Survival Fundamentals: It's the Little Things

Never leave home without covering the three basic necessities for safe hiking
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Never leave home without covering the three basic necessities for safe hiking

Consider the following case histories where two soloists were stranded in wildly different circumstances.

The Adventure Racer

The Short Version: On December 13, 2007 national-class adventure racer Danelle Ballengee, 35, left her Moab home for a two-hour XC training run near the Amasa Back Trail. It was a typical hard training session for Ballengee, who was often known for long solo epics. But this time, near Hurrah Pass, Ballengee slipped on ‘verglas’ -water ice that was welded to a slickrock slope - and she shot down the incline, greasing over three cliff tiers and shattering her pelvis. Unable to walk or stand, Ballengee spent the next two nights, 52 hours in all, huddled against 20F overnight lows with nothing but lightweight running clothes and a dog to huddle against. Searchers eventually encountered the dog and rescued Ballengee, who had internal bleeding and frostbite in addition to her fractures. She doubted that she could have survived a third night.

The Drunken Snowmobiler

The Short Version: On Wednesday February 27th, 2008, Lyman Messer (19), of Fort Fairfield, Maine was rescued just after midnight in the woods near SquareLake in northern Maine. Game wardens found him huddling in 10F temperatures and full ground blizzard conditions. He was wearing a wool pea coat, t-shirt, shorts and boots. He’d snowmobiled away from a backcountry campsite party and stuck the sled against a tree, on the far side of the lake from his camp, and well back in the timber. According to tracks he’d waded several times through hip deep snow to the lakeshore and back, as if trying to hike from the sled, which was intact. From where Messer was found, it took wardens 45 minutes to sled him out to the nearest plowed road, and indication of how remote he was from help despite his lack of winter clothing.

These two stories may be wildly different in regards to preparation, expertise and experience, but both case studies illustrate a common principle for safe wilderness travel. Every time you set out, whether it’s for a jog, an expedition, or just to get more beer, you need to have:

[] The ironclad ability to return.

[] Or, the ability to survive overnight.

[] Or, the ability to signal for help and be quickly evacuated.

If you don’t have those slots filled, you’re cruising for an epic.

I was reminded of that principle last Friday night, about 9pm, on the Lathrop Canyon Trail in Canyonlands. I’d driven to Moab and begun hiking at 3pm, dropping down 1,600 feet of dizzying switchbacks to the White Rim. The sunset was gorgeous, perfect for photographs. But as I began grinding my way back up the escalator-steep track, the night turned black as a cave, and I was soon surrounded by coal black shadows and yawning chasms. I was happy huffing along in the tunnel-vision beam of my headlamp, but I kept thinking how utterly screwed I’d be if that tiny bulb failed.

So, in a cosmic punchline, a couple minutes later my headlamp crapped out and I was immediately dead in the water. It was crisis time. I didn’t have anything to signal with. I certainly didn’t have what I needed to spend the night, other than a Bic lighter for a fire if I could build one by braille. So did I epic? Did I evac? Neither. Just before setting out, on a paranoid whim, I’d grabbed a spare headlamp from my truck’s glove compartment. It took less than a minute to pop it on my head and keep going.

And so my hiking episode makes for a much more boring story than the previous two examples - but a lot nicer hike - simply because I had a 3-ounce contingency plan to ensure that I could return. And if that didn’t work I had a one-ounce back up plan (the lighter) to get through the night. Sometimes even the simplest forethought can make the difference between suffering and mere inconvenience. Never underestimate the power of positive paranoia.

Stay safe,

Steve Howe