Anyone Can Steer the Ship, but It Takes a Leader to Chart the Course
In June of 1995, I learned a valuable lesson on Mt. Si about the Law of Navigation and the importance of proper planning that I will never forget.
My friend Todd, his 12 year-old sister Brianne, and I left on a beautiful summer morning to hike to the top of Mt. Si just outside of Seattle, Washington. The plan was to be back down to the parking lot by early afternoon so we could go to a movie after our hike. We made sure to tell his mom to expect us back in the evening so she wouldn’t worry.
Todd had hiked this trail dozens of times. He calculated that it would take us nearly two hours to get to the top where we could eat the peanut butter sandwiches we packed and enjoy an incredible view of upper Snoqualamie and the Puget Sound Basin.
It was going to be a hot day so we were comfortable hiking in shorts and t-shirts, but kept sweatshirts around our waist in case it got cold in the shade. We reasoned that we could drink most of our water on the hike up because the descent would be much quicker and we had more water waiting for us in the car. We just needed to keep enough to drink with our lunch and to have a little left over for the return down the trail.
The hike was beautiful, it went along a small brook with grassy banks, the mountain was dense with trees and there were rocky bluffs that opened up to wonderful views. As we got closer to the top, the switchbacks seemed to stack on top of each other like never-ending stairs in the fire escape of a tall building. Finally, in just short of two hours, our efforts were rewarded and the last climb opened up into a wildflower-filled basin at the summit. It was a spectacular place to eat our lunch.
However, the real summit, Todd pointed out, is a towering rock called the “Haystack” that looms over the wildflower basin. We unanimously agreed that we couldn’t say we hiked Mt. Si if we didn’t conquer the Haystack.
It required a bit of a scrambling to scale the rocky shale face. It was exposed and extremely tricky to get any reliable footing. I later learned that many people have plummeted hundreds of feet to their death from this spot. We were careful and all three of us, even Brianne in her Keds, made it to the top.
However, going back down the Haystack proved to be the bigger challenge. Especially for Brianne in her no-traction, slippery-soled Keds. She struggled to get any solid footing and naturally got nervous. Todd carefully guided her down the safest route he could find and I followed. Because of the abundance of switchbacks, we figured that if we went straight down we would inevitably hit the trail again soon.
We made it safely off the Haystack, but somehow we never ran into the switchbacks or the trail. To make matters worse, the day was getting hotter and we had only saved a little water. How had we missed the trail? Todd knew this mountain and it’s trails so well, he was in disbelief that he hadn’t gotten us right back on the path.
The day was still getting hotter and Brianne was getting dehydrated. We rested in some shade to discuss our situation. No one would miss us for several more hours so we decided the first thing we needed to do was to find water. In the distance we could hear water so we hiked towards the refreshing sound. After a few hours of breaking trail like wild game and scratching up our legs in the thick brush of the drainage, we finally arrived at the source of the sound.
As we eagerly drank, we looked up and we could see the top of Mt. Si to the east of us. For the first time, we realized just how far we had gone. We were now at the base of another mountain. We weren’t completely “lost”. We knew where we were logistically, but didn’t know how long it would take us to get out.
Off in the distance opposite of Mt. Si we could see a logging road. That would be our next destination– if we could make it there it would eventually lead us out to a main road. We headed out to cover as much distance as we could before the sun disappeared. Eventually, the sky got dark and the night air of the Pacific Northwest became characteristically colder. We hadn’t dressed for this and we didn’t bring any flashlights.
It was now nearly 8 pm and we guessed that for the first time, their mother might begin to wonder why we hadn’t returned. How long before she would be deeply concerned? In 1995 we didn’t have cell phones or any way to tell her we were safe and that we just needed a couple more hours to hike out.
At about 10 pm (11 hours since we left our car) we came upon a flat open area and decided to set up a camp. We made lean-tos to protect us from the wind and to keep Brianne and ourselves as warm as possible. The temperature had dropped quickly. As tired and cold as I was, I remember looking up in awe at the millions of stars that freckled the heavenly ceiling. That’s when I said another prayer to keep us safe.
For a couple hours we did our best to rest, but sleep evaded us. We were uncomfortable and cold; consequently, we decided it was best to keep moving. Luckily the moon and stars illuminated the sky just enough that we were able to carefully navigate through the dark forest and thick brush.
Eventually we heard a helicopter, but unfortunately they were searching for us over on Mt. Si! I took the portable flash from my camera and repeatedly flashed the sky in vain. The light disappeared into the night without catching the attention of the searchers. Feeling dejected, we continued to hike towards the logging road.
I remember that my feet hurt horribly, but Brianne was much worse. Todd and I took turns giving her piggy-back rides. We walked all night long and after what seemed an eternity, we made it to the dirt logging road but still had a couple hours before we ultimately reached the paved road. It was now about 7 am the next morning and 20 hours since our hike began. I wanted to kiss the cold asphalt!
Although our feet were heavy and hurt with every step, our hearts smiled to think our journey was almost over. We walked right down the middle of the lonely road canopied with trees on either side, and finally heard a vehicle heading in the opposite direction. We picked up our pace and got the attention of a forest worker clearing brush from the road. He took one look at us and immediately said, “You must be the three that are missing! I heard about you on my Country Western station!” We nodded sheepishly, but smiled gratefully. Tremendously relieved, we climbed up into his truck. It was a fantastic feeling to be off our feet and carried swiftly down the mountain.
At 7:40 am he dropped us off at the trailhead and we walked under the yellow police tape that blocked off the parking lot much to the surprise of the search and rescue team. It is hard to describe the relief I felt as I watched their mom tearfully swoop up Brianne in her arms.
Seattle news reporters were waiting to hear how we survived the night on nothing but our peanut butter sandwiches, but Todd did not want to talk to anyone. Todd is a tremendous leader and he had a hard time realizing that he had put two people he cared about in danger. He was embarrassed to get “lost” on a mountain that he knew well and had hiked so many times before. Why was this trip different?
Good leaders and navigators draw on past experience. Every past success and failure we experience can be a valuable source of information and wisdom — if you allow it to be. Success gives us confidence, but failures often carry the greater lessons. They reveal wrong assumptions and errors in judgment that allow us to make course corrections quicker in the future.
Most of us hate our failures so much that we want to quickly cover them up instead of learn from them. Todd didn’t want to talk to any news reporters, but I know that he and I both analyzed what went wrong and we are better leaders today because of it.
Today when I go on a simple day hike I am always sure to carry a few items: a headlamp, some matches or a lighter, small first aid kit, water, snacks and a warmer top. Even if it is a short hike early in the morning on a summer day.
There were a few things we didn’t consider in our preparation. We had not accounted for the difficulty Brianne would have in her Keds shoes and what it would take to keep her safe once we were off course. We had no plans for if anything went wrong. Once we were just a few degrees off course it changed our journey dramatically.
The lesson for me is to always be prepared. I believe the best navigators always have in mind that other people are depending on them and their ability to chart a good course. They see the whole trip in their minds before they leave the dock – regardless of how simple it may seem. They have a vision for getting to their destination, they understand what it will take to get there and they prepare for obstacles ahead long before they appear on the horizon.