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.
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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. nps.gov/dena

The Way:
Get to Anchorage, and your guide takes the reins (RMI is the most popular; rmiguides.com). Unguided? Book a room at the Talkeetna Motel (907-733-2323) and a bush plane to basecamp (we've used Hudson Air, hudsonair.com). 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.

Map:
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.

3. Saved By His Six-String

Sliding to his death on mt. timpanogos, a thru-hiker finds that guitar gods really do exist.

The Epic
"Not many people can say a guitar saved their life–me and B.B. King, maybe," says musician and legendary long-distance hiker "Walkin'" Jim Stoltz. In June 1982, Stoltz was trekking the length of Utah (about 700 miles from Arizona to Idaho) when he scaled snowy Mt. Timpanogos near Provo and spent the night looking down on the twinkling city lights. Downclimbing the next morning proved dicier: Lacking an ice axe and crampons, Stoltz slipped and started sliding on his belly toward a sheer cliff. He kicked and clawed at the ice, but to no avail. "In a way, I gave up," Stoltz recalls. "I rolled onto my back, thinking at least I'd see what I was about to hit, and that's when I was jerked to a halt." The neck of his guitar–which he had lashed to his backpack upside-down, without a case–had plowed into the ice like an axe, stopping him just short of certain death. The guitar still played, too.

The Trip
Timpanogos's 11,750-foot summit has claimed so many lives that in 1983 locals organized an emergency-response team; volunteers camp near the top each weekend from late June through September. Walkin' Jim suggests you bring your guitar, but don't duplicate his mistake; carry an axe and crampons, and know how to use them. From the Aspen Grove trailhead in Uinta National Forest, hike 11 miles one-way to the summit along the Timpanogos Trail. The wilderness boundary at mile 2 kicks off the climbing–4,900 feet in all. You'll pass a shelter and good camping at Emerald Lake and Timp's dwindling glacier on the way to the summit's precipitous fin, where Stoltz took his ride. USGS quads: Aspen Grove, Timpanogos Cave

The Way:
From Provo, head east on US 189 for 12 miles. Turn left onto UT 92 and go 6 miles to the Aspen Grove trailhead.

4. Four Days Of Fury

Mt. Washington ROCKS two young climbers.

The Epic
Hugh Herr and his climbing partner, Jeff Batzer, left their emergency gear behind to go light and fast on Odell's Gully, a 1,000-foot ice face in Huntington Ravine. But instead of descending after their climb, they decided to hike to Mt. Washington's summit, then got blindsided by one of the mountain's infamous squalls. They struggled through 70 mph winds, eventually digging a snow cave and huddling on a bed of spruce branches. The Harvard Hut caretaker initiated a search for the overdue climbers; rescuer Albert Dow died in an avalanche on the second day. On the climbers' fourth day of exposure, a snowshoer found them. Herr had both legs amputated 3 inches below the knee, and Batzer lost his left foot and all the fingers and toes on his right side. That was 1982; Batzer is now a pastor, and Herr (above) develops biomechatronic prosthetic limbs (incorporating both living tissue and synthetic components) at MIT–and can still climb 5.12 rock routes.

The Trip
Before attempting a winter ascent, get acquainted with this New Hampshire icon in better weather on an 8.4-mile loop connecting the Huntington Ravine and Lion's Head Trails. You'll gain about 1,000 feet per mile on your way to Washington's 6,288-foot summit–the nation's deadliest, with at least 135 lives lost since 1849. Last season, 30 rescues took place on its slopes. You'll pass the Harvard cabin at mile 2 before climbing one of the steepest sections of trail in the Presidentials. Continue straight to the Nelson Crag Trail, which leads southwest to the summit. Descend via Tuckerman Ravine and Lion's Head Trail, switchbacking to Hermit Lake and the shelter of treeline.

Map:
New Hampshire: Presidential Range (AMC)

The Way:
From North Conway, take NH 16 north to the trailhead at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

5. Lewis and Clark Battle the Bitterroots

The Corps of Discovery notches its closest call.

The Epic
No obstacle threatened to derail the Lewis and Clark expedition more than the Bitterroot Mountains, on the Montana-Idaho border. On September 11, 1805, the Corps of Discovery left an encampment they called Traveler's Rest and headed along a Nez Perce route (today's Lolo Trail) into the range, which spans 300 miles and is so rugged that no road bisected it until 1961. Steep terrain sent horses and equipment tumbling down gullies, then an autumn snowstorm stopped the party in its tracks. After having no success at hunting game, the Corps survived by eating two of its horses, candles, and bear fat that they'd collected to use as lamp oil and leather conditioner. "We suffered everything Cold, Hunger & Fatigue could impart," Lewis later wrote. On September 22, the party–starving, frostbitten, and severely dehydrated–finally stumbled into a Nez Perce village on what is now called Weippe Prairie, on the Bitterroots' western edge.

