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A Backpacking Trip Goes Wrong

Gary Allman, self portrait. Taken Ill in the Devil's Backbone Wilderness. February 2019.
I’d just thrown up and was not feeling too good. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

There is no one quite as lost as the person who is mistakenly convinced that they know exactly where they are.

There was a predicted break in the weather before this year’s polar vortex was due to descend again upon the Ozarks. The temps were going to be reasonable, and there would be sunshine. I decided to venture a bit further afield to the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness, near Dora, Missouri for three days solo backpacking.

Our last visit to the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness was eight years ago in 2011, but I had a very clear recollection of what was our second ever (and second wedding anniversary) backpacking trip. This trip I wanted to hike some of the trails we’d not managed to get around during our previous visit.

On my last trip out, I broke the GPS, so I studied the maps in a bit more detail and made sure I packed my compass. My trusty Silva compass has disappeared (the girls deny borrowing it — Justifiably, as I found it a year later in one of our emergency kits). So I dug out a back-up from my ‘no longer used’ gear box; the inexpensive hand-bearing compass that was the Silva’s predecessor.

In preparation for the trip, I printed the map provided by the Ava/Cassville/Willows Springs Ranger’s Office. I also created my own more detailed topo map from USGS online maps.

New for this trip was a Mountain House Sweet and Sour Pork meal; a Sawyer Squeeze water filtration system, that promised to have a much better flow than the most frustrating Sawyer Mini water filter, and another Trangia stove that Jim found in a flea market.

Getting to the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness involves a bit of cross-country driving. It’s over 100 miles and two hours drive from Springfield. On arriving at the trailhead there were two other vehicles there, and their owners arrived back while I was getting ready to go. They complained about the poor quality of the trails and asked if I knew anything about it. I told them that the trail went north from the parking lot, but they’d headed south. Did they pick up a map? “Yes…”

So my trip started with me feeling a little bit superior. How could anyone head off in the wrong direction when they had a map?

The alarm bells should have been ringing. Pride inevitably comes before a major pratfall.

Gary Allman, self portrait. Taken at Devil's Backbone Wilderness, Collins Ridge Trailhead. February 2019.
Gary about to start a three day trip at the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I signed in at the trailhead and grabbed an extra map to go with the two in my pack.

After crossing the road, the first part of the trail passes through fairly open woodland, and despite the leaves, the trail was easy to follow. Very soon I arrived at the junction of the Devil’s Backbone (heading north) and Collins Ridge (heading west) trails. I realized I had a picture of Ginger taken in February 2011 at this spot, so I took a picture just to see how things have changed.

The Devil’s Backbone Trail runs for around a mile through quite dense pine forest and then breaks out onto the ridge before descending into Mary Hollow. The ridge is narrow and the dropoff is very steep making for spectacular viewing.

The Devil's Backbone Ridge in the Devil's Backbone Wilderness, Missouri.
The Devil’s Backbone – the drop off is impressively steep. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

When I arrived at the ridge I realized I’d lost the map I’d picked up at the trailhead. I briefly considered going back for it, but, I’d no idea where I’d dropped it. Oh well, I had two more.

Gary Allman, self portrait, taken on the Devil's Backbone Trail of the Devil's Backbone Wilderness, Missouri. February 2019.
Gary dropping into Mary Hollow. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The trail down to Mary Hollow was nowhere near as steep as I remembered it, and pretty soon I was at the bottom. There was precious little sign of water there. I could hear some trickling water but decided to follow through with my idea of trying to find the spring in McGarr Hollow. I turned east and set off. Now McGarr Hollow is west of where the Devil’s Backbone Trail meets the Mary Hollow Trail, and that mistake would be compounded as the day wore on.

Looking North Across Mary Hollow, where the Devil’s Backbone Trail joins Mary Hollow Trail. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I quickly came to a point where a hollow branched off to the right, and there across the creek bed was a clear trail going up the hollow to the left. The unofficial trail going up McGarr Hollow, I thought. I followed it up for nearly half a mile looking for any sign of the spring. There was none, but I was surprised at how well-trodden the trail was. Just before I turned around I could even smell wood smoke, so someone was nearby.

