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A Dozen Ways to Die

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

2. Drowning
Mishaps on frozen lakes and whitewater rivers represent the second most common cause of death in the wilderness.

On June 26, 2005, four thru-hikers showed up at the McClure Meadow ranger station in California’s Kings Canyon National Park with an urgent message. They told ranger Bob Kenan they’d seen a red backpack floating in partially frozen Evolution Lake, an idyllic rockbound pond set at 10,850 feet on the John Muir/Pacific Crest Trails. Unable to reach the pack himself, Kenan called in a chopper. From the cockpit, pilots could see a human body floating beneath it.

A journal identified the victim as Peter Spoecker, 64, a Joshua Tree resident who’d registered a few weeks earlier for a weeklong solo loop. An obviously fit hiker, Spoecker had been carrying high-quality gear, photo equipment, and snowshoes. He’d reached Evolution Basin by crossing Lamarck Col, a tough, 13,000-foot, class II gap.

Spoecker was a fascinating individual by anyone’s measure, a long-bearded Hindu vegan and professional didgeridoo player. An autodidact, Spoecker regularly taught himself subjects from music to advanced computer graphics. In recent years, he had taken to landscape photography, backpacking for weeks at a time to build a library of images. He was also a wilderness veteran with expert climbing and survival skills; he’d been hiking in the High Sierra, often solo, for more than 40 years.

So how did such an accomplished hiker drop through the ice of a tranquil lake? Several possible scenarios emerge. First, Spoecker may have been trying to get water, since both his bottles were empty when he was found. Second, his snowshoes may have caused him to slip as he traversed the steep sidehill above Evolution Lake. A third possibility is that he detoured down onto the lake for easier traveling, and broke through where currents had weakened the ice.

Analysis
“Any place there’s water mixed with hiking, boating, and fishing, drowning usually wins first place,” says Robert Koester, a researcher with Virginia-based dbS Productions and creator of the 30,000-case International Search and Rescue Incident Database (ISRID). Most victims are whitewater paddlers or rafters who get trapped under strainers or ledges, or backpackers who fall while fording rivers, often in spring runoff.

Advice

  • Doubt yourself A recurring theme in wilderness fatalities is overconfidence or simple neglect of basic safety procedures by veteran hikers. Spoecker’s case is typical of Sierra fatalities: He was an expert, and alone. “Our frontcountry incidents are usually newbies,” says Alex Picavet, public information officer for Sequoia-Kings Canyon. “But our backcountry deaths are often extremely experienced hikers.” The lesson: Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by years of trouble-free hiking. Always expect thin ice.
  • Be ready to swim You’ve probably heard it a hundred times, but it bears repeating: When crossing turbulent rivers, unbuckle your hipbelt and sternum strap so your pack doesn’t force you under water if you fall.
  • Recline in rapids If you fall in whitewater, point your feet downstream (so you can push away from rocks) and float on your back until you can swim to shore. Never try to stand up in a strong current; if your foot gets trapped between rocks, you could get pushed over and drowned.
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