AMY SALOT, Lee James, Stuart Miller and Eric Johnson started out before the others that morning, but they blundered. For the next nine hours they traveled in a state of mind in which the beauty of the land was submerged in menace: they were lost.

"When the course was over, my first reaction was how much more powerful I feel in nature," said Amy. "Then I remembered how powerless I felt when we were lost and the land was controlling me."

In their "time control plans" filed with the instructors, the hiking group had given the details of the terrain features they expected to cross. They had estimated they would complete the seven-mile hike from Tattoosh Buttes to the X marked on the map by the Middle Fork of the Pasayten River by early afternoon. It was dark when they staggered in.

Melly Reuling, the leader, had repeatedly stressed the importance of learning to read the detailed U.S. Geological Survey contour maps. They showed the nuances of the country: the green shading indicated vegetation thick enough to provide cover for a platoon of soldiers; creeks were blue lines; swamps were chicken tracks of blue ink; mountainsides were clustered bands of lines. She illustrated the principle of a contour, drawing a line around her thumb knuckle, then extending her thumb to flatten it as it would appear on a map.

Reuling stressed maps because when she was 16, a NOLS student hiking out on her "small group expedition" without instructors, she and four other students were lost for two days in the lower elevations of the Wind River Range in Wyoming. Assigned to forage for their meals, they had no food, and two of the party were too weak to move. For two days Reuling got up in the morning and tried to figure out where she was. After a while, the mind falls prey to its own wishfulness: "You start to make the earth fit the map," she said.

Amy and her group missed the trail by 100 yards. They had misread the contour lines that located a horse-packing camp high on the shoulder of Tatoosh Buttes, and bushwhacked down 2,000 feet, thinking the camp lay in the valley. They realized their mistake but to climb back up was too difficult and so they followed a creek whose name they weren't sure of. They hoped the creek would swing around a mountain and back to the trail.

Amy told Eric that if they found the trail by nightfall she would try a plug of his chewing tobacco.

With each step Amy wondered if they were taking themselves further in the wrong direction. Stuart, who had already been lost once (that time he'd said to his mates, "I guess you guys don't want me to be your leader again"), said that the hours they walked in uncertainty made him wish he'd stayed home.

Shortly after 7 p.m. a clear track opened through the forest. The trail had come back to them. Everyone kissed, and Amy bit off a plug of Skol.