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October 2006

A Dozen Ways to Die

How do hikers meet their maker in the backcountry? The answers may surprise you.

Slavering grizzlies, pouncing cougars, killer blizzards: They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters, the terrors that send our pulses racing whether we’re sleeping in the woods or reading on the sofa. Perhaps that’s because we view wilderness schizophrenically–both as a womblike place where we can heal from civilization’s assaults, and as a hostile void where only the über-tough, prepared for death, should venture.

So which is it? Should you take the helmet and ice axe, the PLB and GPS, the bear spray and bug juice? To answer these questions, we studied hundreds of incident reports and interviewed scores of experts–rangers, rescuers, guides, scientists, surviving companions, and a few lucky survivors, too. Along the way, we came up with some surprising conclusions. For one, wilderness fatalities are extraordinarily rare. But when they do happen, they typically aren’t the result of climbing, skiing, or BASE jumping accidents; nope, it’s hikers who tend to die out there. For another, it’s not the giant man-eaters that pose the biggest risk; it’s you and me, and our tendency to make foolhardy decisions.

Here you’ll read case histories that illustrate ways hikers might expire in the woods. Most of these victims made mistakes–the same kind we all get away with on a regular basis. And therein lies the point: We’re not replaying these tragedies to wallow in others’ misfortunes. In each tale, we see a bit of ourselves, plus a few lessons that may help you avoid a similar fate.

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  1. jz-unlimitedoutlook-com

    I was recently rescued from the San Juan Mountains (Oct 2015). I was solo hiking and woke up after a decent snow fall obscured the trails. While I thought I was at Hunchback pass I was not. I had good equipment, food, map and compass. The time that followed I obsessed about getting my clothes and boots dry. I did not have GPS or experience in that area. I did have good sense. When looking at the pass I believed I was supposed to climb, I decided since I did not have crampons or any equipment to allow me to continue safely. I descended 1500 feet to get off the pass and waited for help. I had let quite a few people know where I was and figured help would come. It did. I am older and wiser and now researching the appropriate electronic devices to allow me to safely solo hike in the future.

    Profile photo of jz-unlimitedoutlook-com

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