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A Dozen Ways to Die

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

3. Heart Attack
At risk: Baby-boomer men trying to keep pace with their younger selves.

On a windy day in late July 2001, a group of senior hikers who call themselves the Over-the-Hill Gang were climbing 8,952-foot Mt. Cannon in Glacier National Park. It’s a stout ascent with some scary class IV scrambling, but these men were veteran Glacier backpackers with numerous technical peaks on their resumés.

Suddenly, 69-year-old Harry Isch didn’t feel well. “He joked about somebody having to take his pack,” recalls George Ostrom, 78, one of the group’s founders. While most of the party moved ahead, two members stuck by Isch. “I turned around and saw Harry sitting down,” recalls Hi Gibson, 75, a retired physician. “He said he felt dizzy, so I checked, and he was in atrial fibrillation, with a weak, vibrating pulse.” Gibson and fellow hiker Pat Jirion decided to take Harry back down to the cars. They considered calling for a helicopter, but gale-force winds and the steep location precluded it.

“I picked the easiest way,” says Gibson, “then we started down together. I kept taking Harry’s pulse, and it was normal.” They intercepted the Hidden Lake Trail and began climbing again to where a boardwalk descends to Logan Pass Visitor Center. “Harry was doing OK. Then we happened to run into a friend. I stopped to talk briefly, and when I turned around again, Harry was down on the trail.

“Immediately, a man and his son arrived,” Gibson recalls. “He was an ER doc in Minnesota, and his son had just completed CPR training, so we took turns trying to resuscitate Harry.” Within minutes, an ER nurse from Chicago happened by, then an ICU nurse from Stanford. “You couldn’t get that kind of expertise on a sidewalk outside a hospital,” says Gibson. “But it was no use.”

Analysis
Heart failure is a top-five killer everywhere, but it jumps to second place in areas where steep, high-elevation trails are located near lowland cities. Isch was both representative and atypical of these victims. He was the least fit member of his group, which makes him a typical target. But he was much older than the average backcountry heart-attack victim, a male in his 50s pursuing the same fitness goals he attained in his 30s–or attempting some kind of life-renewing challenge for which he has not adequately trained. Heat stress or hypothermia are often contributing factors.

Advice

  • Get your ticker tested In the backcountry, heart attacks disproportionately affect baby-boomer men, so if you’re a guy pushing 50, get to a doctor for a full cardiac workup. That goes double if you haven’t done much hiking lately.
  • Boost your training There’s no need to back off big goals, but the days are gone when you could race up Rainier without substantial preparation. To improve your odds, start working out 3 months before any big backpacking trip; include a 6-plus-hour hike with a pack at least once a week.
  • Check your pace Isch wasn’t going fast, but he may have been going too fast for the altitude, given his conditioning. Find a speed that lets you maintain conversation.
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