Backpacking trip mishap from this summer | High Sierra Topix  

Backpacking trip mishap from this summer

If you've been searching for the best source of information and stimulating discussion related to Spring/Summer/Fall backpacking, hiking and camping in the Sierra Nevada...look no further!

Backpacking trip mishap from this summer

Postby oleander » Mon Oct 10, 2016 10:13 pm

It's nighttime, with a near-full moon. You have 50+ years of backpacking experience, and an excellent sense of direction. For about the ten-thousandth time in your Sierra backpacking career, you plunge out your tent door for a quick pee.

Think nothing can happen? Read on for my friend Anne's story. This could be any of us.

{Posting on Anne's behalf - she does not have an HST handle.}


Whistleblowing: a humble lesson in the High Sierras
Anne W. Emerick
July 2016

I hitched up my soft warm tights, after relieving myself on this vast granite slab on an eerie July moonlit night. Bringing TP was too much bother. Fresh undies awaited in the tent, just steps away.

I turned toward the tent. Or what I thought was toward the tent.

Immediately I noticed unfamiliar patches of snow. Ok, I reasoned. No problem. I must have headed the wrong way.

I turned around and headed north, away from Mt. Conness, which grandly sits as a white queen on the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park. Although the moon was almost full, the eastern sky was filled with clouds. The shrouded moonlight cast long, weird shadows from a jumble of small boulders. I did not see the tent.

Darn! I was definitely disoriented.

Ok. Not to worry. After all, just the previous evening I had peed three times without any problem. I had an excellent sense of direction and plenty of off-trail orienteering experience so surely the situation would quickly be resolved.

What I needed was a landmark. The very large ones were patently obvious: North Peak and Mt. Conness to the south, the pass to McCabe lake to the west, and the three lakes below. But in this granite microcosm, orientation to all this grandeur provided no help.

I needed a SMALL familiar landmark! The three dwarfed trees near our cooking area, the hefty boulder that my tentmates and I called Kitchen Rock, or the large slab by the tent - any of these would do.

No such luck.

I only saw a patchwork of mushy ground, interspersed with granite rocks and small boulders and even more unfamiliar patches of snow which was leaking into my airplane slippers. It didn’t help that I had left my flashlight back in the tent.

“****!”, I thought. Panic arose. By now, I couldn’t deny it any longer. I was emphatically LOST.

A sense of humiliation burst in on the heels of panic. Intense, overwhelming shame.

"This should NOT be happening!" my psyche screamed. I had fifty-five years of hiking and backpacking experience behind me. I had climbed many peaks in the Sierras, as well as volcanoes in Mexico and mountains in Nepal. OK, I was sixty-nine, but my long history in the outdoors made this predicament unthinkable.

Yet here I was. Lost.

How could I justify waking up my friends? I thought of myself as an independent, capable being. It felt like a weakness to ask for help.

And so I searched some more. I wandered around, seeing only the aesthetically appealing film noir gray, black, and white blobs. I saw an excess of rocks, but Kitchen Rock was not among them. I looked at my watch. It was now one-fifteen a.m.

I began to weigh the ratio of humiliation to my actual need for help. After another 10 minutes I gave up.

Our leader, Lisa, had made it clear that everyone should carry a whistle. I had arrogantly defied this instruction, because I KNEW how to whistle. On many occasions, friends had expressed shock that I could send forth such an ear-splitting blast, simply by blowing across my fingers. And so I had neglected Lisa's advice.

Now it was time for a real life test of my whistling skill. Three short blasts equal an emergency, Lisa had instructed. And so I blew. Three short blasts.

There was no response. I tried again.

I tried again and again. All I heard in response was the occasional roar of the wind.

Glancing at the sky I saw a constellation that I recognized. But I was so frazzled that I could not recall, later, which one it was.
My panic escalated. I whistled again, and then began to yell.
“This is Anne!” I shouted. “I need help!” And then I found myself simply calling, “Help! Help!”

After several more rounds of shouting, to my immense relief, I saw two lights below. I knew that these lights did not come from our camp, as they were too near the lake. But what the hell, someone heard and understood my distress.

Hoorah!! RELIEF!! Yeah! I was safe at last.

Gratefully I headed toward the lights. When I was about fifty feet from their tents, two young men walked toward me and beamed their lights on Kitchen Rock, up above.

"Okay,” I told them. “Thanks so much! Now I know where I am.”

However, Kitchen Rock was very near a cliff. No way was I going to climb up there directly to Kitchen Rock in my thin slippers. I would not have gone up that way in the full light of day. I resolved to tack. I would go over gradually to the right, gaining altitude, and then tack back to the left. The tents and Kitchen Rock would be there.


