Lost in the backcountry: Passing the point of no return

What happens when the trail disappears but you keep pedaling

Sometimes this is what happens when you try to ride the trail less traveled.

Sometimes this is what happens when you try to ride the trail less traveled (click to enlarge).

At what point do you decide to turn around on a ride in the backcountry? Everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to getting lost. But after emerging from a drainage after four hard fought hours of bush whacking with my bike, I was wondering where that point was for me.

Was it after the 4th or 5th crack of thunder? Was it when the trail just petered out and became too over grown to follow? Was it the moment I decided to walk my bike down into the steep embankment into the abyss? Maybe.

Or was after crossing the 100th downed tree? Or maybe it was when my sunglasses were ripped off my head and lost in the creek? Or was it the rain and hail that accompanied me the whole way down? Or maybe, just maybe it was cliff that I ran into half way down. Hmm. I don’t know exactly where that point was, but leaving the trail and bush whacking in the backcountry was an adventure.

Rugged mountains in these parts.

Rugged mountains in these parts (click to enlarge).

I didn’t die or even have to spend a night in the forest, but I took away some valuable lessons. Maybe you stick to the trails you know, but most likely everyone has a story of getting lost, or being in a situation where just getting home was the only goal. It’s the feeling of being lucky because many things could have gone worse.

After starting my 3-hour tour just outside Durango close to the Purgatory ski resort, I encountered an intersection with no signage. Of course I guessed wrong. After figuring out that the trail I had chosen was heading the wrong direction I turned around. I ran into my wife who was hiking with our dogs. Maybe this should have been a sign. But I said goodbye again and continued westbound on my intended loop.

No roads to be seen.

No roads to be seen (click to enlarge).

Finally I found some flow and was feeling pretty good. I saw some signs and figured I was back on course. With my short detour, I was an hour into the ride, ready to rip some downhill. Just another sweet weekend ride in Colorado. Then I heard the first crack of thunder. After the 2nd and 3rd crack of thunder I was pretty sure I was going to get wet. I had checked the weather before I left. They were calling for just a chance of T-storms. As it turns out the weather was the least of my worries.

Continue to page 2 for more tales from being lost in the backcountry »
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  • AC says:

    The best epics have a bad decision somewhere along the way.

  • K. Iwamoto says:

    My worst experience was running out of water on a long climb on a 95+ weather.
    One of the riders was in trouble when he stopped sweating and had a hard time even walking. We bike/walk for 10 min then rested for 5 min. Unfortunately cars were parked on the other side of the mountain, so we had no choice but to continue up. There was no cell phone reception. The 4 hour ride, turned into 6 hours. The trail was skyline/blackstar in Corona CA.

    • Chris I says:

      Dude, we had almost an identical experience nthe Tamarancho trail in the Bay area. Zigged where we should have zagged, ended up at the bottom of the canyon and had to hike out on a VERY hot July day. We expected 2hrs to ride, turned into 5 or 6 hours, ran out of water and bars, heat stroke. Bad news. Close to death I’m sure that we’ve both become.

  • Liz Kurtz says:

    Years ago my partner and I stayed out too late in Wilder Ranch park in Santa Cruz. We were in one of the forested creek beds and couldn’t see a thing. Nothing! So I whipped out my camera and began using the flash to get our bearings. I pretty much flashed our way up the hill and onto the fire road where we could then see the blackness of the ocean in the distance and faint car lights on Hwy 1.

  • Vader says:

    “I doubt there’s ever been a human being in this gulley.”

    LOL, been there done that in 108* dead air heat north of Kernville. After running out of water, I ditched my bike to ensure survival and stumbled through poison oak and stinging nettle for hours. Things were looking grim as my brain was working backwards due to severe heat stroke. I wondered if I should stash my body so the critters wouldn’t tear it up, or leave it out in the open for recovery? I finally made it to the highway where a motorist took me to the hospital. I never told anyone where I was planning to ride that day. I’ll never forget the look on my wife’s face when we recovered the bike a week later. “WTF were you doing out here?”

  • CBaron says:

    I’ve spent many-o-summer trip in DGO riding that area. From memory, it looks like you ended up on Pinkerton-Flagstaff trying to head down to Jones Creek. (we usually ride it up Jones—>Pinkerton—->down Dutch Creek—->Hermosa) There are some very steep grades on that ridge. Glad it worked out.

  • Tom says:

    Great writeup, Mark. I assume that the sequel will be titled something like “How I managed my furious, scared, worried wife upon returning home”!

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