I scramble over boulders, some the size of small cars. My legs slip in between them; I twist my ankles. Trying to hurry, I trip multiple times and scrape my shins, knees, and hands. My backpack, now empty of food and water, slides around my back each time I pitch forward. I climb lower, entering the treeline, and make a futile attempt to use my cell phone one more time. I can’t stay on this mountain; the sun’s going down behind it. If I stumble into the trees and keep heading east, I should run into the trail again. But what if I don’t?
Mt. McLoughlin, a nine-and-a-half thousand foot lava cone in the Cascade range and the Sky Lakes Wilderness, is about 45 miles from where I live. Being the amateur mountaineer I like to think that I am, I invite two friends to climb it with me. And when they call me, after I’m all ready to go, and tell me they won’t be able to make it, I decide to go anyway. Alone. Because I had planned to do it today, and I’ve wanted to do it ever since I moved here ten years ago. So I grab my backpack, already packed with water, a tuna sandwich, an apple, and granola bars. I get in my car and drive to the trailhead by myself. Because I’m under thirty and I tend to think that’s not a bad idea.
The last mile of the hike is a little strenuous, but I summit with about ten other people. I go to the front edge of it and gaze at the view of the Rogue Valley and beyond, all the way to majestic Mt. Shasta. McLoughlin itself is beautiful, almost a perfect cone shape, and I figure it’s the ideal place to do some journaling. When finished with my lunch, I pull out my notebook and get started.
After a while I realize I should probably head down. I look around and discover that I am the last person up here. I go back to where I think the trail is and can’t find it. Hmm. I could have sworn it was on the back side. I decide to start down where I think the trail should be; I’ll probably find it soon enough.
It’s slow going as I pick my way down the steep rocky slope. I try to quicken my pace but don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I don’t recognize anything. I refuse to believe that I’m lost and continue scrambling over the boulders, descending the mountain as fast as I can.
Finally I have to admit to myself that I am nowhere near the trail. I am lost, and the sun is setting. The Sky Lakes Wilderness, a sea of trees, stretches before me. I can see a lake in the distance. All is quiet except for my rapidly beating heart.
I head east hoping to connect with the trail at some point. Even after I enter the treeline the large volcanic rocks still surround me, along with fallen trees. It takes forever to climb over and around them. My entire body is sore, and I am trying to remain calm as the light continues to fade.
After what could be a mile of boulders and trees, I hear talking. I see someone sitting on a rock along the side of the trail. I’ve made it! My idea of heading east worked! I climb over the last section of boulders and greet the two guys hanging out there. You get lost? one of them asks. Yeah, I was over that way quite a bit. I’m so glad I made it back to the trail.
I look at them then. They both appear to be in their late thirties. Strangely, neither one has a backpack. They look at me. A synapse fires in my brain, my heart skips a beat, and in a millisecond, I know without even thinking the words. They were waiting for me.
The “fight” part of Fight or Flight is not an option. I turn and immediately break into a full-out run. I don’t feel my rubbery legs and sore feet. I do not feel tired as I push my already battered body into a sprint for the next two miles back to the trailhead. But I don’t think about how long it is, or the fact that it’s getting dark, or whether or not I still have my backpack on. All I know is that I hear two sets of footfalls behind me, and I am running for my life.
At some point I think that I hear only one set still behind me, but it feels like the guy is breathing down my neck. From somewhere deep within myself I find my last reserve and take longer, faster strides. I keep going, propelled by adrenaline and the goal of outrunning my pursuer.
After some time, I think the only footfalls I hear are my own, pounding in my ear. I do not look back but continue on, slowing down a little to keep myself from vomiting. Finally I make it back to the parking lot and notice that there are only two cars in it – mine, and a beat-up brown sedan parked in the far corner of the lot. I look back at the trail and see no one. Fortunately I still have my backpack, and my keys are in it. Shaking uncontrollably, I get into my car and drive off. About a mile down the road, I choke back sobs, not daring to think of what my fate might have been.
We hear news stories about people being lost in a forest or on a mountain. Sometimes we think how scary that must be. And sometimes we find out just how scary it really is.