Boundary Peak, Montgomery Peak

15-Sep-97

By: Diane Winger


I consider myself a logical person who can carefully weigh a situation and generally find a good solution. Yet, with that good old 20-20 hindsight, I wonder if I was totally nuts, having flashbacks to doing too many drugs in the 60s, or experiencing early senility on September 15, after descending a long scree slope off of Boundary Peak in Western Nevada.

It looked like a very straightforward hike. As my husband Charlie, our friend Jim Scott and I drove up the valley toward our campsite, we could see our peak for the next day. We started out at about 6 a.m. along an easy trail that quickly brought us into a wide-open valley leading directly toward our destination, which was in dear view. The trail through fields of sagebrush gradually gained elevation until we reached a bowl. We then began climbing a much steeper scree slope toward the saddle about 2000 feet above us. Upon reaching the saddle, we turned right, and made our way around two small rock outcroppings ("bumps") and up the final slope to the summit arriving at 10 a.m.

After this obvious, but tiring hike of 4400' in elevation gain, Charlie and Jim (peak-baggers extraordinaire) wanted to "run" across the ridge to Montgomery Peak on the California side of the border. We had discussed earlier that I might not want to continue on to Montgomery. The weather was starting to look a little threatening, so the guys decided to hurry across to the other peak (about a 45 minute trip each way) while I dropped back down into the bowl and waited there (weather permitting), or headed back to the car.

As I followed one of many trails back around the bumps, I noticed one that started down the scree at an angle that looked like it would cut some distance off my descent. I headed down and across, making my way to the area of smaller rocks we had all noticed on the way up. When I reached the bowl below, the weather had cleared, so I decided to wait for my companions in this large flat area.

After a 1-1/2 hour wait, there was no sign of Charlie and Jim. I decided to wait a bit longer. Almost another hour went by--still no sign of the two strong, fast, highly experienced climbers. I blew my whistle, hoping they'd respond so I'd know their location. Silence.

(Charlie and Jim completed their climb of Montgomery and returned to the summit of Boundary at 1 1.20 am. They continued down to the trailhead and, not finding any signs of me there, left a note on our car that I was missing and that they were going back up to look for me.. It was about 1 p.m.

I concluded that they had somehow come down some other way, and 1 had missed them. But I had a clear view of the entire slope! Could I have come down the wrong way? How could that be--there are the rocks we stopped and rested at just below the saddle, and over there is the light-colored stripe of smaller scree we thought would be the easiest line of descent. But, I don't really remember all those trees over in the next drainage there--or that patch of snow way off to the left.

I started looking for the trail we had come up-and the terrain seemed all wrong. Yet, I, Ms. Rational Person, managed to convince myself that I had simply come down on the wrong side of a small ridge. If I just follow this trail over here, I'm sure it'll lead to the trail we used. After all, I can see down the valley all the way to the highway that led to this area! I must be in nearly the right place.

So I went down--and down. The trail disappeared, so I climbed over a small ridge in the direction I thought our original trail might be, and found another trail. And followed it down-and down.

My brain finally kicked back in and said, You are lost. When you get lost, you should go back to the last place you knew was right (if you are sure you can get there) or stay putt" I looked over my shoulder. I could see the high ridge between Boundary and Montgomery above me-perhaps 3,500 feet above me. A little voice said, "I don't have the stamina to climb back up there now--I messed up." So, the option seemed to be "Stay put so other can find you." I made my way to a point with a good view of the valley around me and hung my bright yellow rain coat high in a dead tree. For the next two hours 1 waved the end of my silver emergency bivy sack in the air like a flag, and blew my Whistle. Nothing.

Obviously, no one was in this valley looking for me. (Meanwhile, Charlie and Jim had been looking for me for hours in the next valley to the north. Charlie had climbed the peak again, where he and another climber searched for me with and another climber searched for me with binoculars. Jim and our friend Burt--who had planned to meet us after the hike, and who had joined in the search after reading Charlie's note-continued to search the valley and approaches to the peak. Finally, all three returned to the trailhead. At 6:30 p.m, they decided that Jim and Burt would go to the nearest town to call for Search & Rescue. It had been 8-1/2 hrs. since anyone had seen me.)

I looked down the valley. Miles away, I could see the highway. T couldn't make out the dirt roads that led to campsites, but knew they were there. I decided to continue down. If I could find a road, then I could eventually find people.

I made my way through thick vegetation, across small streams, and over hills. Around 5 p.m. I spotted a jeep road, and bushwhacked my way to it. I spent the next four hours hiking up and then down the road, and exploring all the side roads, hoping to find "our" road, or an occupied campsite. I blew three blasts on my whistle every few minutes - silence. Finally, in the light of the full moon, I chose a tree next to the dirt road as my shelter for the night. I hung my yellow raincoat on the tree at headlight level, put on several more layers of clothing, and crawled into my emergency bivy sack, exhausted.

