Lost, but not Forgotten

Where did Garrett go? A misplaced backpacker out in the Wind River Range backcountry.

DSC07056If all went as planned, we’d get to our campsite by late afternoon, which would give us plenty of daylight for setting up the tents, organizing gear and even resting some before cooking supper. Our backpacks were heavy, but being mostly young and fit, by lunch we’d already covered well over half of the 15 miles planned for the day. At just a little after 1 o’clock, we crossed the Roaring Fork and stopped on the other side to change out of our river shoes and eat our midday meal of tuna, crackers and gorp. Among other things, the stop also provided a nice break from the uphill grind we’d been on for several hours.

The campsite would obviously mark the end of our day’s walk. The destination was more of a “likely looking map location” than a formal campsite, but would be easy enough to locate, given that it appeared to be only a few hundred yards beyond where the Low Meadow Trail forked in from the west and not too far beyond Sheepeater Creek. Studying the map, it looked to be only about 4 miles beyond our stop, which meant we had only about 2 hours of walking time after lunch left to get us to our destination. A straightforward and leisurely afternoon, I assumed, as I grabbed one more handful of lunch.

By 1:30, we were finished eating, at least for that moment, and were back on the trail. I’d repeatedly done the math and was confident that we’d be comfortably napping in our tents, and in our day’s camp, if or when the late afternoon storms rolled in. I was simply content with where we were, as we got back into our full trail walking rhythm.

The last couple of miles leading up to the crossing were tough, but at least a part of that, I assumed, was due to the fact that we’d already put in a lot of uphill miles that day. At least tomorrow, I rationalized, we’d be going mostly downhill.

The trail knifed through and wound its way around tightly bunched, but progressively shorter trees, as we continued gaining elevation. Minutes, turned into hours as we just continued going. I kept looking down at my watch and eventually it said 4 o’clock, just as our progress was abruptly stopped by a stream going across our path. It was Sheepeater Creek, I assumed. I was almost surprised that it was right where the map said it would be, but when I realized that we’d been walking for over 2 hours since lunch, just came to grips with the fact that we were on schedule and where we were supposed to be.

The trail ran right into a very doable ankle deep and 30’ wide crossing. We stopped and without hesitation, found places to sit down, took off our packs and changed into stream crossing/water shoes. While lacing up my own shoes, I looked across to the other side and saw a big log, perfect for sitting and putting back on our hiking shoes and noted that the Low Meadow trail fork just beyond. Perfect, I thought. All we had to do now, was cross the creek, walk a few hundred yards and find a good camping location. I could rest easy as I continued changing my shoes, with the assumption that the physically hard part of the day was essentially behind us.

Within 15 minutes, we were all on the other side, sitting on the log and fiddling with our shoes. Once everyone was out of the water, my focus had turned to things in my immediate world such as tow to attach my wet shoes to the outside of my pack and where my socks were. I can’t really say why we didn’t just stay in our wet shoes for the short walk to the campsite, but it had something to do with the uncertainties related to where a good camping spot might actually be.

Counting heads is a constant activity among group leaders. It becomes almost second nature, as keeping the group intact and not losing anyone is undoubtedly the single most important responsibility that people in charge of groups have. Quarterbacks, coaches, platoon leaders, scoutmasters, teachers and backpacking guides all do it. It’s just what group and team leaders do.

And so, once I was ready to get up and lead us the last little bit into our camp, wherever it might be, I stood up and surveyed the group. There’d been 9 of us from the start and I’d become accustomed to counting 7 heads (I didn’t count myself or Barry, the other leader) and with that small sized of a group, I could almost do it just by looking and not even physically counting each person.

I had no reason to think that I’d come up with any number besides seven this time around, but as I glanced and counted, I came up with six. Everyone was in a clump and my initial thought was that someone, was off to the side or that I’d simply miscounted. I took a little more time, counted again, while consciously looking around in every direction, figuring I’d solve the puzzle with a simple answer. But, I still got six. It was clear that someone, was not there.

I looked at the group and took note of who was there, and by doing that, it was obvious who wasn’t. It was Garrett who was missing. He was there, probably off in the bushes doing his business, I reasoned.

But not completely certain of that, I just threw out the general question to the group, “where’s Garrett?”

No one answered. Maybe they didn’t hear me or are preoccupied, I reasoned. And so, I said it again. The second time with a little more force.

“Who’s seen Garrett”?

One of the kids finally answered, “I was just talking to him as we walked up to the creek”.

“Did you see him cross”, I asked?

Two different people responded that he’d crossed right in front of them.

“Did anybody see him go off to go the bathroom”, I said, hoping for an affirmative response.

But no one responded in any way, except look around with blank looks on their faces. I could see everyone silently counting and trying to remember anything about Garrett and what’d happened when we got to the log and had started changing shoes. There were theories and ideas, but no one had any sort of solid information about what he’d done or where he’d gone, once we’d started crossing. And after a few minutes, it became obvious that he wasn’t just off in the bushes.

