The time my tent went missing in Dusy Basin. Long story but maybe amusing to some.
In September 2009 I planned to do a 5-day solo backpacking trip through Evolution Valley starting from the trailhead at South Lake. I got a late start on day one. It was late afternoon when I went over Bishop Pass where the weather became a bit unsettled. When I reached Dusy Basin a short time later, the wind and light rain had dissipated and the sky was mostly clear. It was already late so I decided to stop and camp in this scenic area.
Dusy Basin is surrounded on three sides by iconic massifs of the Palisades, Mount Goode, and Isosceles Peak. To the west is a deep drop into Le Conte Canyon and an impressive array of more distant peaks. In clear weather these landmarks make off-trail navigation almost a no-brainer. In contrast, the basin’s floor is a relatively undifferentiated landscape: rolling undulations of similar looking rocky hummocks and slabs, clumps of stubby pine trees, and a scattered collection of more than a dozen small lakes and tarns.
I stepped off the trail about 1.5 miles below Bishop Pass and hiked over rocky terrain for a hundred yards or so. I didn’t see any other campers around. For all I knew I had all of Dusy Basin to myself. I dropped my pack and set up my tent on a flat sandy spot between two hummocks. A fairly short distance away, down a shallow low-angled gully I could see a small lake where I could get water.
The sun was low in the sky and I realized it would probably set while I was down at the lake. Knowing how quickly it cools down in the mountains, I put on my down sweater and stuffed my gloves and hat in a pocket. I then set off for the lake with these items, my headlamp, a paper map, my iPhone, a water filter, and a two-liter water bladder.
Going down the gully I lost sight of my tent behind the rocky crest above. For a second I considered leaving a set of ducks to follow as breadcrumbs for my return. I decided this wasn’t necessary. A few minutes later I was at the lake and started filtering water.
While working the hand pump I gawked at the impressive scenery. Sunset is always the most beautiful time of day, especially in the mountains. I watched the fading alpenglow on the face of Isosceles Peak. Then I watched the last bit of sun disappear behind the ridge far to the west. As if on cue, the temperature rapidly dropped. Just as quickly, the cool moisture-laden air turned into dense fog.
By the time I was done pumping water the scene had transformed. Everything more than fifty feet away was in complete white out. All the surrounding macro-scale landmarks were obscured. Off trail navigation wasn’t the no-brainer it had been just minutes earlier. I would have to find my way back using only what I could see in my fifty foot perimeter. No problem, I’ll just go back up the gully I came down. How hard could that be?
I turned to face the gully and saw that there were actually two gullies. Which one was mine? For some reason I chose the one on the left. Up through the fog I went. I soon became convinced I was in the wrong gully. No problem, I’ll just cut to the right. A few more course “corrections” later and I was completely disoriented.
I had neglected a simple rule of navigation: when you first realize you’re off-course try going back to your last good location and regaining the course from there. Instead, I pushed on believing I could make course-correcting adjustments along the way. These became increasingly arbitrary guesses, a random walk in the near white-out of fog. Backtracking was no longer an option. Now, utterly disoriented, I had no idea which direction lead back to the lake. Light was rapidly fading but it wasn’t dark yet. I decided I had no choice but to stumble around looking for the tent while I could still see.
The twilight gradually faded into darkness. At the same time, the fog slowly lifted. With the fog gone, I could once again see all the surrounding landmarks now illuminated by the brightly shining moon and a sky full of stars. It became apparent that I was traveling directly toward Isosceles Peak. This was disconcerting because I wanted to be going in the exact opposite direction.
A few minutes later I spotted a campsite. As I approached I saw two campers outside their tent. I told them how glad I was to run into somebody and explained my predicament. They generously offered me a spot at their camp for the night.
