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A Lost Hiker’s Guide Home

She was lost on the mountain after hours of hiking and didn’t want to sleep there alone. Just then, she met her guardian angel.

The couple that hikes together...Wes and Heather in the Rockies, 2008

The sky was blue, the sun was warm. A perfect summer day for hiking.

Atop 13,507-foot Mount Ypsilon, where my husband, Wes, and I had just eaten a packed lunch of sandwiches, apples and fruitcake, the view extended for mile after glorious mile of snowcapped Rocky Mountain peaks.

It was Friday, the day Wes and I hiked together each week. Mount Ypsilon was one of our favorite routes. We’d climbed it at least three times in the 41 years we’d lived in Colorado, where Wes had taught geology at the University of Colorado and I’d worked as a nurse.

Now we were retired with grown kids and schedules blissfully free for getting outdoors. We spent as much time in the mountains as possible. We felt at home there. Close to God and the angels. Safe.

Which probably explains why, when Wes stopped to take a photo, I didn’t wait for him but instead kept right on descending the gray, rocky talus below the summit. There was no trail, just occasional cairns of stones marking the way to where the tundra began. It was chilly and windy up there, still dotted with remnants of winter snow.

I shouted back to Wes I was turning off the ridgeline toward the trail. I wasn’t sure of the exact way we’d come up—I always let Wes the geologist do our map-reading—but I figured I’d hit the trail eventually. There aren’t too many ways you can go from a summit but down. Besides, I usually walked ahead of Wes on descents. A bad knee slowed him downhill. I’d wait for him once I reached the trail.

I clattered down, clicking on rocks with my trekking poles. The wind pushed and pulled. Suddenly I stopped. Before me a steep cliff dropped away, plunging hundreds of feet. Huh? We hadn’t passed any cliffs coming up. I turned around to show Wes. But I couldn’t make him out. A wall of talus rose behind me. The wind blew against my face.

Figuring I’d taken a wrong turn, I climbed back to where I thought I’d left Wes. He wasn’t there. I took off in a new direction. Moments later I stood atop the same cliff. I shaded my eyes with my hand. Everywhere the view was the same. Featureless gray rock, peaks ringing the horizon. I assured myself I wasn’t lost.

I retraced my steps twice more. The fourth time I found myself at the cliff I admitted the obvious. I was lost.

I took my water bottle from my pack. It was empty. Wes and I had drained it that morning like we always do, lightening my load first. A twinge of nervousness seized me. The sun was halfway to the horizon. Where was Wes? No doubt he’d figured I was way ahead as usual. How long until he realized I wasn’t on the trail? The trailhead was five miles down. Wes wouldn’t reach the car until late afternoon.

I looked around. The sun was warm but I knew the minute it set the temperature would plunge. Like always I had a wool hat, gloves, fleece, rain parka, poncho and a down sweater in my pack, along with a first aid kit and plenty of nuts and raisins for snacking. Would that be enough for a night below freezing?

Keep calm, Heather. Just that morning Wes and I had listened to a news segment on the radio about lost hikers. Stay put, experts recommend, so rescuers can find you. Okay, I’d stay put. Maybe Wes would reach the trailhead in time to alert rangers and they’d have someone up here before nightfall.

Nightfall. The word loomed in my mind. I needed to do something to keep busy. I began stacking rocks into an improvised shelter. Already the wind was finding its way into my parka.

An hour later I had a small circle of raised stones. I sat in it. The wind howled around me. I stared at the landscape. Suddenly the mountains I so loved seemed altogether different. I was seized with fear. I did not want to sleep on this peak.

In desperation I cried out, God! Help me! I need an angel!

With a sudden burst of energy I picked myself up, stuffed my water bottle with snow and set off along the slope, determined to find that trail. I ranged this way and that, always keeping my little shelter in view.

Suddenly my heart leapt. There, over a rise, I saw a tiny pile of rock. A cairn! A trail marker. “Thank you, God!” I cried.

From the cairn I could see another cairn. And another. It was definitely the trail. I picked up the pace, glancing at the sky. Could I make it down before dark? Never had I hiked so fast.

My spirits soon fell. The cairns ended at the beginning of grassy tundra. I saw no trail. It was too early in the year. Not enough people had hiked up here to flatten the grass. Wes must have navigated by map. Was I lost again?

I stared down the slope toward a saddle between two peaks. To my immense relief a man stood in the middle of the saddle. He wore dark clothes. I waved my trekking poles and shouted but he didn’t seem to notice me.

Staring at him I realized he was standing directly on the trail. I hadn’t seen it before but now I discerned it continuing down the slope behind him. I hurried down, watching my footing. I reached the saddle. The man was gone.

I continued along the trail, thinking I might see the man. Instead, a few miles down, I came to a crossroads. Which way had Wes and I come? Surely I was near the trailhead. Just pick the right trail, Heather….I set off down one that looked right. It plunged into a thick wood. The setting sun barely illuminated the trees.

I was just beginning to lose sight of the trail when it ended at a damp marsh. The sun was gone. With a sinking feeling I knew I was not going to make it home that day. I was going to have to spend the night outside.

Wearily I hiked away from the marsh until I couldn’t see a thing. I lay between two downed trees surrounded by close, damp woods. I ate some nuts, drank my melted snow water, took two Advil and prayed. The wood became utterly silent.

In the dark I felt a wonderful sensation—someone cradling me, dispelling all fear. I fell asleep and awoke to the sound of birds. I hastened back up the trail.

I’d barely reached the crossroads when I saw a man walking quickly uphill. My heart flooded with relief. That must be the way down. Oddly, the man was wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirt. It was cold!

I asked if he’d come up from his car. He said yes and continued on without another word. Eager to get home I hurried down myself. Not 10 minutes later I came to the end of the trail and heard a shout. A ranger clambered out of a pickup saying she’d been praying for me all night. I practically collapsed from joy.

The ranger told me Wes had come down the trail late the previous afternoon and reported me missing. Rescuers had sent him home to Boulder to e-mail photos of me. What an awful night he must have had! He was on his way back now, the ranger said. Had I been gone another 15 minutes they’d have sent helicopters to look for me.

The ranger said one more thing. When I told her how grateful I was for the man I’d seen on the trail that morning, she gave me a funny look and said no one had been up that trail since she’d come on duty at 3:00 a.m.

All those hours I’d felt so lost and alone on that vast, beautiful mountain—I wasn’t lost at all. I was right at home. I was close to God and the angels. I was safe.  

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