. There wasn’t a soul around, the moon was crossing the sky and the constellations shined bright. And, since this was the 1990s, I still could trust they were stars and not satellites owned by Elon Musk.
It might have been a woodsy blissful image, the kind that inspires you to buy a new tent in an REI ad, or maybe a mutual fund. Except there was one problem: We were lost.
And it was cold. And our jackets, long pants, sleeping bags and backpacks were about a mile away at this point. Or so we thought, since, as I just pointed out, we were lost.
We hadn’t eaten for hours. And we would have to sit there in nothing but shorts and T-shirts for several hours more before dawn arrived and provided enough light to hopefully find our way back to camp.
Oh, and both of us blamed the other for this happening, though no one actually said anything.
I think about this experience of being lost whenever I go hiking in the Sierra. And for years, I’ve vowed to get some skills to improve my chances of not losing my bearings in the middle of nowhere, which recently, only about 25 years after the fact, I did.
And now, with hiking season ramping up, and knowing many more people will get lost again like they do every year, I am reminded of this trip.
It all happened while backpacking to Lake Rosasco in the Emigrant Wilderness, an area which borders the northwest end of Yosemite National Park. Emigrant had always been a favorite of mine since I started going there with my dad and uncles as a kid.
Lake Rosasco sits up on a ridge and can be tricky to find. After taking the well-used trail down Cherry Creek, you turn off to a barely marked trail (at least it was barely marked as of a few years ago) and then climb a switchback you need to be looking for or else you’ll miss it. Then, after about a 20-minute climb, you are there.
And when you arrive, you are rewarded with a pristine Sierra lake that is apparently just remote enough to keep away the crowds. At least, the few times I’ve been, there have never been other campers.
So, after a day spent at Rosasco, we decided to take a day hike over to Hyatt Lake, another breathtaking high mountain lake surrounded by granite, which the Emigrant Wilderness tends to have in abundance.
To get to Hyatt Lake involves crossing a long open stretch of granite. There is no trail per se, you are mostly following cairns across a fairly flat landscape where trees are few and far between.
After a relaxing afternoon at Hyatt Lake, we began the journey back to our camp and all seemed to be going fine. Until it wasn’t. Somehow, as we finished the final uphill section of the open granite bowl where we were supposed to run into the trail back to Lake Rosasco, the trail wasn’t there.
Or at least it wasn’t where we thought it should be. We looked and looked, but it had somehow disappeared. Apparently, when we had left earlier in the day, we failed to note where it had transitioned from being a trail within trees to the wide open landscape where we would follow the path of cairns.
We had not looked back and established any landmarks. We hadn’t paid attention. And now we were hungry and dehydrated, the sun was intense, and this was a problem.