Surely I had tacked, up to the right and then to the left. But I did not see or find, one or the other. I bumbled around, as before, and I was just as lost as ever!

"Oh no!" my psyche yelled. My heart raced, and my palms were sweaty.

I had already wakened complete strangers. Now did I have to disturb them yet again? My chagrin kept me silent, as I continued to search.

I recalled that earlier in the day I had noticed a slight ridge above our campsite. I speculated that if I climbed up there, I might be able to see Kitchen Rock or our tents. I climbed up and looked down at Steelhead Lake, slightly to the north. I tried to remember the exact placement of our camp relative to Steelhead Lake and the two smaller lakes to the south.

I was sure my orientation to the lakes was correct. However, I could not decipher the vast maze of gray, rocky blobs below me.

My shame consumed me, and flashes of anger at myself boiled up in the emotional brew as well. Hell, I had once climbed to the summit of 12,649-foot Mt. Conness with my first lover. Admittedly that was years ago. But how dare I get myself into this ridiculous situation?

Then a voice of reason broke through. “I’m lucky,” I reminded myself. Even though I didn’t have a jacket, I could conceivably stay out until dawn, four hours away. As soon as I had more light, it would be easy to find my way back. Strong puffs of wind surged from the south and east. I was extremely grateful that the air was so warm.

I continued to creep along the ridge but suddenly, for the first time since leaving the tent I halted. My feet were rooted to the ground as my mind imploded with a maelstrom of emotions. I didn't know what action to take. The stars shone with a cold brilliance.
In that standstill, I gradually came to understand that although my life was not in danger, I really did need help. My friends would gladly come to my rescue, if only they knew I needed them. It was foolish for me to remain silent. Even stupid.

Finally, I allowed myself to start a second volley of whistling. Three times per round.
This time I followed most of the whistling rounds with yells for help. "Lisa! Megan!" I cried out again and again.

There was no response.

Was I actually going to spend the rest of the night on this mound of granite, after all? I began to despair.

Finally, after more rounds of whistling and yelling, I saw lights from the area of our tents below. What a huge, welcome, gigantic and blessed relief!!

Like an airplane about to land, the beams guided me towards Kitchen rock and my tent. I heard Cecillia greet me.

At last I climbed into my welcoming warm sleeping bag, not quite believing that my ordeal was over.

I was physically safe, but I still felt suffused with mortification. Perhaps the entire incident, with both volleys of whistling, had lasted 40 minutes? Perhaps longer.

Whistle story photo.jpg

Immediate Aftermath

Reluctant to repeat the episode, I allowed myself only a bit of water, to slack off my raging thirst. I took off my soaking slippers and socks. When I lay down, I knew it would be hard to get back to sleep.

For a few minutes I yacked with my tentmate, Megan, who had largely been unaware of what was going on because she slept with earplugs. The nylon tent had roared in the wind making the earplugs necessary. Ten minutes after I tucked myself into my bag, my body erupted.
I was not cold, but my upper body started trembling uncontrollably. I kept shaking and quivering. This lasted for about ten minutes, at which point it was the turn of my lower body to start the same process. I couldn’t stop the waves of shaking.

Later Paulette suggested that this was the aftermath of my body having been flooded with hormones. Indeed! I had suffered acute stress and my reptilian brain had consequently prompted my adrenal glands to release a surge of adrenaline--preparing me for a fight or flight. The aftermath of such a surge, was "the shakes". The experience reminded me of transitioning during childbirth.

While I was lost my mind had been swamped with reproach. Yes, I had been afraid out there but as Cecillia said, "You were 'on task'". I was so busy trying to find a solution that I couldn’t allow my mind to realize how terrifying the situation really was. But my body did an excellent job of catching up.

And then it was my mind’s turn to catch up. It felt as though I was too afraid to fall asleep. The only time I felt myself actually slip toward unconsciousness, my psyche shook me awake, yelling, "You are DROWNING! Emergency! Wake up!" And I bolted fully awake.

In all, it was a thoroughly humbling experience! Now that I'm safely back home, I feel immense gratitude. I am grateful to the young men who tried to help me. I am thankful for my friends, who guided me in. I still feel some embarrassment but thankfulness prevails.

Wider Perspective

As I looked back, two predominant questions gnawed at me. I wondered how many others get lost while hiking or backpacking? And I wondered what learning lessons I could carry away from the experience.

