Have you ever been lost in the bush? Ruby spoke to a couple of Explorers whose hiking plans came tremendously undone while they were out in the wild.
You’re walking in dense scrub, one boot in front of the other. The sun set hours ago, and you lost the path along with it. Hypothermia has set in and you can’t feel your legs. You’re out of food, out of water. You didn’t bring an emergency satellite device. It’s the cusp of winter and you’re in Kosciuszko National Park alone. The rain is falling.
You’ve been lost for 13 hours and the hallucinations have begun.
‘Is that an armadillo? It’s an armadillo, what the fuck?!’
‘Is that a search light in the sky? They’ve found me! Wait… no….’
‘That’s music playing, right? I know that song….’
For Josephine Chabi, an experienced hiker in Sydney, this was her reality. She was out in the bush cooee-ing to save her life.
It’s stories like this that keep the anxious folk at home and the arrogant, overly-confident folk with their eyebrows raised. For those who have been there, staring death in the face, they know this is no eyebrow-raising matter.
Adventure fuckups can happen to anyone. I sat down with Josephine and Tim Ashelford, Editor of We Are Explorers, to hear about the times their adventures didn’t go to plan.
Stick to an Actual Path
Tim’s the type of guy who spends his weekends cross-country skiing in white-out conditions at night for fun. He summits every peak he can get his hands on and climbs cliff faces that maybe shouldn’t be climbed (you can tell I haven’t joined the climbing cult, right?). Despite all this experience and all the gear, he’s had his fair share of fuckups.
In South America, with the rain beating down on their packs, Tim and his mates followed some pink tree tags and found themselves in a valley they weren’t supposed to be in. You know when you’ve been following a trail and then all of a sudden the trail disappears and you realise you probably haven’t been on a trail for a little while? That happened.
The crew had to trek it back to their original camp and start again. They ran into a ranger who informed them that the last time someone ventured out to the same valley, they never returned and were presumed dead. ‘That was kind of harrowing’, Tim tells me. No shit.
Tim tells me he learnt some serious lessons on that hike. Namely to not blindly follow tags, just because it’s a path doesn’t mean that it’s the right one.
‘Step back and take a look at what you’re doing. Ask yourself if the map confirms that you’re on the right track. Don’t rely on a single bit of proof if you can avoid it.’
Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Hike
Tim launches into another time in the Blue Mountains, trying to conquer the 45km Kanangra to Katoomba wilderness hike in one day. There’s a lot of elevation change on the K2K, but Tim and his friends thought it would be a ‘fun challenge’. His legs seized up around the 15km mark, coming down a mountain called Strong Leg. ‘The irony was bitter’, he says with a laugh.
He continued the hike, hobbling about, going at a much slower pace than the rest of the crew. Two of them jumped ahead, snaking down the mountain to find a place for lunch. When they disappeared, Tim and his brother lost the trail, and didn’t realise until it was too late.
They knew their friends were at the river, so they made their way down the mountain anyway. It took them so long that their friends at the river started to climb the mountain to look for them. But because Tim and his brother were off the trail, they never intercepted. This kind of detour on a 50km day is not ideal. They still had 35km to go and the afternoon sun had arrived.
They eventually found each other (an hour or so later), and while Tim wasn’t worried for his safety (he was carrying a sleeping bag and tarp in his pack for emergencies – a handy tip!), it changed the mood of the trip. The lesson? Don’t split up. If one person gets lost, everything falls apart.
‘Experienced adventurers mess up too because they’re always pushing their limits, whatever they are. In some ways, that’s the point!’ says Tim.
‘I’m going off-track hiking in the Blue Mountains this weekend actually, and I expect to get a little lost. The challenge will be getting ourselves out and finding a route that works. In general, no one is perfect, and if you over-plan your adventure it’s kind of boring anyway. Just be prepared. For many people who get lost, the reason why they’ve survived is because they were prepared.’
Scout’s #1 Rule: Be Prepared
This couldn’t be more true than for Josephine, who was convinced the rocks around her were armadillos and the sky was full of search and rescue flashlights. She had her map, her hiking boots, her down jacket. She had her pack of food, her water purifying tablets. You know, day walk kind of stuff.
She was doing the Twin Peak hike, and Mueller too. It was all well and fine until the weather took a drastic turn, the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the dated map forced her off track.
She made her way to the river, knowing that if she followed it, she’d eventually end up in Thredbo. But again, a wrong turn. Onto the Snowy River. Another 22km to civilisation. By now it was dark. It was cold, painstakingly cold. Jo tells me her survival instincts kicked in then.
She knew she needed to maintain composure. One wrong footing and she’d break a leg. One breakdown and she’d lose the strength to keep pushing through. She couldn’t afford either. Her life depended on her mental strength.
For a brief moment her phone glowed with the ‘SOS Only’ message. She called the emergency services straight away. She tells me that not having a GPS satellite device was her first error, but the powerbank that kept her phone charged saved her life.
Unfortunately, Jo’s emergency app had the coordinates of where she was the last time she was in range, which was hours ago. This didn’t help the emergency services on the other end. It took the crew seven hours to find her, but by then the hypothermia had paralysed her and she could no longer walk.
Thankfully, Jo was found and is now alive and well. She tells me she’s medicated for PTSD as a result and sometimes headlights trigger her.
‘I’ve only gone hiking once and I haven’t done it since. I don’t know how I’m going to be once I’m in that environment again. When I was in the dark with a friend recently, I started freaking out. It was a lot to deal with. If I was by myself I couldn’t have overcome it. It will come in time and with practice, I’m sure.’
The Aussie Bush is Unforgiving
Tourists always laugh and say that the Aussie bush is full of dangerous creatures, but often we don’t realise the danger we can put ourselves in. Our terrain is relentless, the weather unforgiving.
There’s a misconception that only the inexperienced mess up. That those who get lost are just ‘damsels in distress’ or tourists. But we all make mistakes. One wrong footing can leave us paralysed. The point is, you can never be over-prepared. Make sure you have an up-to-date paper map. Make sure you’ve hired an EPIRB if you’re going somewhere remote. Don’t split up when you’re with a group. Carry a sleeping bag and a tent if you’re going on a long hike and there’s a chance you’ll have to spend the night.
Sometimes you may find yourself lost, but what’s important is having the right shit in your backpack to keep you alive.