Yesterday, I went hiking with my friend P. We had decided the night before to hike Ptarmigan Peak, which is a 4800 ft mountain in Chugach National Park. There are two ways to reach the summit: you can hike up the south side of the mountain, or you can moutain climb (w/ropes and stuff) the north side. We are not mountain climbers, so obviously we were going to hike the south side.
When we got out there, the weather wasn't very pleasant. There were really low clouds along the mountains, and while it wasn't raining, it was really wet. We hiked along the trail for a while, but couldn't see the route up to the pass. Finally, we started up the side of the hill with the goal of getting to the ridge. We got up to the ridge fairly quickly, ate, and decided to continue on. By this time, we were in the clouds, so the visibility was poor. There were a couple times when I could hardly see P., even though he was 50 feet away. There was a lot of scrambling, which got kind of hairy at times, and the rocks were all wet, so we had to be extra careful we didn't slip.
Finally we got to the top! That was cool. There were a couple of plaques up there for mountain climbers who had died on the north side several years ago. It would have been cooler if there had been a good view, but oh well.
Then we started back down. But we got a little ways off the top, and couldn't exactly remember how we had come up. So we're just picking our way down, and we can't see where we're going, exactly...we're able to see the next 100 feet of mountain or so, and that's about it. P. came around a corner and said "Well, we are on the dangerous side of the mountain, we need to go back." He had turned a corner and run into a sheer wall. So we climbed back over the little ridge to go back on the south side of the mountain.
All of a sudden, it occurred to me how stupid this was. We had brought maps, but neither of us had a compass. I had left my cell at home, and the only person who knew we were out there was someone who wouldn't think to look for me for a long time. And with the poor visibility, it was really easy to get turned around on the top of this mountain and end up on the north (dangerous side).
I had a total moment of panic. At this moment, I realized that we were lost, and this is totally how people die in the mountains. Forget all that bear stuff; they usually get lost, get into someplace they're not able to handle and fall off a cliff, or get stuck out there overnight and die of hypothermia.
I had to sit down for a second and relax, because the number 1 rule when you're lost is DON'T PANIC! We decided to keep moving down on what we thought was now the south side, and if it got too scary, to head back up (believe it or not, it's usually a lot easier to go up than down). So we continued down. I was still pretty scared, because it was obvious that we were not going down the exact way we came up -- we ran into a big snow field we hadn't seen before, for example. And since we couldn't see the sun, or the valley below, we weren't completely sure we were on the south side of the mountain.
Finally, we were able to deduce that we were on the south side of the mountain by listening to the planes. I have never been so glad to hear planes when I'm out in the wilderness. Ptarmigan Peak lies directly under the flight path to Anchorage International, so the planes are all flying from east to west. And when we listened to the planes, they flew from left to right, meaning we were on the south side.
We scrambled down the mountain, through some pretty unstable rock falls and around some slick rocks, and ended up on the hillside and then made it back down to the trail about 100 yards from where we'd left it. I was so relieved! I said a little prayer of thanks, because I had been praying in panic the whole time we were scrambling down those cliffs and rock falls. P. made some comment about me being really scared, but don't let him fool you -- he was scared too. I remember the panic in his voice when he said "Do you remember that chimney rock? I don't." But we made it home, and safely, THANK GOD.
Good things we did:
1) Turned around when the going got tough instead of getting into something really dangerous
2) Collected ourselves when we started to panic (and by ourselves, I mean myself)
3) Used our logic skills to determine where we were instead of heading off in a completely unknown direction
4) Had lots of water
Bad things we did:
1) Hiked an unfamiliar mountain in poor visibility
2) Didn't bring a compass
3) Didn't pay attention to our route on the way up (although even if we had, it always looks different coming back down)
4) Didn't let someone know who would send out a search party if we didn't come back
5) Did not bring our hats and gloves (this wasn't important at the time, but if we'd gotten stuck out there, we could have really been in trouble)
So, lesson learned. Always. Bring. A. Compass!!!! And hat and gloves. And if it's shitty weather, pick a well known/well marked trail, don't just go wandering off.