As I considered this kind offer I assessed the situation. I badly wanted to find my tent and was annoyed at having lost the damn thing. I knew it was tantalizingly close by, a bit lower down towards Le Conte Canyon. There was no longer any trace of fog. With the bright half-moon and all the stars there was enough light to walk around safely. Plus, I had my headlamp. The weather was clear and windless. It was chilly but I was comfortable enough in my down sweater, hat, and gloves. My orientation was restored. I had a paper map and knew my location on it.
In short, the situation was not dire. I was not lost. My tent had just gone missing. I thought if I got back on the Bishop Pass trail I could find it by retracing the steps I took before setting up camp. I asked the campers if they could direct me back to the trail. They described the short hike between their site and the trail. I thanked them, let them know I would be OK continuing my search, and headed off toward the trail. As I walked I decided that, if necessary, I could always hike the 7.5 miles back to South Lake by headlamp, sleep in my truck, and come back for the tent after the sun was up. This seemed like an excessive amount of time and effort. I would stay and search.
I found my way back to the trail in a few minutes. Once there I turned left towards Le Conte Canyon and the point where I had earlier exited the trail. I soon passed the metal pole used for making snow depth measurements. I remembered going off-trail not far below this point. But it was difficult finding exactly where. I ventured off the trail in several places that looked familiar but these forays yielded no tent and no clues.
This approach wasn’t working so I decided to try a new tack. On my iPhone I had a GPS app and downloaded copies of the USGS 7.5 minute quads for the areas I planned to hike. Stupidly, I had not bothered to mark my tent location with a GPS waypoint. But I could locate my current location precisely on the GPS map.
The map also showed the numerous small lakes that dotted the area. I decided to systematically visit them one by one using the iPhone app to navigate. With all the moonlight and starlight, I was pleased at how well I could see without using my headlamp. I assumed I would be able to recognize the lake where I got water and, since the fog was now gone, identifying the correct gully back up to my tent would, hopefully, now be obvious. Off I went.
I spent a couple of hours going from lake to lake. It became clear that none were the right lake. I worked my way west, down toward Le Conte Canyon. Eventually I hit the top of a small cliff band. I hadn’t climbed up any cliffs earlier. So it seemed reasonable to conclude that I should limit my search to the lakes east of this band. I made another round revisiting every lake east of the cliff band. Still no luck. Then the iPhone battery died.
At this point, I was getting tired and more than a little frustrated. I decided to hunker down and wait for daylight. I tried to make a bed of pine boughs to have some insulation from the cold rocky ground. Unfortunately I had no axe or saw. The short scrubby pine trees were extremely tough and could not be persuaded to give up their limbs. These guys survive burial under twenty feet of heavy wet Sierra snow every winter. So my efforts to pry and twist off boughs were easily defeated.
I ended up dumping most of the water from my water bladder and filling it with air so it could be used as a seat cushion. I could squat on this while leaning back on a tree and almost, but not quite, achieve sleep. This soon got old. I was getting uncomfortably chilly, even with the improvised seat cushion.
I decided that walking would generate body heat and be warmer and less miserable than sitting. Plus the chance of getting lucky and bumping into my tent wouldn’t be zero. The remainder of the night was spent roaming around in a zombie stupor, partly in half-assed search mode, but mostly just trying to stay warm.
Eventually pre-dawn twilight crept over the landscape. There was frost on the ground and the small amount of water still in my water bladder was frozen. With the benefit of daylight I began searching again in earnest. At some point I passed by the two campers I met the previous evening. They were now up making breakfast. I assured them everything was OK. Now that it was daylight I would find the tent soon. Either that or I’d hike out to my truck and come back later. They smiled and nodded politely, no doubt thinking I was delirious with hypothermia.
The sun was well above the horizon by the time I finally connected the dots: I need to search below the cliff band. I had exhaustively and repeatedly covered the area above. So look elsewhere, dummy. I worked my way over and down around the cliffy part. A short time later I passed between two hummocks. And there was my tent...
Last edited by mnagwalker
on Mon May 14, 2018 2:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.