Autumn Arrives

And apparently a lot of hikers aren't setting out prepared for weather

Photo: Steve Howe

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To me, autumn is the most glorious time for hiking (see above). The heat is off. The bugs are dead. The animals are in their prime, and the air is crisp. But every year, people seduced by the lazy days of Indian summer take off on a hike without packing extra clothing, or checking a weather report -or believing it if they do – and get slammed. It’s just another phase in the predictable year-round calendar of wilderness mayhem. Spring is for high water fatalities. Summer is for mountaineering accidents, lake drownings, heat-induced death, and general walk-off-the-edge tourist mayhem. Fall is for hypothermia and icy slips, as the following brief round-up clearly illustrates.

Solo hiker tumbles to death in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge

On Friday, October 10th, an unidentified solo hiker fell 100 feet from a cliff on the 1.8-mile Triple Falls Trail in the Columbia River gorge. Another hiker noticed a dog sitting at the top of the falls and peering over the cliff. Doing likewise, the hiker saw a man laying near the base of the falls. Rescue teams reached the man but were not able to save him. The rocks around the falls had received rain, which had frozen into ice.

Storm confuses couple on Mt. Baldy, Arizona

On Saturday night, October 11th, a Phoenix couple was stranded on an overnight up 11,420-foot Mt. Baldy, a tall, isolated peak located in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, about three hours east of Phoenix. When the pair woke up to eight inches of fresh snow on Sunday morning, they found the routefinding tough due to beetle kill deadfall, and the snow, so they parked at the intersection of the east and west Mount Baldy trails, at 11,200 feet, and called for help on a cell phone. Rescuers on horseback found them quickly and escorted them off the mountain. Mt. Baldy is a straightforward trail hike, 7miles one way via either of the main trails. It appears the couple was prepared for weather, but not for routefinding, since a horse party was able to quickly reach them, despite the fallen trees.

PCT hiker dies of hypothermia after strong Sierra storm

Last Friday, October 3rd, a group of four hikers on a weeklong trek of Pacific Crest Trail sections in California, between Echo Lake and Donner Pass Road got caught in a strong early season storm. Despite being experienced trail hikers, most of the group was wearing jeans and cotton sweathshirts. On Friday afternoon, as the group was still hiking, the weather turned to rain, sleet, fog and high winds. One woman, 62-year-old Phyllis Hall, who had already completed section hikes of the PCT through Washington and Oregon, became separated from the group near Tinker Knob, about 10 miles southwest of Truckee. The other three hikers hunkered down near the 8,900-foot level and called for help on a cell phone. Rescuers found the group on Saturday. Hall was found about a mile north of the group and evacuated to a Truckee hospital, where she died from hypothermia and exposure. Big late September blizzards are common in the Sierra. One typical blizzard about five years ago resulted in the helicopter evacuation of more than 10 parties from the Sequoia-Kings Canyon backcountry.

Solo hiker found dead in California’s Emigrant Wilderness

Following an emergency PLB beacon signal emanating from California’s Emigrant Wilderness on Friday night, October 3rd, searchers last Monday found the body of Christopher Andrews (42) near Iceland Lake. Search efforts were hampered by high rivers, ice and snow following a weekend storm. PLBs generally require searchers to home in on a separate frequency after using the beacon signal to narrow down the search area to a square mile or so. But the beacon stopped transmitting on Sunday as the batteries wore down. Searchers eventually found Andrews after binocular scans picked up shiny items in a rock crevice.

It appears as if Andrews fell into a large crack in granite dome country. Searchers theorize that Andrews was attempting to take a direct cross-country route from Iceland Lake, northward toward trails surrounding Relief Reservoir, in order to beat the incoming winter storm, when he slipped on steep icy granite and went over the brink. The injured Andrews then triggered the beacon, but expired due to injuries or cold before searchers reached him. Temperatures were well below freezing on Saturday night.

Canadian sea kayaker survives wave-tossed swim and island stranding

On Friday, October 4th, Matthew Copas (47) embarked on a solo sea kayak day trip from Chester, Nova Scotia, to Tancook Island, an open water crossing of roughly seven miles. The weather was delightful. He made the island, spent some time sunbathing, then paddled back in. But wind and waves kicked up when he was roughly one-third of the way back. He was eventually tipped over by four-foot-high waves, roughly a mile from Lynch Island, but couldn’t get back into his boat. He paddled it surfboard style until he neared the island, then swam the final hundred yards or so to shore. He crawled under a low-hanging fir tree and huddled against deluge rain. Meanwhile his mother, who had expected him back by 6:30, alerted authorities. Coast Guard boats and a helicopter began searching around 9:30p.m. The helicopter plucked Copas off Lynch Island about 1 a.m. on Saturday, October 4th. In all, he spent 10 hours in cold seawater or high, chill winds, but came through with only moderate hypothermia and some lasting exhaustion. A very lucky man. This is the latest in a very pronounced summer-long string of sea- and lake-kayaking incidents that generally seem to involve lack of knowledge about kayak self-rescue. Learning to wet exit, wet enter, and eskimo roll a kayak are as vital to paddlers as knowing how to build an emergency fire is to a hiker. Apparently all too many paddlers are skipping that step in their learning process. Not a good sign.

Two women lose their map in northern Minnesota

And on a different note: Two Duluth women, Maria Jacenko (42) and Grace Knezevich (23), who were three days overdue from a four-day hike of the 40-mile Kekakabic Trail in the Boundary Waters area of far northeast Minnesota, were located last Thursday afternoon alive and well. The pair were well prepared with gear and food. The Kekakabic Trail is no longer regularly maintained, so there are some sketchy parts to follow. However, the bigger problem in the region is the confusing network of snowmobile and game trails. Somehow the pair managed to lose their map, which was tethered to the outside of Knezevich’s pack, and was ripped off, unnoticed during a brushy section. After the loss of their map, they tried to navigate by compass, but became lost on overgrown sections of trail. A three-day search finally ended when a helicopter spotted them waving from a ridgeline, about 1,000 yards off-route near Bingshick Lake, roughly four miles short of the (paved) Gunflint “Trail”, their intended finish. Several search planes had passed nearby, but failed to spot the two. The pair still had some food left.

This pair was fit and prepared, but apparently somewhat careless. Long distance diagnoses are tough, but they probably should have retraced their steps – at least briefly – to find the map once they noticed its loss. They did, however, continue eastward following their compass and trying to stay visible along open ridgelines, secure in the knowledge that they would eventually hit the ‘backstop’ of the Gunflint Trail. However, it seems as if their 10-mile-per-day pace in this country was ambitious – even without the map loss – so that may have contributed to their reluctance to turn around and incur further delay. Dozens of searchers and at least four planes and helicopters were used in the search, which garnered big media coverage.

As always, hike safe. And don’t forget to take your mittens, kiddies. –Steve Howe