Lost and Found

Words and Photos by Franzi Wernsing.

In this feature, originally released in the second issue of our printed publication, The Bikepacking Journal, Franzi and Jona pedal into an unknown wilderness in the high mountains of the Alpes Provence. Read on for Franzi’s story about what it means to get lost in the mountains and pay it forward…

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Lost and Found Story

This story originally appeared in the second issue of The Bikepacking Journal, our biannually printed publication, in April 2019. To read more stories like this one – in the full glory of print – join our Bikepacking Collective. We need your support. By doing so, you’ll receive two beautiful journals packed with the best bikepacking stories and photography from around the world delivered to your doorstep each year. Join by October 17th and your membership will start with Issue 03.

I couldn’t help but let out a triumphant, “Everything’s in!” when I managed to close my frame bag, watching my partner Jona struggle to squeeze one last package of chocolate cookies into his. We were six months into bikepacking around Europe, and we routinely spoiled ourselves. Just two days of food threatened to burst the seams of our frame bags, even with resupply spots scattered all over the mountain resort towns. In theory, that meant we could pack less food, but that’s not how it worked for us. We preferred to keep our pantry bountifully stocked.

  • Lost and Found, bikepacking France
  • Lost and Found, bikepacking France

There’s a paved road leading out of Barcelonnette, nestled in the French Alps, that winds its way gently but steadily upward. We were pedaling along it for the second time in six months, as we’d fallen in love with the region on our first trip. The untamed mountains, delicious pastries, and idyllic towns summoned us back. We had to return.

We knew what was in store after climbing out of Barcelonnette but climbed higher on our second trip. The road changed into a narrow dirt track and quickly petered out into a smooth singletrack trail. The grin on my face grew wider as we followed the changing surface. We dashed through shimmering larch forests and pedaled into an expansive alpine meadow. The trail down was rocky but equally fun, and when we finally rolled out our sleeping pads that night, we had an impossible time falling asleep. We both brimmed with anticipation and excitement about the days to come.

We broke camp early the next day. The air felt fresh, and we patiently waited for the sun to rise above the peaks and warm us. After passing through Allos – sleepy in the off-season but an otherwise bustling ski town – we climbed back uphill on a narrow hiking trail. Passing the treeline, we suddenly found ourselves in a landscape that didn’t resemble anything we’d imagined finding in the middle of Europe.

All around us was vast, open space, enclosed by distant walls of granite. Glistening turquoise lakes dotted the area, surrounded by crooked alpine vegetation in ruddy hues. It immediately reminded me of the expansive views we experienced while cycling through the Andes. For a moment, Jona and I just stood there staring into the distance, mesmerized.

We spent the next two hours crossing the mountain plateau before beginning the final push toward the pass. Neither of us really wanted to leave. We moved slowly, stopped for photos, and ate snacks – not so much because we were hungry, but as a strategy to make the moment last a little longer. By the time we reached the high point, the sun was already quite low, and it painted the landscape around us in a magical array of colors ranging from orange-gold to red to purple.

Lost and Found, bikepacking France
  • Lost and Found, bikepacking France
  • Lost and Found, bikepacking France
  • Lost and Found, bikepacking France
  • Lost and Found Story
  • Lost and Found, bikepacking France

THE HIKERS

We started making our way downhill, hoping to find a decent flat spot to pitch our tent before darkness settled over the valley. That’s when, to our surprise, we spotted two hikers on the trail ahead of us. Their pace was steady, but we quickly caught them. They were two local elderly women who had left on a hike that morning. It was taking them longer than they’d expected, but they were in good spirits. They told us they were excited they’d soon be reaching their car in the parking lot. After chatting for a short while, Jona and I continued on, concentrating on the rough and sometimes technical downhill.

Jona came to a sudden halt just before we dropped below the treeline again. He looked bothered by something, and I immediately assumed we must have missed a turn. I dreaded having to climb all the way back up, but Jona seemed to have a different concern. He pulled out his phone and GPS. “I really wonder where those two women are going,” he said, looking down to check the time. “I was kind of surprised when they mentioned the parking lot earlier, because I haven’t seen anything like that on the map.”

It was going to be pitch black within half an hour. I glanced up at the sky, which by then had turned to a purple-tinged grey. “They don’t have much time to get back to the parking lot,” I thought aloud. “There is no parking lot,” Jona was quick to remind me.

We examined the detailed maps on Jona’s phone one last time before discussing whether we should wait and check on them or seek out a place to set up our own camp for the night. Agreeing it was the right thing to do, we sat down, pulled out some bread, and started nibbling while waiting for the women to reach us.

We heard their voices soon after, happily chatting away somewhere up the trail. They were more than a little surprised when they finally reached us. When Jona asked them about their destination again, one of them immediately pulled out a weathered pamphlet, the kind you’d find at a tourism office, that featured a short description of the route and only a very basic map of the area. She pointed out the place where their car was parked, and I saw Jona subtly shake his head.

He raised his eyes to meet mine. “Shit. They’re not where they think they are,” he told me calmly in our native German, careful not to alarm the women. His expression must have given away too much because one of them immediately asked what was wrong.

In rudimentary French, we tried to explain that they must have gotten lost. When Jona showed them their location on the GPS and compared it to the map, the women unleashed a tirade of French swear words. They had a heated conversation with each other, presumably trying to figure out who was at fault. Meanwhile, Jona and I took a step back and searched our map for some place nearby where we could possibly arrange a taxi or pick up.

