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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.







Avoid losing your partners. I once temporarily lost a buddy in the Wind River Range. We went climbing, and he went photographing. The plan was to meet back at camp for dinner. He never showed. We strapped on headlamps and did a cursory search, but we had no idea where he’d gone. At breakfast, he wandered into camp looking haggard. He’d gotten lost, been benighted, and huddled beneath a boulder until the morning.

Same thing happened on the north face of Everest. A certain team member always got off to a ridiculously late start. One day, he didn’t make it back to camp. It was snowing dogs and doilies, as the Norwegians say. At 9 p.m., we had a team meeting and decided to give him until midnight. At 12 a.m., we met again and only two of us voted to go look for him. A beastly blizzard was raging at that point, and most of the team believed it was too dangerous to be wandering around on a glacier that was already landmined with crevasses and seracs. The two of us set out swinging our headlamps and screaming our heads off, but we didn’t make it far before realizing that the others had been right. We retreated.

[8] Sitting on your hands reduces circulation, speeding frostbite. Keep your extremities insulated and close to your core, if possible.

[9] Unfortunately, wood is usually wet and cold when you need an emergency fire. Look for dry stuff off the ground (A, B), inside soaked limbs (use a knife to peel away the outer bark), and in stumps (C) that are full of flammable pine resin.

Sometime after lunch, our teammate found his way back to camp. He’d sat out the blizzard, literally and stupidly sitting on his hands to keep his ass from freezing, and had frostbite. [8] We were just glad he was alive.

The point? Searching for someone lost in the mountains at night is dubious at best. Everyone in your party should know beforehand what to do if they get lost: Stop, keep yourself warm (often you can build a fire if you’ve had sense enough to carry a lighter) [9], wait for morning. Don’t worry about food; you can go days without it. You need water, but not much.

Which brings me to one of my pet peeves: sleeping late. If you can’t get your ass out of the sack at 4 a.m., you can’t be a mountain climber. If you can’t get your ass up at 6 a.m., you can’t be a backpacker. Go home. Try bowling. Take up golf.

And this foolishness about not bringing a watch into the wilderness in order to be one with nature: Spare me. Casio 50m: $20, waterproof, light, alarm, stopwatch.

Not that an early start—or experience—can always save you. Consider avalanches, for example: I’ve taken avalanche courses, and I know how to dig a pit and I know the difference between TG and ET and MF metamorphism. So I’m not an idiot, and yet I’ve been caught in avalanches. Just because there is no evidence of recent avalanches, doesn’t mean it can’t suddenly happen. I once put a camp at the base of a face in Sichuan, China. We dug out a tent platform on a cone of ancient avalanche debris. Nothing had slid here for ages. That night a freakishly warm wind swept in, and the cornices 4,000 feet above us started avalanching. Chunks of ice tore through our tent.

And just because there is no known history of avalanches, that doesn’t mean, with the right conditions, they can’t happen. While I was ice climbing with a close friend in Wyoming two years ago, we were hit by an unprecedented avalanche. Unbeknownst to us, contrary winds had built a giant, precarious cornice over the previous few years. I lived, he didn’t.

And just to be clear, there’s precious little consolation in the notion that someone died doing what he loved. When friends are dead, they’re not here. For themselves, for their families, for their buddies. Forever.



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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Munro
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.

John
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.

phil
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.

Rango
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.

D
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.

Bryce
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.

Eugene
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.

Jesse
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.

Rick
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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