All hikers can tell you their own unique stories about various mishaps that have occurred on the trails, or perhaps off trail, and some great discussions can be had about how they overcame the situation. These are good opportunities to learn ways to deal with adverse situations, and to prevent repeat mishap scenarios. I’ve often heard it said that, if you do a lot of nice challenging hikes, it’s not a question of “if” but a question of “when” something goes wrong. I’m not fatalistic, but it’s true enough. This little story isn’t even close to Hiker Hell material. It doesn’t involve anyone getting killed, near death, eminent injury, or grievous suffering. It’s really just a simple scenario that snowballed into a rather strange afternoon. I thought it would be worth writing up because the same type of scenario could have been more serious if we had been in a more isolated area, and further away from a trailhead.
The story goes like this. My wife and I decided to hike the Skyline Trail last Saturday to hunt for wildflowers. This is usually a great route to find seasonal frolicking blooms of all types. We’ve hiked this trail together numerous times in all kinds of weather. It’s a nice hike at any time. We parked at the Grizzly Flat trailhead of Upper Steven’s Creek County Park, and originally planned to do a big loop by crossing highway 37 over to Long Ridge to pick up the Skyline Trail, and return by way of the Canyon Trail in Upper Steven’s Creek to Grizzly Flat trail and back up.
The weather was unseasonably cold, windy, and overcast (see photo),and given the spotty displays we had been seeing the past few weeks, right away I began having doubts that the wild flower viewing would be very good. I found some really nice giant trilliums which kept me interested, but not much else until the sun came out. Anyway, we hiked all the way through to Russian Ridge which was a severe disappointment. We hiked down the north side of Borell Hill to get out of the chill and have some lunch. We were sitting behind some rocks to shelter from the wind, with a nice clear view of the bay below. During lunch, we decided that because of the poor conditions, we would scrap the loop around to Upper Steven's and just make a loop around Russian Ridge preserve and then return to our parked car along the same trail we hiked north on. This would eliminate the 1000 foot climb back up Grizzly Flat trail from the Canyon trail. This also gave us the opportunity to take a second look at the more promising west side of the ridge after the sun had finally come out. We could see that many flowers were simply not blooming due to the earlier overcast. We also noted that the Nature Center near the pond on the other side of Alpine road would be open by then, and we could take a look inside. So we finally made our way around on the Ancient Oaks trail and back to where the parking lot is for Russian Ridge. We decided to take advantage of the restroom there. Sue went first, and when she came out I was waiting behind some other people. So she told me that she would meet me back at the Nature Center a short distance away. I said ok, but I didn't really watch which way she was headed. I just assumed she knew where it was. We do not carry cell phones, and were not carrying walkie talkies.
Anyway I got finished there and headed back under Alpine road using the tunnel. I headed over to the Nature Center, but Sue was nowhere to be found. Backtracking, I could not figure out where she could have gone. I remembered that sometimes Sue will hike on ahead of me on the trail if I stop to take photos or something, and I will eventually catch up. She always says she likes to keep moving. Without finding her, I began to think she must have headed out southbound on the Skyline trail. So I began hiking briskly to catch up. My assumed familiarity with her habits was working against me here. After I rounded the last bend before the Skyline Ridge parking area, it struck me that I should have caught up to her by then. I was confused, and began thinking I should go back to find her behind me. I hiked almost all the way back to the Nature Center, but without finding her, I stopped and was thinking if she was back there I should have found her by then. I got confused again and turned around and headed south thinking I must now be way behind her. I hiked all the way south beyond the Christmas tree farm until I again began wondering why I had not caught up. I had been hiking a good strong pace. I waited for about 20 minutes there where I could see north about a quarter mile. Sue did not appear on the trail. I sat there on a stump trying to think what had happened.
I was now totally confused about where Sue could have gotten lost. I knew she was familiar with the trail and knew where the car was, and I had confidence in her skills at following maps and general hiking competence. She's been hiking all her life. I also knew she had plenty of gear and food. The one worrying thing was that I was carrying all the water, but it was not a hot day. I was not using very much water, and so this was not a critical point. But I did begin to wonder if she had gotten hurt some way, or was a victim of some foul play. I put that stuff out of my mind, and instead began thinking about what to do next. I decided to head for the car, and thought there may be a fairly good chance that she would be there waiting for me, even though it didn't seem like her at all to get that far ahead. She was not at the car! I began to get worried.
I was now spitting mad at myself for letting this happen. I got in the car and drove up to where the Nature Center is to see if anyone had seen her, or was asking about seeing me. The guy at the center said a woman had been looking for someone fitting my description and had headed south. I then got back in the car and drove back to Grizzly Flat, parked at the same spot, left the car unlocked just in case she showed up there, and began hiking back to the north looking for her. I was asking everyone I happened to pass if they had seen Sue, and finally someone said they had passed someone back about half a mile. I kept hiking north until I finally found Sue just south of the chestnut farm along the trail. She had been behind me the whole time.
We were too glad to see each other to be mad, but we did have a quiet discussion about it, and pieced together what happened. Apparently Sue had forgotten about the tunnel under Alpine road. That started the confusion. She had walked around to the far side of the pond before realizing that she was not where she should be. I did not see that she did not go down to the tunnel and assumed she knew where to go. While I was looking for her at the Nature center, she was trying to figure out how to get there. Thinking I knew her habits, I headed off looking for her on the trail. I was wrong to think she wouldn't stay at the Nature Center like she said, and apologized. But not to let her completely escape blame, I explained to her that her past habits had led me think she might be ahead. Something for us to learn from. We will likely change our habits somewhat to prevent this from happening again. Maybe we will start using walkie talkies, or perhaps not let ourselves get separated. But more likely we will have a policy of always saying where we will be going, and then waiting there, and waiting at all junctions ala Sierra Club.