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Backpacker Magazine – October 2011

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SURVIVE: If I Only Knew Then...

Three decades of trial and error from our favorite battle-scarred adventurer.

Admittedly, I’ve learned most things the hard way. For a number of years, this was a matter of pride. Now that I’ve grown older, I see it largely as a matter of extended adolescent hubris. Fact is, you don’t have to learn everything yourself—that’s what all those other jokers are out there for. My friends and I used to quip that the greatest asset of a good mountaineer is a bad memory—you know, the worse the trip the better the story. And although it’s fine to forget all the suffering, you should strive to remember lessons that might mitigate future misery.

For instance, once upon a time, my wife Sue and I were arrested on Mt. Kilimanjaro for an illegal ascent (guilty as charged). The park police frog-marched us 25 miles in one day to the warden’s office. We didn’t whine. We wanted to show them that we had no trouble keeping up. And we didn’t. But Sue severely blistered the bottoms of both feet. They were flayed. Looked as if they’d been whipped. It took her weeks to heal. Had we just said, “Hey, we need a break,” regularly chilled our feet in Kili streams, applied moleskin, and donned clean socks, that wouldn’t have happened. Pride goeth before the fall.

But it doesn’t have to. I’ve actually seen regular people learn by example. Some years ago, Sue and I climbed Aconcagua together. In basecamp, after the summit, we met two boys from Chicago. I don’t think either of them was 21. They were heading up the mountain, we were heading down. They took a long time setting up their tent, as if they’d never done it before. Later that night, we overheard them struggling to get their stove going. Eventually, I ducked my head into their tent and asked if they’d like a little help. Instead of puffing up their chests and telling me to mind my own business, as I might have done at their age, they said, “Sure.”

Once their stove was roaring, they cooked a freeze-dried meal for four (which they didn’t know would hardly serve two), invited us over for dinner, and we got to talking. One had once hiked a Fourteener, the other had never even been backpacking. This was their first mountain climb. “Figured we might as well start big.”

Their gear still had the price tags. Sue asked them how they had prepared for this expedition and they explained, with straight faces, that they’d spent one night in a meat locker in downtown Chicago.

The next morning, the notorious viento blanco struck Aconcagua. It was howling at basecamp. Up high, you could clearly see the summit capped in a jet-smooth, snow-white lenticular. The boys from Chicago were bewildered when we told them viento blanco winds could reach 100 mph. Sue and I advised them against going up.

For the rest of the day, as we packed up, we could hear them debating. A donkey passed by carrying an Austrian climber with frostbitten feet. He’d worn single-leather boots to the summit. We’d seen him at a high camp and warned him that plastic double-boots were essential, but he’d snorted, “I never use them in the Alps!”

As we were leaving, the Chicagoans walked over to shake our hands.

“Thanks for the advice,” one said.

“We’ve decided this trip is a reconnaissance,” said the other. “We’re not going for the summit, we’re just going to learn everything we can.”

Can you believe it? Climbers are never so humble.

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Star Star Star Star Star
Mar 19, 2013

Loved this article and the writer's voice.

Jason W.
Nov 29, 2011

I for one really appreciated the article and the author's ability to see some humor in life-threatening situations. Thanks for sharing.

Nov 29, 2011

Some of you are sounding off on the author for his lack of experience when in fact he has a great deal of experience gained over many years of outdoor pursuits. I think these people miss the point of the article that Jenkins is trying to educate us by describing his mistakes over the years. Who among us has not made a poor choice on one of our trips? This is one of the ways we learn. Another is by reading about other's mistakes. Thanks Mark for your valuable advice.

Nov 28, 2011

After all your miss adventures in is no wonder you have to get up and ready in the dark at six am. I for one have never left my bag for a backpacking trip that early and by being prepared and organized have managed to hike many thousands of miles without any of your misshaps traveling as much as thirty miles in a day and all without having to night hike. Just goes to show you brains are better than brawn in the wilderness and its important to pick your hiking partners wisely.