The Trip
For a 14-mile trek following the expedition's route along Lolo Creek, head to the Grave Creek trailhead in Lolo National Forest and hike west on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. On day 1, you'll pass old-growth cedar groves and the Lolo Hot Springs, which, Clark wrote, "Spouted from the rocks, nearly boiling hot." Today it's part of a resort (lolohotsprings.com) where you can rent a cabin or tepee. Stay at the springs or at one of 22 tent sites a mile farther down the trail at Lee Creek Campground. The next day, climb steadily through fields of purple camas lilies to Lolo Pass and Packer Meadow's eye-popping vistas of the peaks that tormented the corps. Park a shuttle car at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center on US 12.

Map:
National Forest Visitor Map Clearwater National Forest

The Way:
From Lolo, MT, go west on US 12 for 16.5 miles to Grave Creek trailhead, at the junction of MT 489.

6. Cut Off At The Pass

The Donner party gets snowbound in the Sierra.

The Epic
These days, it's every shredder's dream to spend a winter in Tahoe. But in 1846, all that fresh pow was a nightmare for the westbound Donner Party, a group of migrants headed for the coast. They had set out from Illinois in April, but reached the Sierra Nevada in October–a full 2 months behind schedule. The night before the party was to cross the 7,088-foot pass now bearing its name, an early snowstorm dumped 5 feet, stopping the travelers 150 miles from Sutter's Fort in Sacramento. They backtracked to Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake), erected cabins, and spent the winter rationing their dwindling provisions. Eventually, 15 men set out on rawhide snowshoes to seek help; seven made it to Sutter's Fort, where locals began organizing a rescue. The main party had eaten all of the oxen by December, and by the time they were rescued, they'd begun to consume dead party members. Of the original 87 pioneers, 46 survived.

The Trip
To see where the Donner Party's plan went to pieces is all too easy today; I-80
now crosses Donner Pass. But to survey the landscape of the tragic episode, take the Pacific Crest Trail 6 miles south from the Tahoe National Forest trailhead to the tops of Donner Peak and Mt. Judah. The first 3.5 miles of ridgewalking pass comfortably, with little elevation gain. After Donner Pass, the trail veers left up a steep granite bank. From there, pick your own route southeast to the saddle between 8,019-foot Donner and 8,243-foot Judah. Both peaks boast cherry-picker views of Donner Lake and the town of Truckee, the site where the main party wintered. Don't do a Donner: Go between June and September, when there's almost always sunshine. USGS quad: Norden Quadrangle

The Way: From Truckee, take I-80 to the Castle Peak Area/Boreal Ridge Road exit to the Tahoe National Forest trailhead.

7. Muir's Dodgy Night Atop Shasta

The legendary risk-taker nearly pays a shocking price.

The Epic
On the morning of April 30, 1875, legendary naturalist John Muir and his partner, Jerome Fay, reached the top of 14,162-foot Mt. Shasta with the intention of surveying the summit. Soon after their arrival, ominous clouds began to gather. Fay urged retreat, but Muir stubbornly insisted on staying to gather more data. Hours later, lightning, hail, and gale-force winds forced them to abandon their instruments. Muir took the lead, following a knife-edge ridge toward the cover of treeline, but Fay, terrified, refused to descend in the now-whiteout conditions. Muir decided they would hunker down by one of Shasta's hissing fumaroles in a wind-protected area between two pinnacles. The storm's piercing cold chilled one side of their bodies while the steam vents roasted the other, making for a restless 17-hour bivy. Miraculously, Muir and Fay returned to their camp the next day with only frostbite on their toes.

The Trip You can climb Shasta in a weekend, or even a day, via Avalanche Gulch, the most popular and straightforward route. From the Bunny Flat trailhead, you'll gain more than 7,000 vertical feet in 7 miles. Camp at Helen Lake (10,443 feet) before ascending Misery Hill, so named for its quad-burning gradient. Just before you hit the summit, check out Muir's bivy site, a series of steaming blowholes and hot-mud pockets at 14,000 feet, now named Sulphur Springs. And be ready to descend at your designated turnaround time (typically before noon); as Muir discovered, conditions atop Shasta–or any high peak–can get dicey at a moment's notice.

Map: Mt. Shasta Wilderness Recreation Map

The Way: From I-5, take the Central Mt. Shasta exit (Lake Street). Head east on Lake, then veer left onto the Everitt Memorial Highway (A10) and drive 11 miles to the Bunny Flat trailhead.

8. Stuck In Steamboat

Colorado Skier shivers through 9 backcountry days with a busted leg.