I decided to backtrack all the way to the bottom of the Devil’s Backbone Trail, find the water I’d heard running there, fill up with water and then head up Mary Hollow.

The water turned out to be big pools of meltwater dripping from the bluffs. I used my new Sawyer Squeeze water filter, and it lived up to the hype. It didn’t take long to filter three liters of water.

Filled up with water I started my hike up the Mary Hollow Trail. Now I ‘knew’ the McGarr trail spurred off to the left, so the Mary Hollow Trail, had to be straight on. I was a bit puzzled by the lack of a clear trail, but the area was wide and I was sure I’d find it as the hollow narrowed.

Of course, the truth was that I was headed off south (there has to be some irony there) down some unnamed hollow. What I ‘knew’ to be McGarr Hollow and the trail I’d previously gone up was, in fact, Mary Hollow.

I didn’t know it, but I was wandering further and further off-trail.

There’s an old farm or logging road that runs along the un-named hollow, and there’s been some recent horse traffic along it so there was a clear trail in many places. It just wasn’t the trail I thought I was on. The trail was tough to follow at times, and there were a lot of cat briars.

The sides of the hollow were high and steep. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

This hollow is quite spectacular with very steep 200 ft high, sides. I was busy trying to follow the trail and admire the views. By four pm I was thinking I ought to start looking for a place to stop, and I’d also gotten to a point where the trail crossed the creek and petered out. I quartered the area, but couldn’t find it. I decided to go back across the creek and set up camp on a low ridge in among a load of pine trees.

After my usual wandering around looking for the ideal spot, I set up my hammock so that the rising sun would be shining in — I was at least that aware of directions — Although earlier, when checking the lay of the land I had got out the compass and was rather disturbed to find that the compass card was sticking a lot. Tapping it seemed to dislodge the card, but it didn’t seem to want to point in the same direction each time.

Where I thought I was vs where I was.

It was getting dark as I set up camp, and in the last of the light, I thought I’d try and pin down exactly where I was. I then realized I’d managed to drop my second map. Looking at the detailed topo map, there was one obvious place along Mary Hollow that matched the lay of the land. It conveniently put me exactly where I wanted to be, about a mile from the junction of the Mary Hollow Trail with the McGarr Ridge Trail (We’ll ignore the fact I was actually a mile away in the Hollow to the south of Mary Hollow).

I cooked my Mountain House Sweet and Sour Pork meal, which I found to be a bit too sweet for my taste, and spent the rest of the evening reading in my hammock.

Day One Stats.

Distance: 5.24 Miles. Elevation: +723′ -874′

Day Two – Sunday

Camped near Crooked Branch, Devil’s Backbone Wilderness. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

… the idea that I might be ill didn’t occur to me.

I woke at three am with a very gurgly stomach and extreme indigestion. The clothing and sleeping gear I was using was identical to that I took out to Hercules Glades the previous week. Then the temps dropped to 24°F. So I couldn’t understand why I was freezing cold and shivering; the thought that I might be ill didn’t occur to me. I fitfully dozed through the rest of the night and awoke feeling really hot and sweaty. Again, the idea that I might be ill didn’t occur to me.

Come the morning I vowed to never eat the Sweet and Sour Pork again, and I was very glad to discover that the ground I’d decided to camp on was soft and not at all the typical Ozarks stoney ground. Digging a cathole was quick and easy, which was just as well.

I started to suspect that my new water filter had failed and I’d managed to pick up something from the water.

I sat in the hammock thinking about the best course of action. I decided to boil the water for my cereal and for the trail. Then, with almost zero warning, I was violently sick. I had just enough time to pitch myself out of the hammock. As I threw up chunks of the previous evening’s sweet and sour pork, I decided that was definitely a meal I wasn’t going to try again, even if the problem was with the water.