The night turned colder and windier, the bivy sack began tearing into small piece, and I added more layers of clothing. Finally, I saw a red glow on the eastern horizon. I got up, ate a cookie, decided I could allow myself two gulps of my very limited water supply, and set off down the road again. It was 6 a.m. After finding a familiar road sign, I at last understood where I was. I had walked up and down the valley (author's note -Middle Creek) to the south of the one we had camped in. As I recalled, I now had about nine miles to hike up the road to our campsite. Fortunately, a hiker who had scrapped his plans to climb the peak was driving out as I slogged up the road. I had been walking for about 3-1/2 hours, but was still a mile or two from my destination. "Are you the lost hiker?" he asked. "Can I give you a ride up to your campsite?" Obviously a rhetorical question.

What was the worst part of this experience for me?

  • Being lost. Yes, I cried a little. But mostly for being so damned determined to convince myself that I could find my trail if I just went a little further, instead of biting the bullet in the first place and getting back up to that saddle-the last place where I really knew I was!
  • Seeing all those Search & Rescue people near the trailhead, who had been working since 3 a.m. looking for me. Yes, I felt guilty.
  • Shivering in my so-called emergency bivy sack. Sure, I was cold at times when the wind picked up. But I had a good supply of warm clothes, and a garbage bag that turned out to work better than the space blanket-like sack.
  • Thinking about what my husband was going through trying to find me. Was I lost or injured or lying dead somewhere? Binge--this was by far the worst part of the whole experience. I don't ever want him to have to go through something like that again.
    I learned a lot of lessons from my adventure. Perhaps by sharing the following someone will avoid a similar saga-or worse:
    • Carry the Ten Essentials-no kidding! Guess which one I didn't think I needed because the route was so obvious: A map. If I had had a topo of the area, I would have studied it in the bowl when I couldn't find my trail, and would have realized that I had dropped into the wrong basin.
    • Take Inventory. I convinced myself that I had removed my fire-starter from my pack before taking this trip, so I couldn't build a fire. Oddly enough, the next morning when a rescuer asked my about building a fire, I remembered that I did indeed have a lighter with me after all.
    • Return to your last known position (if you are sure you can do so safely and without getting lost even more). Or stay put. If I had climbed back to the saddle, I would have seen the other basin, and probably even recognized some landmarks below. If I had stayed in the basin I dropped into, Charlie would have seen me when he climbed to the ridge for the second time that day.
    • Never believe that it's 'impossible" that you have gone the wrong way. Nearly everything I saw told me I was in the wrong bowl, but I was sure there was no way I could have come down the wrong way, since the route was so simple. I talked myself into believing that I was just a "little" lost, and should continue going down until I found more familiar ground.
    • Don't make a decision based on laziness. If I could have retraced my steps with moderate effort, I would have done so without hesitation. But the idea of climbing up 3,000 feet of loose scree again without being certain that it was necessary was an option I was much too willing to talk myself out of.

What did I do right? I carried most of the essentials, and other helpful items, and did certain things to help people Find me:

  • I had lots of layers of clothing, including wind and rain gear.
  • My emergency bivy sack, although it eventually tore to shreds, still helped early in the night. I also had a garbage bag that helped protect me from the wind.
  • I had food left over when I was rescued. I also had a little water left as well. (I had carried 2-1/2 quarts with me, and began rationing it once I realized I was lost.)
  • I used my whistle, which might have helped if there had been any human life in that valley!
  • I made sure I was wearing or carrying bright colored clothes and other reflective items to make myself as visible as possible.
  • I found shelter under some trees, but stayed dose to where someone could find me during the night. I marked my location so rescuers might notice me if I slept through their approach.
  • I carried surveyors tape, paper and a pencil. I left notes at strategic locations giving the date, time, my name and information about where I was heading. The Search and Rescue team made several additional suggestions, and so I'm adding the following items to my pack:
    • A small strobe light (available at REI). If lost-especially after dark--it can be seen from an enormous distance, and it is obviously a distress signal.
    • Think Blue. During daylight, a bright blue tarp (or jacket, or pack, or whatever you can manage) will stand out to a rescuer in a plane or helicopter as an artificial color. Even bright orange, yellow or red can occur naturally, and might not be obvious.
    • Charlie and I have also decided to purchase compact two-way radios. Some of you may grimace at the idea of this kind of 'high-tech" making its way into the wilderness. But, long-distance communication could have saved Charlie from climbing Boundary a second 2" time that day (he climbed 9600' within a twelve hour period!). It could have saved me from spending a long night out in the cold. It could have allowed all those wonderful Search & Rescue volunteers to spend their night (and morning) at home with their families. And it could have saved us from some tremendous emotional upheaval. Someday, they may save someone's life.

And, last but not least, a couple more suggestions: If you do split up the group, don't leave anyone alone. This is a key rule in the Colorado Mountain Club, where "official' trips must consist of at least four people. If someone is injured, two can go for help while the third can stay with the injured party.

Also communicate, communicate, communicate. Talk about the "what ifs" before splitting up the group, and try to cover as many contingencies as possible.

Boundary Peak--the high point of Nevada. That's a fairly ordinary climb that I'II never forget.


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