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A Dozen Ways to Die

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

1. Falling
Tempted to climb higher? Think twice: The backcountry’s #1 killer is only a slip away.

Dana Crane, an outdoorsy 19-year-old student at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, lay crumpled on the beach near Strawberry Point in Washington’s Olympic National Park. It was a tragic end to a trip she’d planned to celebrate her recently completed sophomore year. After 4 days in the Hoh Rain Forest, Crane had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to trek down the coast. Not expecting any trouble, she didn’t register at the Third Beach trailhead.

On day 2 of her coastal hike, she stashed her pack and jogged to Strawberry Point, where sand bluffs taper out from the shore to form a low spit capped by a 70-foot spire. Enchanted by the sea stack, Crane scrambled up for a view. Suddenly, she greased off mossy holds and cartwheeled 25 feet down onto jagged, fist-sized cobbles.

When she came to, Crane had a black eye, gashes in her back, two shattered feet, a broken thumb and pelvis, separated ribs, a displaced fracture of her lower right leg, and three spinal fractures. Despite those injuries, she crawled nearly 100 yards to the shelter of driftwood logs piled beneath the bluffs. There she lay for 48 hours without food, water, or gear, getting chilled, baked, and severely dehydrated. Finally, a couple of hikers came by.

“We heard a whistling sound,” recalls Brandon Smith, a 26-year-old hiker from Missoula, MT, who was with his girlfriend, Heather McKee. “I looked over, and this girl was smashed up pretty bad.” McKee stayed with Crane while Smith ran for help. He found off-duty ranger Dave Skinner, who had a cell phone. Two hours after Skinner reached a spot where he could get a signal, Crane was evacuated by helicopter to a Seattle hospital, where she underwent multiple surgeries (and survived).

“It’s a popular area,” says the ranger. “I’m surprised someone could have lain there that long, but she was probably in and out of consciousness, so people might have passed her.” Smith is a bit more judgmental. “She shouldn’t have been on that rock face,” he says. “It was way, way too steep.”

Analysis
Unroped falls are the #1 cause of wilderness deaths nationwide. Our research suggests that most accidents happen while hikers are scrambling up or descending semitechnical peaks, crossing class III passes, or getting far out onto overlooks for better views and pictures. Steep snowfields, rotten rock bands, and gravelly ledges are typical culprits–combined with overconfidence. According to the rangers and rescue pros we interviewed, many victims could have avoided falling if they’d spent more time looking for an alternate route.

Advice

  • Leave word Crane’s first error was failing to register or give her return date to a friend. This is critically important for a solo hiker.
  • Carry a lifeline Her second mistake was leaving her pack–and all her safety gear. Always stash a basic survival kit in your pocket on side hikes.
  • Climb smart If you’re alone, attempt only easy moves, and test each hold to make sure it’s solid. Avoid wet, mossy, and loose rock, and never ascend any face you wouldn’t be absolutely comfortable downclimbing. When contemplating sketchy moves or long, exposed snowfields, ask yourself what the worst outcome could be. If it’s ugly, find another way or turn around.
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