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Civilization's Edge

The death of an Ultimate Fighting Champion illustrates the firm line between society and wildland

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Sometime last weekend former UFC middleweight champion Evan Tanner (37) died of heat stroke and dehydration in temperatures estimated at 110F or over, after his motorcycle quit during a casual campout in the Mojave Desert of southern California.

Tanner had talked about his plans for a solo camping retreat on his blog. Initially he discussed going someplace so remote that any equipment failure might be fatal. When comment boards rang with concern, Tanner dialed back the rhetoric saying “…my plan is to go out to the desert, do some camping, ride the motorcycle, and shoot some guns. Sounds like a lot of fun to me. A lot of people do it. This isn’t a version of “Into the Wild”. I’m not going out into the desert with a pair of shorts and a bowie knife, to try to live off the land. I’m going fully geared up, and I’m planning on having some fun.”

Tanner called himself a philosopher and poet more than a fighter, and often went into the desert for solitude, scenery and good dirt biking. He left last Friday, but friends became concerned when the normally communicative Tanner’s text messages quit. Imperial Co. Sheriffs and a helicopter from the Marine Corps base in Yuma, AZ began searching, and found his body on Monday night in the Palo Verde Valley region near Blythe, California. Tanner’s bike was found several miles away. Searchers speculate that his bike broke down and Tanner died of hyperthermia while trying to walk to safety. The Palo Verde Valley along the California/Arizona border contains a lot of irrigated farmland, but most of the region is ultra-hot, low-elevation “Colorado Desert.” (This is a subregion of the Mojave, and different from the Colorado Plateau/ “Four Corners” slickrock country). The Colorado Desert subregion is North America’s hottest and driest landscape.

Evan Tanner was tough, tougher than John Wayne and Chuck Norris combined. While his career had peaked, Tanner was still a highly trained athlete – a full-on, no-holds-barred, martial arts gladiator. Yet he died on a casual campout in his desert backyard only a couple hours from L.A.. This incident harkens back to an offhand comment in my last post about learning to respect your backyard. No one can deal with exercise in 110F to 115F temperatures and full sun. Even sitting still in such conditions can eventually result in heat stroke. Without fans, AC, a ton of heat acclimatization, and an endless stream of mint juleps, it’s like being in an oven version of The Death Zone, but with less survival time. In the end, Tanner’s mention of how equipment failure might be fatal was tragically spot on.

There’s a survival concept I call ‘over the edge’, and it’s very common. People get into a car, onto a bike or walk a local trail, and head into the woods assuming it’s no big deal, just daily life. And usually it is. But the protective bubble of technology that normally surrounds us is suddenly gone, and that means the risks and rules have changed radically. It’s one thing to enjoy a hot summer day in the cooling wind of your motorcycle, but without the technology – and emergency gear – you’re like an astronaut without a space suit, a diver without an Aqualung. Heat stroke fatalities happen all the time in places like Death Valley when visitors take a short stroll from their car and cook faster than microwave popcorn.

Similar fatalities are equally common in winter situations. Most readers remember the Kim incident in Oregon, where CNET tech blogger James Kim, along with his wife and two children, became stranded while attempting to drive the remote Bear Camp Road  through national forest land in Oregon, in a developing blizzard, after missing a turnoff to the resort town of Gold Beach. Kim died while trying to walk out for help.

What’s less known is that two other similar incidents happened on that same road in previous years. In 1994, RV salesman Dewitt Finley got stranded in a camper on a side spur and died of starvation after nine weeks. The journal he left behind indicated that he never attempted to reach safety, but prayed constantly. In March of 2006, six members of an Oregon family, the Stivers, were also stranded on Bear Camp Road, again in a motorhome. For two weeks they watched satellite TV reports of the search to find them. Eventually two hiked out for help and made it.

Nor is Bear Camp Road the only scene for such epics. In late February of 2003, George Metcalfe (26) of London, U.K. and Rachel Crowley (27) of Quincy, Massachussetts became stranded on the graded dirt Cottonwood Wash Road in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument while attempting to shortcut toward Zion National Park. Their rented Jeep 4WD became bogged in deep snow. The pair had nothing but urban street clothes and a few snacks. They huddled in the soft top Jeep for five days, then tried to hike out. Metcalfe was found by ranchers on ATVs, 15 miles from the jeep, and 11 miles from Crowley’s body.

Several years prior to this, another family had become stranded in the uber-remote Jarbidge country of northern Nevada after changing vacation plans. They’d told relatives they would drive west for a Thanksgiving reunion via Interstate 80, but instead took ultra-isolated backroads and were caught by a violent but long predicted autumn storm. The husband survived, but with significant frostbite. His wife died while waiting underneath a tree, but her baby survived from the warmth of her body.

Several current searches further illustrate how commonly people walk off civilization’s edge. At least four senior hikers have disappeared on short strolls and dog walks in South Africa, California, Minnesota and Hawaii. Children and young adults get lost on short strolls from campsites all the time. And Tanner’s tragic demise evaporates the assumption that being tough can pull you through – Only being prepared can do that.

“Assume the best, prepare for the worst” is a good rule to follow, even on the most casual of journeys. Because in the woods – even backyard woods – it’s always heads up time.

Hike safe.–Steve Howe

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