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Backpacker Magazine – October 2013

Survival A to Z: Oops

Sometimes the tiniest mistake can snowball into a major disaster—even for the most experienced adventurers.

by: Joshua Prestin


An unroped alpinist saves herself by the tip of an ice axe. —Hilaree O’Neill, ski mountaineer, May 2003

Ropes are crucial to safety on glaciers with crevasses—but so annoying to walk with that it’s hard to resist an opportunity to untie. When our group stopped for lunch and a rest at a saddle beneath 13,714-foot Nairamdal Peak, we deemed the ropes unnecessary because we thought we’d passed all the glacial dangers on our summit route.

Kasha Ribgy and I were 13 days into an all-women expedition to climb and ski the Five Holy Peaks in western Mongolia. So far, we’d successfully summited three of them. After lunch, we turned toward the summit—unroped—to finish the climb. I watched Kasha lead the way, take five steps from where we ate, and instantly disappear into the deepest crevasse I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen plenty. This one looked bottomless. She fell through a thin crust of snow that hid the rift from view, and I lurched forward to see her swing her ice axe into the lip of the crevasse and hang in open space—untethered from the group. We scrambled to reach across the 3-foot gap and push her up to safety on the other side. We were lucky the snow held as we helped her out of the crevasse. The rest of us roped up and stayed that way until we reached the summit. No one complained about walking while roped for the rest of the trip.

Cutting corners in food storage leads to a too-close encounter. —Paul B. Prestin, reader, August 1994

In the middle of the night, while car-camping in Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains, I heard something rummaging through my food, which I’d left outside in a cooler. Thinking it was just a raccoon, I stumbled out of my tent—without putting on my glasses—to shoo it away. I’m pretty blind without my glasses, so I didn’t see anything as I shoved the cooler under a picnic table where the raccoons would have a harder time accessing it.

As soon as I was back in my tent I heard the cooler lip pop open. Now I was furious. I charged outside, this time with glasses on and a flashlight in hand, and instead of the little raccoon I was expecting, I came face-to-snout with a 200-pound black bear. I waved my hands in the air and shouted, prompting the bear to waddle away with a package of sandwich meat in its jaws. I stashed the cooler in my truck, but when I turned around, the bear was back. In an instant, it charged. I may as well have left my glasses off, since I could hardly make out its shape in my flashlight’s meager beam. The bear ran so fast that I didn’t have time to react; I was paralyzed by fear. The bear veered away at the last second and I was left standing there breathless in the dark, wearing only my glasses and underwear.

You better believe I always store my food properly now.

Denali tried to steal this trio’s shelter. —Ryan Wirickreader, July 2009

I was deep in the Polychrome Mountain Unit of Denali National Park’s backcountry, trekking with two friends, when an intense windstorm caught us by surprise. We were camped in a rocky valley, so we tied our tent down and built a small stone wall to deflect the prevailing winds we thought might arise. And boy did they.

In the middle of the night, the tent flattened under a hurricane-force gust followed by a barrage of windborne scree that riddled the fly with holes. The next morning, one friend got up to start collapsing the tent amid the still-raging gale. I reluctantly got out to help, and when the last member of our group emerged from the tent, it immediately shot skyward on a blast of wind. The fly flapped 1,500 feet up to the top of a nearby peak where it startled a herd of mountain goats, and the canopy flew a half-mile down the valley, ejecting our gear into an icy stream along the way. We spent the next six hours collecting destroyed gear from the surrounding mountains, and hoping the weather wouldn’t worsen and change our mistake into a survival story. We all use plenty of extra guylines on our tents these days.

A series of mistakes nearly costs two mountaineers more than a good time. —Ed Viesturs alpinist, winter 1980s

I was digging a snow cave with a pot lid, somewhere on Mt. Rainier, all because my partner didn’t want to miss his date. We had set off to attempt a winter summit of the iconic mountain in good weather, with plans to be back in town for dinner after our summit, but after we spent the previous night at 10,000-foot Camp Muir, the weather turned sour. We should have waited for things to clear, but my partner insisted we try to make it off the mountain. It wasn’t my date, or my idea, but against my instincts I agreed.

He wanted to ski down, for the speed, and though I argued we could keep our bearings better if we walked, I lost that argument, too. We slid down the snowfield in blasting wind, knee-deep snow, and whiteout conditions and—no surprise—lost our way. When we hit treeline we had no idea where we were. I wanted to bivy and let the weather pass, but my partner thought the parking lot was close. We parted ways; I know we shouldn’t have, but I’d already ignored my instincts, descended in a storm, skied instead of hiked, and gotten lost—I was done losing arguments. I dug in with my pot lid, and he skied out, survived an avalanche, and spent the night curled up in the parking lot bathroom. Skies were clear the next morning when I met him there.

One little misstep lands a guide in traction. —Bryson Williams, RMI rookie guide, August 2012

I didn’t think twice about stepping onto the truck-size boulder on Washington’s Mt. Stuart—my seasoned partner had just crossed it and we were following a well-worn trail. Then the rock started to roll.

Time stood still in the surge of fear and adrenaline as the boulder dislodged beneath me, beginning a 40-foot fall to the ice below. When I finally managed a leap off the boulder, my right leg hit a ledge, shattering in eight places. My partner dressed me in all the layers we had and splinted my leg before he set off for help. I was alone in the backcountry, shivering from pain and cold for the next 18 hours while I waited for the sound of a helicopter and a soothing dose of morphine. Now I never take a well-worn path at face value, and I follow a simple rule: Check twice, step once.

Landen Jones, reader

I set up my tent on a ridge above the treeline, hoping for an awesome sunrise. Instead, I got a massive electrical storm. Lightning struck within 50 feet of me, and everything around me was humming. I ran for my life.

Diana Schraner, reader

I was digging around in my bear-proof container looking for toothpaste in the dark. I found a tube that felt right and started brushing my teeth, but I missed the minty fresh taste. It was Benadryl anti itch cream. The label said, “If ingested, call poison control,” but I was in the backcountry of Yosemite. It’s a miracle I’m still alive.

Dave Ransom, reader

Took the crampons off for a descent of Rainier. Slipped, slid, and if it weren’t for a lucky self-arrest, probably would have pulled my ropemate into a massive crevasse. Lesson learned.

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