  • Lost and Found, bikepacking France
  • Lost and Found, bikepacking France
Lost and Found, bikepacking France
  • Lost and Found, bikepacking France
  • Lost and Found, bikepacking France

Luckily, we found a likely spot. But it wasn’t easy to interrupt their frenzied discussion, and it took us a few tries before they were willing to listen to our plan or accept help. Before we could even finish offering, both women refused, telling us they were sure we had better things to do. With my stomach rumbling and my legs feeling heavy from the day’s ride, I was anything but excited about the idea of stumbling through the dark for what looked like another 10 km, but we couldn’t leave them out there. Without a good map or any lights, it would be nearly impossible for the women to find their way back. And so, without saying much else, we pulled out our headlamps and got ready to push our bikes alongside them on the trail.

Slowly, we continued as a procession of four down the mountain. With the two women safely tucked between us, I tried to illuminate as much of the trail as possible from the back while Jona made sure we didn’t miss any turns. We walked in silence for some time. The atmosphere was strangely tense, and I couldn’t help but reflect on how we insisted on helping. Maybe they found our persistence invasive. I found myself feeling uneasy about the whole situation.

When we stopped for a little bite to eat, one of the women finally broke the uncomfortable silence. “We have never gotten lost before, we usually know our way. We both work and live here, and we’re not inexperienced hikers,” she explained to us in broken English. “We must have taken a wrong turn at some point, or I don’t know. I can’t explain how we managed to get off track,” she continued. I nodded.

Jona darted a look at me and broke into a smile. “No need to explain yourself,” he assured them. “We got lost once as well. It happens before you know it!”

Lost and Found, bikepacking France

MEMORIES OF BULGARIA

I knew exactly what he was referring to. Jona and I traveled to Bulgaria for a two-week holiday in 2011 with the intention of exploring the Pirin Mountains on foot. We left most of our camping gear at home since we planned to stay in alpine huts along the way. It was clear from the very first steps we were completely out of shape for such an undertaking, but instead of adjusting our itinerary, we stuck to it and ventured further into the mountains.

Needless to say, after 10 hours of challenging hiking, our ambition gave way to frustration. Not only were we incredibly tired, but we weren’t anywhere near the hut we’d intended to sleep in that night. The faint gleam of our headlamps wasn’t much consolation as dusk settled in around us, reducing the trail to no more than a blur.

These days, after years of traveling, not having a place to sleep for the night is just a footnote to time spent in the wilderness. Faced with a similar situation, we simply seek out a reasonably sheltered spot, toss on some layers, and accept that it won’t be a great night’s sleep. But back in 2011, it was enough to make us panic.

We staggered through the darkness for nearly an hour, constantly afraid of making a wrong turn. Suddenly, we spotted what looked like a bonfire in the distance. Without saying anything, Jona and I immediately changed course, making our way straight toward the promising glow. We hoped it was the hut. Unfortunately, we found five lonely figures squatting around a fire, music blasting from their mobile phones.

They were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. And even though we didn’t speak a common language, they quickly understood our situation. After a short exchange among themselves, one of the men got up and gestured for us to follow. Lacking a better plan, we decided to trust him.

After a short walk, we arrived at a small shelter built from mismatched scraps of lumber and stacked full of filthy blankets. Crammed inside were six cots that smelled of sweat and mildew. The man indicated we could store our backpacks in the corner, then he assigned one of the beds to us. We walked back to the fire after dropping our things, where another one of the men handed us two steaming bowls of mysterious liquid. We sipped it while a mobile phone blared the same song on repeat. All five of them watched us in silence.

The hut was already empty when we awoke the next morning, and we could hear the sounds of animals impatiently huffing and stirring outside. We gathered our belongings and saw the men loading up their horses, moving slowly as they waited for us to get ready. Their faces were kind—something I hadn’t perceived in the firelight.

We headed off in the same direction together, the group of men leading us toward the mountain hut we’d been hoping to reach the night before. We’d have been lost without them and would have had to spend a miserable night outside, vulnerable to the elements and feeling frightened. Maybe Jona and I would have continued in the dark out of desperation and gotten injured or fallen off a cliff. Maybe we would have safely reached the hut at the end of it all. Regardless, I couldn’t help but feel a great deal of comfort as we walked alongside the men and their animals.

OUT OF THE WOODS

Back in France, Jona and I stopped to snack on nuts and chocolate bars with the two women. I could feel my legs getting heavier as we sat there, but we were all exhausted and in need of some fuel to get us through the rest of our walk.

We marched on.

The women managed to contact a friend who agreed to come pick them up, and we made our way toward a point on the map where the trail intersects a small road. Around 10:30 p.m., I heard the sounds of a car somewhere ahead. Soon we saw a light bobbing through the trees in the distance, slowly making its way toward us.

It was their friend, and when we finally met, all five of us rejoiced and embraced. Before we said goodbye, the two women insisted on paying for a dinner or a night in a hotel. We kindly refused and instead exchanged a last round of heartfelt hugs before they took off. We watched the lights of their car disappear in the distance. It was nice to have helped them.

Lost and Found, bikepacking France

Neither of us could be bothered to find a place to camp that night. Instead, we dropped our bikes and rolled out our sleeping pads in the middle of the trail. When we were finally tucked tightly into our sleeping bags, watching the stars glimmering against the black of the night sky, we felt strangely satisfied. We managed to get the two hikers safely out of the mountains, but we also had the occasion to revisit that time, many summers ago, in Bulgaria and those kind strangers who had helped us.

We were grateful that we were able to pay forward their kindness and be reminded that looking out for one another in the mountains is not a heroic act, but rather a matter of course and decency.

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