If I don’t write about this, I won’t be able to move on.
Over the weekend I and several others headed to West Virginia Roaring Plain which is southern part of Dolly Sods Area.
The trip was a one night camping and the next day a 15 miles hike. We camped at the trail head. Apparently there is a nice big area in the woods for our big group of 7. We brought along several newbies unexpectedly.
The trail was technical and we have never been there before. Even experienced hikers had hard time finding and staying on the trail, so we read from the trail notes we brought along. It was my first time encountered such a challenge. It was beyond my level. I was given several chances to locate the trail during the hike and I failed to find it before others did.
I had a GPS unit but it didn’t really help to stay on track because the resolution was not high enough. If it was off by 50 meters, that is a big distance in the woods. I always know we are near a check point but we are never right on the check point at places where we should be turning. So every time we lost a trail we scattered around to search for trails. The GPS was of no help. There are many false trails too. Plus, my GPS North alignment was off by I think 30 degrees. So wherever it says to go in one direction, I couldn’t trust it. Which direction is the real direction whenever I looked up from my unit, I would ask myself. I had to use my phone compass to confirm. It was good still to have the unit because at least I could find how far I have walked and where I was on the map. However in term of picking the next direction to walk to reach the next checkpoint, the unit was way off, it was all pure skill from my hike leader, that we found the next point. She did spectacularly there. Also a handheld GPS is not like a car GPS, it updates at an interval, and what shown on the screen was the last update, which could have been five minutes ago. I could have forced an update on the position but there is usually a delay. I couldn’t trust it.
We lost the trail a few times. The worse was we had to look for an oak tree to make a turn at a rocky outcrop. We couldn’t find the oak tree. We passed it by a few time. I think we spent an hour there going round and round. We even backtracked for a mile. I got blame for this since my coleader at the time didn’t know she was backtracking but everyone else knew. She blamed me for not telling her.
At last someone, my coleader’s friend (he was an experienced hiker) pointed out the small oak tree we passed already several times. The light bulb lighted in us. We knew then we were on the right track. My leader then fan out to search for the next trail (teepee trail) we supposed to take and found it. That was the most difficult trail to locate. The reason was some of the carne were knocked down so we couldn’t find it. The trail was way up and out from where the oak tree was. It was unexpected.
The rest of the hike was pretty easy. We got to the forest road (FR 70) and entered a next forest where the trail was wide and blazed. There were only three miles left to get back to our car. Unfortunately we hiked very fast then and the newbies (or one of the newbies) couldn’t keep up. We didn’t worry because my leader’s friend was the self-designated sweeper (last of the group) to catch any the stragglers. Unfortunately near the end our sweeper friend couldn’t figure the way and they had to backtrack to FR70.
By the way, I am normally a sweeper on most hikes but my leader wouldn’t let me be one on this. She wanted me to be next to her to keep an eye on the trail. I ended up usually in the middle position (4th person down) in the group.
For us, after didn’t see them coming out the forest we went back in to search for them. Later we decided to send a group home first, while two remained to wait at the trail head. While I left the mountain we got the text message from ones who separated and their intended heading, which was a miracle in itself because the cellular signal was poor/non existent in the area. So we went back to pick them up. Of course the ones who got lost in the forest were not happy, even though it was a happy reunion for us.
Everyone said there is a lesson to be learned. One, was to wait up and keep everyone together. I won’t disagree with that, but I don’t think that was the main lesson. I have been in many hikes where I was hiking alone and got separated from the lead (since I was usually the sweeper). I think the main lesson is communicate what is expected from the participants. Most newbies had a rude awakening that they might have died in the woods (if they were not able to come out). They were never expected to be alone and lost.
I felt that according to common outdoor rules and I learned this very early on in my hiking experience is to have a map and know where we are going. It is generally expect that we can find our own way out. I knew this because I got left behind on my very first hike.
Second is this, and we did well, is an inexperience hiker is to team up with an experienced one. That was the reason nothing worse happened. Our sweeper friend was confident even when lost that he could leave the forest in his own power without the need of a search party. He did. I was as cool as a cucumber except for the other new guy with him. He took care of the inexperience one.
Third is communication. My leader relied on her friend who took the rear, on any hikes it wouldn’t be a problem except on this he didn’t know the trail (and didn’t ask about it), though he should have. I think both he and my lead was overconfident. If we had taken time to show him the map and the way of the last segment of the hike he even if separated he still would able to proceed. We were trusting his common sense to find the way because the trail was easy compared to what we have been hiking the whole day.
Though his backtracking was a smart decision, it wasn’t the best. If he has remained in place our search team would have located him (with only say 30 minutes). He wouldn’t had to backtrack and ended up walked an extra 6-10 miles out. The backtrack costed 4-5 hours. They were like only half a mile from the car when they got lost. They backtracked because they think we ourselves were lost. Any way a lesson learned.
My friend who led the hike was quite shaken from the experience, mostly dealing with everyone blaming her for the fiasco. I felt yes things like this can happen and people can get separate and lost. But also those going on a trip should be prepared with the necessary tools like maps and compass, and knowledge of how to use them. etc. None of them printed a map out. They have themselves to blame.
As for me, I am not that much being bothered. I just have to remind people that they have to be responsible for themselves on the next trip I lead. True people are not really blaming me any way, I am just a co-lead. They blamed the lead.
By the way, I learned my lesson of bring a map and compass after being left behind in the woods the first few times, when I went hiking with my current leader. I always was able to find my way out by luck! And usually I got left behind at an ‘easier’ section. That said.