Daniel Boone said he’d never been lost in all his life, but he’d once been confused for a few days. There are different kinds of getting lost. There’s the kind that is miserable, inconvenient or depressing, ruining the day or weekend trip. Staying at a Lake District B and B, I heard the tale of a group of girls who went down the wrong way (Piers Ghyll instead of the Corridor Route) and ended up in the wrong valley (Wasdale not Borrowdale). Apparently they thought it was all part of the fun, and the fifty pound taxi ride would not have been so painful shared between three. For me, walking trips are not that kind of ‘fun’ – my walking days are planned – and if I were on my own fifty pounds would be a big and wasted expense.
Then there’s the getting lost that’s frightening, dangerous, and possibly life threatening. You don’t always know which is the case, and the fear is the same with both. There was one such moment in the Pyrenees in 2009 when I strayed off route. The path swung gently to the left and disappeared, but another path led onwards into a visible distance. I didn’t notice this, or think about it properly, twenty minutes later realised I was lost and, most worrying of all, a storm was approaching. As I write this in May 2010, I’ve just read about four people hit by lightning in the Lake District, one of them thrown thirty feet in the air. This is rare in Britain, but in the Pyrenees summer lightning storms are so formidable if you see them approaching you have to get down off the high ridges immediately. For a moment I felt overwhelmed by the scale of the Pyrenees and their unfamiliarity. Wales and the Lakes are much easier to negotiate; there’s usually a valley you can get down to quite quickly and a town or road not too far away. The symptoms of fear are often described as a dry mouth and quick shallow breathing and I noticed both, as I’d never done before. The paint flash signs on the rocks were not entirely clear in regard to what they meant, and I started to think therein lay the problem. In fact, what I had to do was retreat to where I went wrong and renegotiate the situation: taking the left bend revealed the hidden path more in the direction I needed. After thirty minutes I started to relax, after forty five I’d seen enough landmarks to know I was going the right way.
It’s useful to unpick what exactly happens when you get lost. In Wales recently, I was camped below the Carneddau and enjoyed an idyllic warm evening in a perfect spot. I gazed up at Carnedd Llewelyyn and Foel Goch; the following morning it was sunny and warm and I rested and sunbathed for two hours before setting off. I didn’t actually have a plan, just climbed up to Foel Goch then along to Carnedd Llewellyn, and decided to go further along the ridge to see across the Ogwen Valley. At that point I saw a lake and didn’t understand where I was. The reality was the path I needed – which was clearly visible on the map – came down from Foel Goch and to keep to that route I should never have gone to Carnedd Llewellyn. It wasn’t serious because the day was bright and clear but at such moments, if rain or mist comes in, it gets difficult and be quite frightening. I’d been wandering happily without thinking about it. Even on a clear sunny day, that’s not a good idea.
The dictionary says this about ‘lost’:
1. Unable to find one’s way
2. No longer in the possession, care, or control of someone or something
3. Beyond reach, communication, or influence
4. Beyond recovery or redemption; fallen or destroyed
5. Completely involved or absorbed; rapt: lost in thought
In the mountains, the fifth kind of ‘lost’ easily leads to the others. Some of the pleasure of walking is a kind of being lost, whereby the wild environment releases you from habitual psychic preoccupation. Walking releases you from normal thoughts, whereby the big geography facilitates a corresponding psychic space. And yet some part of your ordinary mind must continue to function for your own safety: thinking, planning, and knowing where you roughly are in the complex changing conditions.