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Backpacker Magazine – December 2007

Backcountry Survival: How to Survive in the Backcountry

There's a backcountry killer on the loose, and it's not hypothermia, grizzly bears, or rockfall. The thing mostly likely to maim you on your next hiking trip is living inside your head.

by: Mark Jenkins

Whenever you read or hear about a death in the wilderness, reports such as this make it sound as if the outdoors itself—a snow slope, a river, extreme heat or cold—killed an innocent human. Using mass media's wilderness-as-murderer interpretation ("Avalanche Buries Veteran Backcountry Skier" or "Hypothermia Claims Six Lives"), it was the desert—its merciless heat and malicious absence of water—that drove Kodikian to murder. But after studying hundreds of accident reports from Europe and North America, I've come to believe that this, and numerous examples like it, is a misdiagnosis.

Exhibit B: In 1998, Daniel Kimm, 20, and Jude Fontenot, 21, college students from Boulder, CO, left the boundary at Berthoud Pass Ski Area, 60 miles west of Denver. They hiked to the top of Russell Peak, a notoriously avalanche-prone mountain overlooking Highway 40. Kimm dropped off the summit and began descending the east face on his snowboard. Mid-way down, he set off an avalanche, was entrained in snow, and ended up buried in debris 600 feet below. Desperate to reach safety and signal a rescue, Fontenot skied down to the road, passing over the debris pile where his friend was buried.

The coroner determined that Kimm died of asphyxiation. The papers reported it as another avalanche death. But professional ski guide Greg McFadden, who responded to the scene, has a different take.

"Had Fontenot simply stopped at the debris zone and taken the time to look around, he would have seen an entire arm, with a bright yellow North Face jacket, sticking out of the snow," says McFadden. "It was in plain sight."

McFadden uses this story in his avalanche safety classes. "Had Fontenot not panicked, there might have been some chance Kimm would have survived," he says.

Exhibit C: On January 19, 2007, three men hiked to the top of Mt. Lafayette in the Pemigewassett Wilderness of New Hampshire. During the descent, the strongest of the three, Brian Gagnon, took off ahead of his friends. The three planned to meet up at treeline, but when the slower two men reached the rendezvous point, Gagnon was nowhere to be found. His partners waited for an hour, but the weather deteriorated, so the two dropped down to their car and immediately called for help. Gagnon, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was fully equipped for a night out in the cold. He had a tent, along with a -30°F sleeping bag, a foam pad, a GPS, cell phone, food, and a backpacking stove.

"He could have been out there for a week without a problem," says Rick Wilcox, longtime president of the New Hampshire Mountain Rescue Service, who was part of the search and recounted this story.

And yet, somehow, beating his way down through the pucker brush, Gagnon lost his tent. He spent the night out, then called his friends on his cell phone in the morning. Despite having a GPS in his backpack (he didn't even get it out), Gagnon could not tell anyone his location. Perhaps because of the wind, he couldn't get his stove started, so he couldn't melt water. Gagnon eventually decided to sit down and wait to be rescued. He didn't know it, but a quarter mile downhill was a set of footprints in the snow. They led back to a trail.

"Nothing is very far from anything in the White Mountains," explains Wilcox. "Most people just walk downhill and eventually hit a road."

Gagnon spent two nights in below-freezing temperatures before search-and-rescue found him. He was lying in his sleeping bag in a frozen stream. His foam pad was 10 feet away, along with the contents of his pack.

"He lived, but he had frostbite from his neck to his butt," says Wilcox. "It's a clear case of how bad judgment and panic can combine to create a deadly predicament."

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Star Star Star Star Star
Dec 05, 2013

Well written. It's amazing how much of life and the decisions we make simply comes down to how we choose to breathe.

Dinah Beres
Apr 20, 2011

I think every backcountry hiker and backpacker should read this.

Steve B
Apr 15, 2009

To Chris P-Zwit - What exactly does a college education have to do with someones judgement in an outdoor survival situation? It seems kind of odd that you question someone elses judgement with such a bizarre and off the wall judgement yourself...

Chris P-Zwit
Jan 03, 2009

See the movie Gerry by Gus Van Sant. It uses this story. Fear and ignorance turned into panic and despair which spiraled into confusion and over reaction. Having hitched and hiked America, you have to stay oriented and not wander too far out. These guys barely left the car and freaked out. College educated, but no street or outdoor smarts. What a sad note on "higher education."

Dec 16, 2008

good article, very informative, lots of good examples used to illustrate panic and solutions to it

Sep 11, 2008

It would be nice to kn ow how many pages are in the article before starting


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