According to a government database ( ... 064-16.pdf), about six to eight hundred people in the United States get lost each year and don’t survive to tell the tale.

It is more difficult to uncover reliable statistics on hikers who get lost and then are found again. From an internet search, I located a statistician, Robert Koestler, who oversees a worldwide SAR--Search and Rescue-database. An extremely crude estimate is that between 10,000 and 100,000 U.S. hikers and climbers were lost and then found in 2013. The number is so imprecise because it is an extrapolation based on partial data.

The typical lost, then found, hiker is male, between 20 and 50, and hiking solo. Although I am an outlier for this profile, I am not exempt due to the survival advice I had patently ignored.

Lisa, our fearless leader, had wisely advised that we each carry the "10 essentials." I’ve since reviewed multiple "10 essentials”, or even "13" or “14" essentials lists on the internet, and I am appalled to report that most neglect to include an emergency notification device, namely a whistle. Not even an eighteen-minute video, deigned to include a whistle on its list--though perhaps it was amidst the pocket commercial emergency kit, mentioned at the very end.

But what use is carrying a whistle if it is not with you? As a friend said, "I have a whistle attached to my knife, but do I take my knife out with me when I go to pee?"

Although yelling can reach 110 decibels per shriek, one’s vocal chords quickly give out. Whereas a whistle can keep going and going and can reach over 120 decibels. This brings up the topic of whistle attributes. Several whistles claim to be the “loudest”. Larger whistles require considerable lung power to reach the maximum volume. Also some whistles have more than one pitch—lower tones tend to carry farther, a welcome attribute when there is background noise created by wind, trees and water. Whistling with one's fingers, as I found out all too well, does not have much carrying power. All this is to say, of the three, voice, fingers or whistle, the latter triumphs.

So we've floated into the learning lesson area.

When I’m off on a hike, I now carry a whistle on a lanyard--connected at all times to my body! My wonderful friends have given me a very strong beamed LED flashlight to use when away from the tent at night.

Here is the lesson for groups of hikers: DO wake up and get up, and shine a light, at the first call of distress. And if you’re lost, let your friends find you because you carry a whistle!

By far the hardest lesson of all for me is to look at my own shame. It is still a struggle for me to examine my old view of independence, which surely is riddled with falsehoods. I am coming to realize that it is wise to ask for help immediately in an emergency. Every day, in the aging process, there is an opportunity to learn more of this lesson. Asking for help is not a weakness--easy to say, and yet extremely difficult to do. How to be part of the group, and receive graciously, when I've trained myself in my younger years, to stand alone? I'll be working on that.

Perhaps Morrie, as in the physically disabled man in "Tuesdays with Morrie" should rise as a far larger influence in my life and the lives of all of us.

As many have said before, “It takes a village”.
You must register an account and login to view the files/photos attached to this post.

User avatar
Topix Regular
Posts: 355
Joined: Wed Aug 18, 2010 10:15 am
Experience: N/A

Re: Backpacking trip mishap from this summer

Postby Ska-T » Mon Oct 10, 2016 11:19 pm

Good story and excellent teaching moment, oleander!

My small group had a similar experience in 2003. The lady friend and I were camped at Mehrten Creek on the High Sierra Trail returning to Crescent Meadow after visiting Tamarack Lake. The campsites there are on the side of a steep hill.

This was the second backpacking trip of her life and the first trip, a short 2 night excursion, was only 2 week earlier. At bedtime on this dark night she contoured about 15 to 20 ft away from the sleeping bags to pee. She didn't have her flashlight but she did have her whistle on a cord around her neck.

When about 10 min had passed and she hadn't returned I got out of my bag to see what was going on. I reasoned that with her lack of experience she likely would lose altitude on her return to the sleeping bags as gravity would pull her down the hill. Sure enough, 5 to 10 minutes later I found her floundering around in the dark about 75 yds down the hill. She hadn't used the whistle because she thought she was right near our sleeping bags.

These days I tell her that if I hadn't looked for her right away she probably would have wandered downhill to the Middle Fork of the Kaweah (3,500 ft below). :)
User avatar
Topix Regular
Posts: 237
Joined: Thu Apr 26, 2007 8:59 pm
Location: Huntington Beach
Experience: Level 4 Explorer

Re: Backpacking trip mishap from this summer

Postby AlmostThere » Tue Oct 11, 2016 8:44 am

It's a common story, probably repeats itself more than we ever know, and it's happened to me -- kudos to your friend for letting it be told.

