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October 2006

How to Stay Safe in the Wilderness

Retracing the route to people's accidents can help us prevent our own. These 10 trips lead you to the exact locations of disasters from Denali to the Grand Canyon.

1. Pinned Down on Denali
Vicious winds take the first winter ascent to the brink of disaster.

The Epic
Art Davidson, Ray Genet, and Dave Johnston reached the 20,320-foot summit of North America’s highest peak at 7 p.m. on February 28, 1967. Then things really got hairy: Descending, they encountered a vicious windstorm at 18,200-foot Denali Pass, 1,000 feet above their high camp. With Genet and Davidson incapacitated by frozen feet and hands, Johnston built an ice cave in which they melted snow for water, cooked, and urinated in the same can until the 130-mph winds died 8 days later. The three then descended to Windy Pass, where they reluctantly accepted helicopter rescue 42 days after they began their climb. Davidson chronicled the ascent in the classic book, Minus 148 Degrees.

The Trip
The West Buttress remains the most popular route up Denali, with a success rate just over 50 percent. Attempt it between late April and late July. From basecamp at the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, you’ll gain 13,000 feet climbing to the top. On average, it takes 18 days (including acclimatization time) to move from camps at 11,000, 14,000, and 17,000 feet to the summit. The route requires intermediate mountaineering skills and peak physical and mental conditioning.

The Way:
Get to Anchorage, and your guide takes the reins (RMI is the most popular; Unguided? Book a room at the Talkeetna Motel (907-733-2323) and a bush plane to basecamp (we’ve used Hudson Air, Shuttles from Anchorage to Talkeetna run $65 (888-288-6008).

2. The Vertical Portage
John Wesley Powell runs out of handholds.

The Epic
In May 1869, a one-armed Civil War hero and his mapping party embarked on the first-ever descent of the Colorado River. Major John Wesley Powell and his team had seemingly skirted catastrophe at every bend in the uncharted Grand Canyon, but on August 27, after navigating the 205 Mile Rapid, they arrived at two 20-foot drops. While searching for a portage route around them, Powell inched out along a narrow ledge until he was cliffed out–unable to continue, unable to retreat. Clinging to a wall 400 feet above the river with his only hand, he couldn’t catch the rescue line tossed to him. Eventually, his team descended to the boats to fetch oars, which they then used to brace Powell against the canyon wall as he worked his way back. The rugged journey eventually took out half of the party’s four boats and four of its ten men. One deserted early on, and three abandoned the expedition and were killed by Indians just days before Powell’s party reached its destination, the mouth of the Virgin River.

The Trip
The names of the Colorado River’s features follow a utilitarian logic; 205 Mile Rapid, located near the mouth of Two Hundred and Five Mile Creek, appears on–you guessed it–the 205th river mile after the Colorado’s confluence with the Paria River in Lees Ferry. Glance left after you run this rapid (which is much tamer than in Powell’s day) to see the cliff he clung to. Can’t swing a raft trip? Try a classic South Rim dayhike from the South Kaibab trailhead at Yaki Point. Head 6.3 miles down to the canyon bottom, past striations of the white Coconino Sandstone and red Hermit Shale. You’ll eventually cross a suspension bridge onto the sandy canyon floor and amble alongside the river for 3 miles. Veer left (south) on the surprisingly verdant Bright Angel Trail, ascending switchbacks past Indian Garden on your way back to the rim.

Trails Illustrated Grand Canyon National Park

The Way:
From Flagstaff, go north on US 180 to AZ 64. Park at the Backcountry Information Center and catch the hiker shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead.

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