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School of Self-Reliance

Mt. Lowe

©1990 Christopher Nyerges

It was a late February hiking class with Glendale Community College and a few of us were bringing up the rear. We were taking our time, enjoying the surroundings, and talking. It was about 4:30 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, and we had just left the Mount Lowe campground in the Angeles National Forest. We were walking down the path of the old electric cars that once carried tourists here in the late 1800s until 1938.

It had started to drizzle by around 4 p.m., so most of our group had quickly moved on ahead of us. By now, there was a steady drizzle, which eventually became a steady rain. We had about three miles to go before we got to our cars.

Because of the rain and the thick, heavy fog, it was actually a rare and pleasant adventure. The strong odors of the pine and conifers hung in the air, and the trees' outer limbs hung low with the weight of the water. Surprisingly, we heard many birds during this light storm. We stopped to listen to a simple song -- two peeps -- which I was told was the song of a local wren.

Visibility became increasingly limited. The sound of the drizzle, and the steady drips from the trees, and the sound of the wind-moved rain, combined to make our  music of the outdoors. Everywhere we looked, we could see the signs of the hidden animals of the forest: a hole under a pile of rocks with a few small fresh tracks in the soft dirt leading up to it, a clump of needles high in the branches of a tree, and holes in what seemed to be the impregnable rock walls. "There's someone else's home," I'd comment as we passed another animal den. But we saw none of the forest denizens. They were all tucked away and out of the rain.

There were five of us left, and we were pretty wet by now, though not yet thoroughly soaked. An occasional wind made our faces wetter than they had been, and the rain dripped off our noses and eye lashes. One woman who had gone up ahead was quite cold and uncomfortable and her hands felt numb. Had our cars not been so relatively close, I would have stopped and built a fire -- even with the rain.

Our little group began to discuss how easy it would be for a lost hiker or a confused bicyclist to end up having to spend the night outdoors. We had all read accounts of such incidents, and very often the lost person had no means to make a fire or shelter.

"So at what point," one of my hiking partners asked, "should you accept that you're lost and just set up a camp?"

There was no easy answer, so this was our main topic of conversation as we walked. For one thing, no one wants to admit that they are lost. They are still in the mindset of dinner appointments and phone calls and tomorrow's agenda. Their pride and fear keep them from admitting to themselves that maybe they aren't going home tonight. This is why it is critical to always carry a few simple survival tools, such as a good knife, a fire starter, a thin sheet of plastic, an emergency space blanket, and perhaps some twine.

What usually happens is that the hiker or bicyclist is lost, or a big storm comes in which makes it nearly impossible to travel. Obviously, it is best to make such a determination that you'll stay the night as early as possible. That gives you time to select a good campsite near the trail, get a fire going in a safe spot, build a shelter, and then just relax and get warmed.

But most people don't want to "give up" that easily, and they persist in the cold and rain and confusion, and perhaps in the dark, until they simply have no alternatives. Being forced to spend the night in our local mountains in the summer is not a big a challenge, weatherwise. But it can be a life and death situation in the winter with rain and snow and wind and cold.

The general rule of thumb is that you need to monitor your body and your physical abilities. Are your hands getting so numb that you can't make a fire even if you had the materials? If so, it's time to stop and make camp somewhere quick. Are you completely wet and lost and exhausted? If so, you've already gone long beyond the ideal time to stop.

You need to be alert to avoid the problem in the first place. But if you find yourself having to make a hard decision, consider how far away you are from your car, from the trail head, or from any ranger stations. If you are too far away for even a ranger to see your smoke signals, and many miles from your vehicle, it might just be best to stop, build a fire, and rest. The weather may clear up, or rain and snow may get heavier. You have to decide how long to stay there. But if you are starting to lose control of your body, and your hands and feet are getting numb, and you are losing alertness, your best course of action is probably to stop, get warm with a fire, and rest. After you warm up and rest, you can plan your strategy with a clear head.

Don't worry about starvation. You can go a long time without food, but you'll need water and protection from the cold.

Even though we couldn't see more than 20 feet ahead because of the fog, we all knew where we were, even though we were wet and getting wetter. We knew that we just had to stay on the road and eventually we'd end up at our cars.

No one in our group had any intentions of testing their overnight abilities this day, so everyone moved along quickly. Finally, our party arrived at our cars in the dark, inhaled the exhilirating freshness of the windy rain, and then opened our car doors with wet and slightly numb fingers.

It had been a great day!

Had we been lost, we'd all be deciding what sort of shelter to make (or find) for the night, and we'd set about the task of building shelters and a campfire. Had we truly been lost, our adventure would have just been beginning.

"Don't forget to take
a friend along!"

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The CCC Road
The Switzers Area
The Falls
Millard Canyon
Mt. Lowe
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Scoutleader Landry