Those statistics are from a coast guard page, and so I have to wonder if they are only coast guard stats. The Coast Guard doesn't come inland to participate in hiker searches. There is unfortunately not a lot of cohesive data around likely due to the sheer number of entities involved -- county SAR, National Park teams, and sometimes private companies working on a contract with county government are all involved.

Here is a link to information on US National park SAR stats:

And then there is information from Cospas-Sarsat based on beacon activations: ... statistics

Sometimes you can find info by state: ... RStats.pdf
User avatar
Topix Junkie
Posts: 2386
Joined: Wed Jun 24, 2009 4:38 pm
Experience: Level 4 Explorer

Re: Backpacking trip mishap from this summer

Postby giantbrookie » Tue Oct 11, 2016 10:50 am

Whew. That is indeed a scary story and it is a good one to be shared. Even those among us with the best navigational senses know how disoriented and spacey we can be when we get up for the pee in the middle of the night. I've turned the wrong way in my own home (and even bumped into walls) when getting up in the middle of the night.

In the high country, the above scenario is one of things that dictate my choice of campsites. I usually camp much further from water or trails than dictated by regulations. Commonly the main reason for doing this is to be on relatively high ground so as to have fewer mosquitoes, but a secondary reason is that I can conveniently pee close to the tent (within a few strides) if I have to go at night (I usually do). Not only does this make it unlikely I'll get lost getting back to my tent, but I won't be disrupting my sleeping rhythm as badly because I won't be walking very much. I have in fact gotten lost coming back to my tent from a late night pee, not on backpacking trips, but on primitive car camping trips with large groups (FOP Pacific Cell Field Trips come to mind) where I had to walk a distance to get clear of other folks' tents. There do tend to be additional factors that enhance my sense of disorientation late at night on an FOP trip, though.
Since my fishing (etc.) website is still down, you can be distracted by geology stuff at: ... ayshi.html
User avatar
Founding Member & Forums Moderator
Founding Member & Forums Moderator
Posts: 2756
Joined: Wed Dec 28, 2005 10:22 am
Location: Fresno
Experience: N/A

Re: Backpacking trip mishap from this summer

Postby SSSdave » Tue Oct 11, 2016 11:26 am

Thanks oleander for sharing Annes's story, a very real danger in the back country that is rarely advertised.

On my very first backpacking trip I had a similar experience which has affected my gear to this day. Getting lost at night by venturing off even a short distance from one's sleeping bag and or tent can be a very real danger. The danger can be life threatening in chilly much less cold temperatures if as is usually the case when a person gets up to relieve themselves wearing their sleeping bag attire that is certain to be rather lightweight clothing. Thus on chilly nights, one faces the threat to dying from hypothermia IF one does not return to their warm sleeping bag.

If one is part of a group, the distance one wanders off is modest, and natural sounds are low, one can always yell even if one does not have a flashlight or whistle. However on a windy night with rustling trees and wind noises across terrain, or near noisy cascades in streams, sound may be muffled to the point that yells do not reach far. As soon as one moves there is a potential for moving further from one's camp. Thus if one is going to try yelling, do it BEFORE first moving even if that might be embarrassing.

During night periods with the moon up, one can often see enough landmarks in the dark, especially about timberline areas. Also with a moon in mountains there are often recognizable peaks and skylines providing orientation. It is very easy to get turned around wobbling across terrain so it is useful to be aware of such nightly features before one wanders around. Simply carrying a weak flashlight/headlamp as many do may not have much value because these areas can be vast. As someone that probably night hikes more than any others on this board, I can state walking about away from trails in the dark even on nights with the moon up may be obvious in some place but very tricky in others. One of the more tricky landscapes are down in forest where moonlight and moon shadows can be bewildering.

The danger is of course much more so on moonless nights. The darkness can be so black that unless one has a strong beam and is really close to nearby higher features like trees or slopes, one is likely to see nothing but inky blackness. That is one reason when night hiking is queued up, I bring along a small 5mw green laser that will shine much much further to identify what is about.

The problem is obviously more danger for we solo enthusiasts versus those in groups. The solo person that without a flashlight that walks 50 feet to take a pee and then gets turned losing orientation, can get into a life and death situation. Thus it is a useful habit for soloists to always carry a flashlight when walking about near camp at night. Lesson learned, on all my trips I generally I always have my strong beam headlamp plus a really small Fenwick E01 flashlight (~$15) that takes a single AAA and regulates the voltage for constant LED brightness.