It didn’t make sense to me. Everyone knew we were stopping somewhere close to the crossing, didn’t they? And then it dawned on me that while we had talked about it, there’d probably never been any sort of definitive and confirmable statement about where or when we were stopping.

And so, the guessing and speculation began. Garrett was an intelligent person, so it was a good bet to assume that he’d not just gone backwards on the trail or headed off the trail. Given that, I made the assumption that he must’ve kept going forward. Under normal circumstances, it would’ve been a simple enough thing to hurry down the trail and catch up to him, especially since he already had a lot of miles on his legs that day and was dealing with a significant respiratory problem. But there was a big kink in our situation- the trail fork. That meant that there were two trail possibilities for him to choose from and we had absolutely no idea which one he’d selected. There were footprints all over each and so no viable clues for us to work with. I pulled out the map and looked at the routes. Each dropped several thousand feet over the course of a few miles, which meant that he’d likely be moving faster than normal, since he would mostly be going downhill. I realized that we needed to catch up to him sooner than later, because the further he went down, the further he’d have to go back up to rejoin the group and that by being both sick and tired, just getting back up the trail could become a big struggle. I also realized that if we didn’t catch him before dark, things would really start to become complicated and potentially, he could find himself at the bottom of the valley and all alone by the time it got dark. And then, I began wondering about where he’d sleep, what he’d eat, what he’d do if he just got sicker, and what he’d be planning for the next day.

The realization that we only had a few hours of daylight to work with, sent me into overdrive. At least, I thought, there’s no storm build-up. I quickly assessed our options, given the information we were accumulating. Since we figured that he must’ve kept going, but we didn’t know in which of the two most likely ways, we had to go both ways after him. The “we” was the two of us group leaders. I would follow one trail, while Barry  took the other. That could work, assuming one of us actually caught up with the wandering teenager, but meant that the rest of the group would be left waiting and unsupervised at the crossing while we were gone. Nothing was ideal about the situation, but it was, what it was and something needed to happen fast.We took off our packs and left them with the group, so that we could move faster. I would learn in later years that there’s good reason to take at least some things with you in such a situation. But, at the moment, we were thinking fast and speed. We told the group to stay put, rest, and not to do anything active while we were gone and that we’d be back at least before dark, if not sooner. I took the trail we’d been on the whole day while Barry headed off down the Low Meadow. A lot of things were said, but as I walked, I realized there were many that were not.

I carried only a water bottle in my hand and had a light fleece tied around my waist. Almost immediately, I began thinking of the various things I didn’t have and started formulating plans for spending the night out myself. I began wondering what the rest of the group would do if neither Barry or I were there and then started wondering what would happen if Barry caught up to Garrett a few hundred yards down the trail and then turned around and got back to the rest of the group, while I kept going for miles and miles. And what about visa versa. What if I found him and the two of us went back up, got to the crossing and Barry was still out there somewhere?

I yelled for Garrett at every likely spot, but never had any sort of response. I kept thinking I’d see him around every corner, but each time there was only rocks, trees and more trail. After walking for about 15 minutes, just when I was seriously beginning to doubt our situation and plans, two horseback riders rode up from behind me. I was beginning to realize that if Garrett was somewhere ahead of me and with a 20 or so minute head start, once I reached up to him we would likely be way down the trail, which would make it that much harder for us to retrace our path and get back up to the group before dark.

But with the two men on horses, I saw a workable solution. I simply asked them that if they came across a lone backpacker somewhere up ahead going the same way we were, to tell him his group was waiting for him back behind. At least they would be moving faster than me and if they did, indeed, catch up to the teenager, they could stop and turn him around. I was hopeful.

The riders obliged, rode on past and disappeared around a corner. It was only 5 minutes later, that I rounded a corner myself, and there, he was—coughing and walking my way. I’m sure he’d been wondering what was happening, himself, and was glad to see my familiar face. I was certainly overjoyed, relieved and pleased to see his.

As he walked up, I said the obvious—“there you are”. Then, I continued, “we didn’t know where you went. We stopped back at the last crossing. We’re going to camp around there and then going down the other trail tomorrow”.

“The guy on the horse stopped me. I didn’t know we were stopping back there. I was wondering where everyone was”, he responded.

We began walking back up the trail, talking about some of the details of what had happened as we walked. I was glad it had worked out, thus far, but found myself wondering more and more the closer we got to the group, just what Barry might have done. What would we do if he was not back by the time we were? What if he just kept going or tripped on something and hurt his leg?

The questions and possibilities were beginning to wander rampantly through my thoughts, when we came over a small rise and I saw the 6’5” Barry in the midst of a hacky sack game, in a circle with the rest of the group. My list of questions grew as we kept walking, but by the time we got there, the answers didn’t matter any longer.

What was important was that we were all back together, ready to head out, look around and choose a campsite. As I looked up at a clear sky, I did the math and concluded we’d that we’d have our tents set up before any sort of storm could blast us, just as predicted.


Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.