T43 Eagle
Nov 27, 2011

Interesting approach to the outdoors - no head lamp on a day hike, curse a tarp when it fails you because you set it up wrong for the conditions, letting others go off alone on the mountain, etc. We teach our scouts to be prepared for anything, especially the unexpected. We take scout essentials (more than the 10 quoted in the Scout Handbook and we know how to use them in all conditions) in the event that we get separated, lost, or encounter unexpected weather or incidents. Gear is what you make of it - they all have pros/cons - it is up to you to pick the best for the situation and apply it to the conditions at hand. Gear also fails at times - that is why we learn to use what we have to get by or make from natural materials. Lots of examples, but a length of waxed thread and carpet needle repaired a broken hip suspension in the CO mountains (lesson learned - 125 lbs for 2 wks hunting was too much for Jansport hip suspension w/ plastic stays, but waxed thread, extra sleeping bag straps and a little ingenuity invaluable), Lite My Fire spoon one end, fork other - broke, carved a stick, cut slot w/ leatherman saw, inserted the broken pieces, drilled holes with awl and pegged, then secured w/ waxed thread (lesson learned - find a way to use what you brought, natural materials and get by - now i carry a titanium spoon). Know your gear, be prepared for the unexpected and when something challenging happens, see it as a challenge and have fun finding a solution.

Nov 27, 2011

This article, for all of it's entertainment filled intent, is a sad commentary on BACKPACKER magazine and their continued perpetuation of sensationalizing outdoor recreation in categories of the "extreme and fringe". What they and their contributors are doing outdoors (WALKING!!!) is nothing specialized or unique, difficult, challenging, or life threatening (well not inherently, guys like this author sure make it sound like it is). In an attempt to make sales and draw advertisers to their magazine and online content they keep feeding readers garbage like this article. NO you do not always NEED a double wall tent, one they (BPM) has reviewed of course, and yes a TARP can be used when you absolutely need it in "extreme" conditions/locales assuming you have the rudimentary skills necessary to use a tarp. I'm sure many here are not familiar with Andrew Skurka, arguably the greatest American adventurer of recent times, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year recipient, who most recently walked/skied/packrafted a self-supported 4,700 mile through the remote Alaska Yukon wilderness using entirely ultralight gear, carrying a baseweight that's half the weight of guys like this author and the Backpacker Staff use for their "expeditions". Which shelter did he use? A single wall ultralight pyramid shelter (Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid). Skurka is a wholly more credible source and reference for backcountry travel than Mark Jenkins. The author was eaten alive by mosquitos because he wasn't versed on using a tarp and lacked the SKILLS and KNOWLEDGE and chose not to APPLY them, he failed to pack for conditions that required a bug net or protection of some sort, this is IGNORANCE and foolishness on his part. What does he do? He arrives at the conclusion that tarps are not a good solution when the problem really lies in the user.... THE IDIOT AUTHOR. TARPS are a perfectly safe and viable option for backcountry use, doesn't matter if it is alpine conditions, winter treks, summer thru-hikes, and rain soaked evenings. By the way, he's also speaking falsely and elaborating when he says his tarp tore in two pieces. I'm calling him out on this. All I learned from this disastrous piece is that I would rather go backpacking with the pig tailed college girl who had her shit together.

Nov 27, 2011

While mostly interesting and with some good advice, the author seems to think he knows it all after years of outdoor pursuits. Nobody knows it all, and his lack of knowledge about, say, tarps is laughable. A tarp is my preferred shelter, but it's not for every situation, and it's part of a system (usually including a bivy sack). And leaving at 4 or 6am... sometimes that may be necessary, but it could just as easily be noon or 6pm... it depends on how you've planned your trip.

saltbeast (Ireland)
Nov 26, 2011

Thanks for sharing. People learn more from the mistakes of others. Cant see why the writer of this article is getting such abuse. Hes an expert in getting it wrong and is passsing on knowledge of what not to do. This is a important lesson to learn.

saltbeast (Ireland)
Nov 26, 2011

Thanks for sharing. People learn more from the mistakes of others. Cant see why the writer of this article is getting such abuse. Hes an expert in getting it wrong and is passsing on knowledge of what not to do. This is a important lesson to learn.