In the early 70s I backpacked over a 4 day Memorial Day weekend into Laurel Lake in Yosemite, one of the most notorious bear destinations in the park. On my last evening, I walked about 70 yards from my sleeping bag through dense forest to the nearby small outlet stream in order to brush my teeth. Well as I bent over the stream to put water in my mouth, the flashlight popped open and its two C-cell batteries plopped into the small stream. In that era a lot of cheap flashlights had that problem. Although I searched the shallow water for a long time I could not find one of the batteries so my flashlight was useless. My concern then was that bears had visited every night so the notion of a night without any light was scary. That fear changed when I began to walk back towards my camp in total darkness. I immediately realized the mortal danger of not being able to re-locate one's sleeping bag on a cold night in the dark. Thus intently focused on slowly moving on a straight line towards my camp despite having to continually move around logs, trees, and boulders. Well I came upon my camp spot and yes a really big blond bear did visit soon afterwards that had my heart going LUB-DUB LUB-DUB.
Last edited by SSSdave on Thu Oct 13, 2016 4:49 pm, edited 1 time in total.
User avatar
Topix Junkie
Posts: 2357
Joined: Thu Nov 17, 2005 11:18 pm
Location: Silicon Valley
Experience: N/A

Re: Backpacking trip mishap from this summer

Postby maverick » Tue Oct 11, 2016 11:50 am

This is a good reason for guys to carry a wide mouth Gatorade bottle dedicated for this exact purpose, then there is no need to get out of the sleeping bag or tent during the night, just take care of business and go back to sleep. :)
For women this is a bit more trickier, but there are several devices on the market that can make staying in the tent easier.
Professional Sierra Landscape Photographer

I don't give out specific route information, my belief is that it takes away from the whole adventure spirit of a trip, if you need every inch planned out, you'll have to get that from someone else.

Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, a HST member:
User avatar
Forums Moderator
Forums Moderator
Posts: 9662
Joined: Thu Apr 06, 2006 5:54 pm
Experience: Level 4 Explorer

Re: Backpacking trip mishap from this summer

Postby rlown » Tue Oct 11, 2016 11:56 am

or don't go that far from your tent? It isn't a nighttime trek.
User avatar
Topix Junkie
Posts: 6656
Joined: Thu Oct 25, 2007 5:00 pm
Location: Petaluma, CA
Experience: Level 4 Explorer

Re: Backpacking trip mishap from this summer

Postby longri » Tue Oct 11, 2016 1:03 pm

I do what giantbrookie does but there are other ways to get separated from your camp or your pack besides taking a pee. This past summer I had to get up in the middle of the night to deal with a lower GI disturbance. Obviously I needed to take more than a few steps from camp and a nalgene bottle wouldn't have helped.

I thought my camp location was obvious but I couldn't retrace my steps on the way back and ended up circling around, confused in the dark, bushwhacking a bit. I even managed to step into a bog.

This sort of temporary disorientation is common enough. I've had similar experiences many times including ones I wouldn't want to share here. I understand well enough the feelings of embarrassment and mild panic, but Anne wasn't in any danger. She knew she wasn't.

That's not to say being separated from your pack can't be serious.
User avatar
Topix Expert
Posts: 839
Joined: Mon Aug 13, 2012 9:13 am
Experience: N/A

Re: Backpacking trip mishap from this summer

Postby Wandering Daisy » Tue Oct 11, 2016 2:42 pm

I will have to confess that at night, I pee only a few feet from my tent. Never thought of going far. I also think of it as marking my territory for all those critters. So, never have been lost at night. But, I have lost my pack. I set it down to go take a photo or a side-trip and cannot find it, sometimes an hour! Definitely worrisome. I carry a whistle and small light on a "necklace". Not that when I am alone and lost my pack that whistling will do any good!
User avatar
Wandering Daisy
Topix Junkie
Posts: 3642
Joined: Sun Jan 24, 2010 8:19 pm
Location: Fair Oaks CA (Sacramento area)
Experience: N/A

Re: Backpacking trip mishap from this summer

Postby maverick » Tue Oct 11, 2016 2:47 pm

I will have to confess that at night, I pee only a few feet from my tent. Never thought of going far. I also think of it as marking my territory for all those critters.

:lol: Or maybe the salt content might attract them.
Professional Sierra Landscape Photographer

I don't give out specific route information, my belief is that it takes away from the whole adventure spirit of a trip, if you need every inch planned out, you'll have to get that from someone else.

Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, a HST member:
User avatar
Forums Moderator
Forums Moderator
Posts: 9662
Joined: Thu Apr 06, 2006 5:54 pm
Experience: Level 4 Explorer


Return to Backpacking / Hiking / Camping

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 4 guests