Trip Report – When a Backpacking Trip Goes Wrong

The Devil’s Backbone – the drop off is impressively steep.

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 for three days solo backpacking at the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness, near Dora, Missouri.

What could possibly go wrong? Lots apparently. Mostly my own stupidity, but also unbeknownst to me I was about to be struck by a very nasty illness.

Hopefully there are some lessons here that we can all learn from.

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.

The Plan

My plan was to start at the Collins Ridge Trailhead and hike down the Devil’s Backbone.

Not wanting to carry in lots of water. I’d go in light (with one liter) and pick up water where I could in Mary Hollow, and then hike counter clockwise taking the Mary Hollow, McGarr Ridge, and Collins Ridge trails to complete the loop. The first night I’d stop near the top of Mary Hollow, and the second I’d spend down near the river.

If I couldn’t find water in Mary Hollow, I’d re-think my plans, and either start off by going clockwise, spending the first night down near the North Fork River, or on the map there’s a spring marked in McGarr Hollow which runs north out of Mary Hollow, so I might check that out and fill up with water there before doing the counter-clockwise loop. It wouldn’t be a huge diversion.

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.

On my last trip out, the GPS broke (or I broke it. Whatever), 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). 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.

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; another Trangia stove that my father-in-law found in a flea market; and I decided to experiment with not using compression sacks for my quilts. Instead I just pushed them into a plastic ‘Contractor bag’ in my backpack. The quilts expanded to fill the available space which made my pack look very full, but it was also easy to squish them down to add more gear.

Day One – Saturday

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. If you have an Android phone, Google will take you to the Collins Ridge trailhead. Once again I got a kick out of asking my phone to “take me to the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness, Missouri.” and it guided me to the trailhead — though, please note, more accurately Google will take you straight past the trailhead by several hundred yards, rather than exactly to it.

On arriving at the trailhead there were two other vehicles there, and their owners returned while I was getting ready to start my hike. 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 my feeling a little bit superior. How could anyone head off in the opposite direction when they had a map? The alarm bells should have been ringing. Pride inevitably comes before a major pratfall.

Gary about to start a three day trip at the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness

The Devil’s Backbone

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. After around half a mile it doglegged to the left and very soon I arrived at the junction of the Devil’s Backbone (heading north) and Collins Ridge (heading west) trails. The Collins Ridge Trail didn’t look like it took a lot of traffic — something to note for my return on Monday. 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 very steep making for spectacular viewing.

The Devil’s Backbone – the drop off is impressively steep.

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.

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.

I quickly came to a point where a hollow branched off to the right, and there across the creek bed to the left was a clear trail going up another hollow. The unofficial trail going up McGarr Hollow, or so 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 and 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 melt water 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. Though, as with the Sawyer mini, the dirty water bags were very difficult to fill. I ended up using a Ziploc bag to pour water into the dirty water bag. It’s early days yet, but the Sawyer Squeeze is looking promising.

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 which is the main run of Crooked Branch, which is the creek that runs through the lower reaches of Mary Hollow. Here it ran along the eastern side of the Devil’s Backbone ridge. 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 this 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 catbriars.

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.

The sides of the hollow were high and steep

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 consistently point in the same direction.

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).

Where I thought I was vs where I was.

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.

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 23°F. So I couldn’t understand why I was freezing cold and shivering; it didn’t occur to me that I might be ill. 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.

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 just thrown up, and I was not feeling too good. We will have to thank norovirus for that.

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. It would make the pot sooty, but that’s a minor inconvenience. 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.

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. I knew I had to try and keep my fluids up, but boiled water tastes awful. Even though the trail in the hollow was fairly 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.

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.

Day Two Stats.

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

Conclusions

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.

It’s a powerful lesson. As was being taken ill. If I had been disabled and unable to hike out, any search would have been looking for me along Mary Hollow, and there I was, ‘miles’ off track, in the hollow to the south. I was lucky, things could have been a whole lot worse.

Re-Match

Devil’s Backbone Wilderness: 1 – Gary: 0.

I cannot wait for for a break in the weather. As soon as one comes I’m heading back to show Mary Hollow I know where it’s at.

Lessons

  • 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.
  • With my hammock, food, water filter, and gear I could have survived easily for several days if I’d been unable to get myself out, 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.
  • It’s when you are at your most confident that you are most vulnerable to making stupid mistakes and not realizing it.
  • I can lose maps very easily. On my way out I fastened the map to my journal so that I wouldn’t drop it. The journal gave me something to lean on for writing, so a double bonus.
  • Pencil rubs off of maps very easily, and even unintentionally.
  • A lack of suitable pockets means that things like maps and compasses tend to be kept in inaccessible places or in the case of the maps, in my hand (where they get dropped). On my next trip, I intend to take my Ribz front pack to see if that helps with keeping essentials to hand. it’s not a matter of carrying more, just redistributing where things are kept.
  • Use antiseptic hand cleaner at all times!
  • Boiled water is revolting to drink.

What worked

  • Using a plastic bag instead of compression sacks for my quilts made packing and unpacking a lot easier, and the quilts were not compressed as much, which is good for them too. Adding more items to the pack was easy, I just just pushed the quilts out of the way. This is something I’ll be doing going forward.
  • Sawyer Squeeze Water filter. I was very impressed with the flow rate with this new filter. I just wish they’d come up with some simple way of getting the water into the bag without the bag collapsing.
  • The Mountain House Sweet and Sour Pork meal was fine, but just a bit too sweet for my taste. Unfortunately, after my experience I don’t think I could face another.
  • The ‘new’ Trangia stove from my father-in-law. It worked a treat. We’ve just ordered another cookpot, stove stand, and windshield. This will let us produce our meals and hot drinks at the same time when we are out together.
  • My home made USGS Topo map is fine and has a lot more detail than the trailhead map. It’s just a shame I didn’t refer to it.

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