Nov 26, 2011

Unfortunately the author is most likely better suited to talk about the Troubled Asset Relief Program than Tarp shelters....that's unfortunate for backpacker readers who probably won't try them and enjoy the openness with the outdoors, lighter weight, better flexibility and lower cost. Sell on Backpacker Magazine, sell on!

Captain Obvious
Nov 26, 2011

Wow! This might be the most ignorant article Backpacker has ever written, and that says a lot considering the amble competition within the many pages. The term "expert" is a laughable analogy to describe someone so ill prepared, unexperienced and "expertly" ignorant. The statements about using the tarp alone warrants someone who should have no public forum to say a peep about the outdoor market. My advice - take up knitting and stay at home. Pitiful.

Nov 26, 2011

It takes skill to use a tarp effectively. You don't have it, and there's nothing wrong with that. If you don't have backcountry skills and don't care to acquire them, then you should definitely stick with a tent, or perhaps go car camping.

Nov 25, 2011

Dear Rick,
Perhaps you'd like to retract your profanity? There is certainly no room for people like you in a laid back outdoor arena. Like you, I backpack to get away from people and enjoy the outdoors. However I try to get away from people like you and prefer to be around people like Mark Jenkins. Based on your editorial comments above I believe that your decision making skills are lacking in more ways than one and would never follow you into the backcountry. So shove it!

Dingo (New Zealand)
Nov 25, 2011

Often people get fixated on a direction even if it doesn't make sense or there compass is pointing in a different direction than the direction they are travelling. This should be a warning sign but people ignore it and say the compass must be broken and carry on. map bending takes over and you convince yourself and others that it is the right way and hours later the penny drops, you messed up badly. The key is to identify the warning signs that something is wrong and not to ignore them. Go back to the basics of map and compass use, regardless of your skill level. Don't follow someone else just because they seem to know what they are doing, you have to get it sorted for yourself. if you follow them and they get lost, are you still going to blame them?

Dingo (New Zealand)
Nov 25, 2011

I had a similar problem with a hernia in my groin. The problem was I was the lead instructor stuck in the backcountry with a group of 11 students and two other instructors for 10 days. We were virtually on our own when my groin popped and at first it was uncomfortable but I simply pushed it back in to relieve the pain, but as the days went on the lump got larger. I couldn't keep holding my fingers against it so I made up a device using a belt, strapping tape and a bandage to create a squash ball sized sling that would hold the hernia in place by itself. If the sling was in the right place it worked well but on the second last day of the trip the support wasn't working right and it really affected my ability to operate, I was in a lot of pain. Overnight I redesigned the sling, which got me out of the bush the next day. Once out I went and saw a doctor and he wiped me into surgery pretty quick and said that if the hernia had come out any further I would have died in the bush. Looking back I was lucky but I also had a good understanding of First Aid and the ability to improvise that got me through.

Nov 25, 2011

"If you can't get your ass up at 6:00A.M., you can't be a backpacker." One of the reasons we go into the back country is to get away from bossy, opinionated, egomaniacal shitheads such as yourself. After reading your story, informative and entertaining as it was, it is clear your constant blundering is more a result of your ego than anything else. So you're nobody to be waking people up early and ordering them around. Since you like giving advice so much, let's see if you can take some: Stick it up your ass!

windpasser - davidson, nc
Nov 25, 2011

as a physician, one can preach healthy habits until our national debt is resolved. as you have outlined, having common sense goes a long way. also, having a knowledgeable hiking mentor and knowing your limits has helped me keep all my parts intact. thanks for sharing your worldly advice!

Larry Bell
Nov 21, 2011

With all of those things happening to you that were life-and-limb-threatening, I'm surprised that you are not a "ghost" writer. Thank God, you were able to share some of these experiences with the rest of us. Enjoy life, as you have, and please travel safely. You've developed a lot of wisdom with your experience. Thank you for sharing.


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