I’d be using a lot of fuel to boil all my water, so as I sat and recovered, I considered my options. Staying put wouldn’t work. At some point in the day I needed to get to a ridge and call home. I could carry on, and if I ran out of fuel I could always light a fire for hot meals and drinks. However, I was feeling awful, and time was passing. I decided the best thing to do was bail out and retrace my steps.

Boiling water in the sunshine at Devil’s backbone Wilderness. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The small bit of good news was that I found the map I had dropped the previous evening. I gave myself a severe talking to regarding my total lack of map-work and navigation on the way in. I was absolutely positive I knew where I was, but I decided to at least mark-off the main geological features as I passed them on the way out so that I could confirm that my assumption was right.

It was a pretty wretched hike out.

It was a pretty wretched hike out. I knew I had to try and keep my fluids up, but boiled water tastes awful. The trail in the hollow was quite level, and I was going down-stream. It didn’t strike me as odd that I needed a twenty-minute lie-down when I arrived back at the bottom of the Devil’s Backbone Trail.

The hike up the ridge was easier than I expected. But the hike from there back to the trailhead couldn’t be over soon enough. On the way I did find the first map I dropped though, so at least I didn’t leave a bunch of litter behind.

The drive home was okay, and within minutes of my arrival Ginger (correctly) diagnosed Norovirus, and everything, including me, was disinfected. I slept for over nine-and-a-half hours that night and suffered from wildly oscillating temperatures for a couple of days.

Day Two Stats.

Distance: 3.45 Miles. Elevation: +618′ -480′

Later That Week …

Despite our best efforts to quarantine me, Ginger went down with it Thursday, which at least confirmed that it was a virus, and not a bad meal or contaminated water.

On Friday I finally got round to downloading my GPS track for the trip, and I was horrified to see that I was hiking along the hollow to the south of Mary Hollow (The GPS isn’t working for a lot of functions but I can still get it to record tracks).

My assumption that McGarr Hollow was to the east of the Devil’s Backbone / Mary Hollow trail junction completely threw my navigation out. That was compounded by my not bothering to look at the map until I began searching for somewhere to camp at the end of the day. It was then that I realized that I’d made a major mistake in not tracking where I was on the map, but I thought I’d got away with it. Ha!

What was even more interesting was that I managed to convince myself I was checking off points on Mary Hollow while I was heading back out. At almost any time a cross-check with both the compass and map with a bit of thought about distance traveled would have shown I wasn’t where I thought I was.

Some Thoughts

  • We quickly become dependent on technology, in this case my GPS. I know better than that.
  • I need to brush up and actually use my navigation skills. A non-system trail — and my own stupidity — helped to maintain my fiction that I was on the Mary Hollow Trail when I wasn’t. A working GPS would have alerted me to the problem, but I realize now that I’ve become too reliant on it. Using the map and compass would also have told me I was off course.
  • I made the correct decision to bail when I did. I’m tempted to say “Trust your gut.” 🙂 Had I gone on and tried to complete the loop, I’ve no idea where I would have ended up, or when it would have dawned on me that I wasn’t on the Mary Hollow Trail. In a way I was lucky to be taken ill, it saved me from getting further into the mire.
  • I wasn’t in any danger. This wilderness is tiny. With my hammock, food, water filter, and gear I could have managed easily for quite a while if I’d been unable to get myself out (self-rescue in the official parlance), even if the weather turned bad. However, being in the wrong place would have delayed my being found. So, I think I see a personal satellite locator beacon with 2-way communications in my near future. Yes, I know this contradicts my statement on relying on technology. However, if it fails I’ll know and be able to take appropriate steps.
  • I have to face up to the fact that the possibility of my encountering a serious medical emergency while solo backpacking increases with each year (my family has a history of health problems, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m out backpacking — to keep fit).
  • Use good quality gear. I’ve already ordered a new compass to replace the missing Silva. Because of legal issues, you can no longer buy a genuine Finnish Silva compass in the US. I’ve ordered myself a Suunto MC-2G In Global USGS Compass. Overkill for my needs but it sates my GAS. However …
  • It’s no good having a good compass (and map) if you don’t use them.

Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

This is an edited and abridged version of a post that first appeared on Ozarks Walkabout.

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