Around noon on the fourth day, it was time to face facts: they were off course.
Well, okay, no. They were lost.
When you’re lost, it doesn’t occur to you in a single dramatic moment. Denial prevents that. But doubt starts its quiet whisper when you’re uncertain about a turn you’ve made and continue anyway. The whisper grows louder and more insistent until you look around you and realize nothing looks how it’s supposed to.
He pulled out the map, wondering where they’d gone wrong. As the flurry surged into a blizzard, the footsteps in the snow behind them faded faster. The weather report predicted clear skies for the entire week, but the ranger warned him how quickly conditions change up here.
Though he'd assured the ranger they could handle it, he was starting to question where this confidence came from. He tried to suppress his worry before it became panic, and examined their surroundings, focused on what to do next.
She crossed her arms against the cold and looked at the cliff face ahead, looking for a spot where her limited rock-climbing abilities would be enough to get through. “Maybe we should turn back,” she said behind him.
He looked at her. “Really? There’s no way we’re finding our way back in this. Look, depending on where we deviated, we could be either here, or here,” he said, pointing to two spots on the map, both concave inlets along an otherwise unchanging ridge, which spanned most of the map from north to south.
She looked at each point, and at the cliffs ahead, noticing how the lack of detail on the map made both regions indistinguishable to her.
“This map looks like a fourth grader drew it. Why didn’t you bring a compass or something?”
“Who the hell owns compasses anymore? If you’re such a seasoned hiker, maybe you should’ve brought your own.”
“Day hiker. I said day hiker. There’s a big difference, apparently. I barely know how to read a fucking map, for starters. I figured you knew what you were doing, you’re the one who said you spent a lot of time in the mountains growing up.”
“We had a cabin at a lake, that doesn’t make me a pioneer. I just like being outside.”
“Well this must be really nice for you then.” She gestured at the snow around them with an ungloved hand, before tucking it back under her armpit for warmth. “Jesus, shit like this is supposed to come after we meet each others’ parents.”
He looked her up and down. She wasn’t layered enough for a blizzard, if it got worse than this. And she had a point: this type of trip was a gamble. He’d accepted yesterday it — they — wouldn’t last much longer. They both kind of knew it, which made it easier for him to disengage from the petty argument and focus how they were going to stay alive. He could give her his outer jacket, but he was already shivering as it was, and the little warmth he had left faded with each second they stood there.
“Look, we need to stay moving, keep our heart rates up. We don’t have the right clothing to stand around in the snow, and if we set up camp around here and end up getting stuck a couple days, we might not have enough food to last us." He looked out at the cliffs, already fading into whiteness. "It’ll take most of the daylight we have left to reach the base of that cliff, and who knows how much longer to get to the top.”
“But if it’s this other cliff,” she said. “And we’re not where we think we are, we need to head south like two full days.”
“And if we’re at the right cliff and we head south, we won’t find out for two more days, which adds four full days of hiking. It's not worth the risk. Anyway this map’s almost useless here, so we don’t have any decent landmarks to navigate by. Especially in this weather. So if we go up this cliff, we’ll know sometime tomorrow evening when we get down to this river here. We can camp there, then it should only be another day after that.”
“Should be?” She hopped from foot to foot, her teeth starting to chatter.
“More or less. We can follow the river into town, from there we can call your friends and let them know where to come get us.”
She looked skeptical, but agreed to the plan.
They set off. As the temperature dropped, they picked up their pace and made great time to the base of the cliff. The climb to the top pushed them to their limits, but just after sundown they pulled themselves over the top of the cliff and collapsed, exhausted.
Not to waste precious time, they continued down the other side and found a sheltered spot a bit further downhill, a patch of trees at the edge of a field. After setting up the tent, they climbed inside.
As they cuddled up together in his sleeping bag to stay warm, he considered what this experience might mean for them, once they’d made it through together. Maybe they would stay together after all. He drifted off in comfortable speculation as the winds howled outside, shaking the tent with violent gusts.
He awoke in darkness, maybe a few hours later, to the sound of distant drumbeats. The wind had quieted. The beats grew louder until they were almost deafening, and he realized it wasn’t drumming at all. It was a helicopter.
They scrambled out of their sleeping bag, a tangle of jackets and limbs, and pulled their boots on, stepping outside. The helicopter shined a spotlight on them, and she waved her hands at it. The night around them was clear: the blizzard had ended, at least for now.
“What’s happening?” He had to yell over the noise.
“Emergency rescue,” she yelled back. “I activated my beacon. Sorry but I really don’t feel like risking my life right now.”
“You had a beacon?”
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go.”
“But we’re almost there! We'll reach the river in the morning.”
“You don’t know that!”
They stared at each other in silence a moment. He sighed and looked up to the helicopter, where a man in reflective clothing was descending on a ladder.
As they flew down the mountain, he gazed out at the moonlit landscape. From this height, he could just make out the reflection of the moon in the river below.