The Epic
Charles Horton figured he could get a good workout in before dinner. It was a sunny April morning in 2005, and the XC ski trails at 8,500-foot Dunckley Pass near his home in Steamboat Springs, CO, beckoned. He wouldn't return for 9 days. As Horton was on a gradual descent 3 miles from the trailhead, one ski punched through the crusty spring snowpack and wrenched his right leg, tearing cartilage in his knee and snapping his tibia and fibula. He splinted his leg with his pack and compression straps, and tried scooting back to his car on the skis, but that proved too physically demanding. He bedded down in a tree well, covering himself with pine boughs for insulation. Wearing four layers of Ibex wool and an old windbreaker, Horton slept in the sun during the day and stayed awake through the night, moving himself down the trail a couple hundred yards at a time. He rationed energy bars and sucked on snow for water. After 8 days, Horton's landlord returned from vacation to find Horton missing, and a search began the next morning. He was found within an hour, awake and coherent despite a core body temp of 86°F. "A huge piece of surviving is your mental attitude," he says. "I stayed positive by focusing on small accomplishments."

The Trip: Hike the 8.3-mile Long Run Trail at Dunckley Pass to survey the jutting plateaus of the Flat Tops Wilderness to the west, and the densely forested Sarvis Creek Wilderness to the east. Horton was found near the spur trail to Chapman Reservoir. Take that spur to camp or swim in the lake's clear water. Or continue the loop, taking a break at The Bench, the system's best viewpoint, near the junction of Crosho Lake Trail. (970) 638-4516

The Way: From Yampa, go north on CR 17 for 5 miles to CR 132, then head west 3.4 miles to FR 16. Go 2 miles to the Dunckley Pass trailhead.

9.The Stubborn Pursuit

Western explorer gets railroaded in the Rockies.

The Epic
John Charles Frémont may be the best American explorer you've never heard of. One of the most prolific surveyors of the frontier West, he mapped the Oregon Trail, was the first to cross the Sierra in winter, and put Las Vegas on the map–literally. In 1848, a Missouri businessman hired Frémont to find a suitable rail route across the Rockies. He left St. Louis in October with 36 men and 120 mules. But by the time the party reached Colorado's La Garita Mountains, conditions were so harsh that 100 mules froze to death in one night. Progress slowed to as little as 1.5 miles between camps, and eventually a third of Frémont's men died from exposure or starvation. The rest survived by cooking the remaining mules, dropping to the cover of treeline to build camps, and felling numerous trees to keep raging fires burning. Frémont's Fourth Expedition reached Sacramento the following spring, but to this day no interstate railway crosses the La Garitas.

The Trip You can still find a few of Frémont's camps today–look for high and crudely cut stumps along their route in the Rio Grande National Forest. Head to Cathedral Campground near Del Norte, CO, and pitch a tent in the blue spruce next to Embargo Creek. Then set out on a 7-mile round-trip hike to Frémont's "Christmas Camp." The first 2 miles are on FR 640; Frémont's Camp Trail (885) takes up where the road fizzles out. You'll climb steadily through Douglas fir and aspen before cresting into a meadow where the party camped for 5 days, singing carols to raise morale. USGS quads: Pine Cone Knob, Pool Mountain

The Way: From Del Norte, drive 9 miles west on US 160 to Embargo Road, following signs to Cathedral Campground.

10. Played By The Slots

Tucson photographer can't ignore the lure of Canyon Country.

The Epic
John Ey had heard that Brimstone Gulch was impassable, narrowing to less than a foot wide. Still, the 53-year-old hiker ventured into the slot canyon, driven by a desire for a killer shot in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. On October 7, 1996, Ey entered Brimstone from the north, shimmying down several ledges until he landed in a slick-walled, 3-by-5-foot box. "After the first 12-foot drop, I couldn't turn back," Ey says. Wearing only a cotton T-shirt and shorts, he was trapped for 8 days with only 5 ounces of water and half a sandwich. Ey was saved because he left an itinerary with his sister, who called authorities when he didn't return. "Rescuers were looking for a body," recalls Ey, "I passed the time praying to stay alive. I never did get my picture."

The Trip
Ey dropped into 7-mile-long Brimstone from the north, but the safer approach is from the canyon's wider southern end. From Dry Fork trailhead, descend into the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch and cruise downcanyon, passing Peekaboo and Spooky Gulches, then hang a left at mile 2 to enter Brimstone's flat, sandy mouth. After about 20 minutes, the slot narrows and you'll squeeze through charcoal-gray rock corridors for half a mile before it nearly pinches shut at just 6 inches wide. Retrace your steps for a pleasant 5-mile day in canyon country.

Map: Trails Illustrated #710, Canyons of Escalante

The Way: From Escalante, drive south on Hole-in-the-Rock Road for 26 miles. Turn left onto Dry Fork Road and go 2 miles to the trailhead parking lot.