Early May Rescue Roundup

The perils of group dynamics, overreaching plans, and random sheep

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Hey Readers! Time to catch up on some of the backcountry craziness that’s happened over the last two weeks. I’ll briefly go over the three instructive incidents that hit my inbox. News junkies may have already read about these. Hopefully my analyses will lend further perspective.

Legally blind outdoor editor found after six days lost near the AT

On Sunday, April 26th, Ken Knight, 41, a Production Editor at our erstwhile kinda competitor Backpacking Light Magazine, went missing while on a fast and light group hike of the AT as it parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway through Virginia.

Knight was with a loosely organized, multi-state, 18-person group that had coordinated on the internet. They formed into two parties to hike a 75-mile section of the trail in opposite directions for shuttle purposes. Basically, everyone was on their own during the hike, meeting up each night at campsites or dropping out to find shuttle solutions on their own. In the end, only 7 trekkers completed the entire 75-mile distance. Knight was with the southbound group.

On Sunday, Knight, whose useful vision is limited to objects within 10 or 15 feet, told fellow hikers he wasn’t feeling well and might drop out. Falling behind the group, Knight then missed a trail junction or switchback shortly after leaving Punch Bowl Shelter near the BPRs mile marker 52, enroute to the John’s Hollow Shelter. Apparently Knight didn’t think he’d dropped out, but others assumed he had quit.

Due to non-existent leadership and check-in plans among the impromptu group, no one became alarmed when Knight didn’t meet them at the end-point rendezvous at mile marker 76.3 on Tuesday afternoon, April 28th. However, when Knight missed his airplane flight back home to Ann Arbor, Michigan the next day, it triggered a belated but intensive search that included 130 people, seven dog teams, and three horse-mounted units. By the time searchers hit the trail, Knight had already been lost for four days.

Since Knight was a well-known blogger and editor, the search triggered a frenzy of internet speculation and AT hiker concern. Readers wishing to learn more about the incident can find a ton of message board and internet dispatches.

In the end, it all worked out due to Knight’s preparedness, experience and coping skills. While lost, he managed to follow a stream out of the mountains and end up roughly 9 miles from his last seen point. Knight was eventually found when he started a small brush fire as a signal and was discovered by responding firefighters on May 3rd about 4:30 p.m. He was 300 yards from a road in the Snowdon area near the James River.

Knight had an iPhone for photo, blogging, gps and communication purposes, but rough terrain hindered signals and his battery had died. When found, he was dehydrated and tired, but otherwise uninjured. Knight was surprised to find that the search hadn’t been triggered when he missed the John’s Hollow camp.

I don’t see the lessons here as ‘who did what.’ It’s obvious that no one in Knight’s group took responsibility for their fellow members, but the group was organized primarily as a shuttle arrangement. It’s obvious that Knight might have been better prepared for emergency signaling, but hey, that’s the same with every protracted search. So here’s the upshot:

[] Don’t assume that casual hiking acquaintances are paying attention to your safety. This is the age of hook-ups, and “group” means less than it used to – unfortunately.

[] Virtually all large groups that aren’t restrained by guides or guidelines turn into a jackrabbit race. This devil-take-the-hindmost attitude was built into the Blue Ridge hike, but expect it on all group hikes, then either control it or accept it. Many hikers these days see walking through the woods as some sort of competition, which is egotistically convenient since most ‘competitors’ don’t realize a race is in progress. I personally think that stealth speed demons should join a structured adventure race to measure themselves more accurately against actual competition, but the phenomenon is there, so expect it and be prepared.

[] If you rely on electronics for communication or navigation, always have recharge capacity or spare batteries. Nowadays you can get all sorts of light, cheap ($4 to $25) AA battery adapters to recharge cell phones, smart phones, and gps.

[] It’s high time that wilderness adventurers start considering satellite beacons as mandatory equipment, just like bike helmets. Modern SAR should be about rescue, not protracted searches, and beacons aren’t any more expensive than much of the high tech gear and pricey clothing we take into the woods.

Explorer scout overreaches on a White Mountain adventure

On Saturday, April 25th, at 8:30 a.m., 17-year-old Explorer Scout Scott Mason left the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in New Hampshire, planning on an aggressive 17-mile dayhike that included bagging Mt. Washington, then continuing over Mounts Jefferson, Adams and Madison before returning to Pinkham via the Madison Gulf Trail. Even in normal conditions it was an ambitious itinerary. Mason expected enough snow travel that he brought crampons, snowshoes and an ice axe, despite never having used an axe and crampons before.

Madison’s plans soon went awry due to unseasonably warm, sunny weather that skyrocketed stream flows and softened the snowpack. Temperatures atop snow-covered Mt. Washington hit 56F. While post-holing along, Mason injured his ankle within several hours of leaving Pinkham, and decided to shortcut back via the 6 Husbands Trail, a pre-planned bailout route he had discussed with AMC personnel before leaving.

However, the snow in that area proved waist deep, and runoff beneath the snowpack was knee deep in spots. Figuring the water levels would be higher, lower down in the watershed, Mason attempted a river crossing higher than planned and then ran into stranding difficulties due to steep terrain, deep post-holing, and constant creek crossings.

Mason’s feet soon became soaked despite using plastic bags as liners. He camped two nights in tree wells using a bivy bag for shelter and hand sanitizer as a fire starter. When his descent route remained blocked by high water, Mason decided he had to climb back up Mt. Washington. On Monday he tried signaling to passing helicopters, but they were looking at a lower altitude.

He spent a third night in a rock crevice with solid wind-protection and slept well past daybreak. He was spotted on Tuesday morning as he was nearing Mt. Washington’s summit, about 45 minutes out from the weather observatory and parking lot. Searchers loaded Mason into a snowcat and took him down. He was fine other than general exhaustion and slight frostnip on his feet. If he hadn’t been found, Mason probably would have self-evacuated.

Mason seems like a smart young kid, and he taught younger scouts survival and wilderness skills. Comments he made after being rescued indicate he learned much from the experience and will probably grow to become a capable outdoor adventurer. But his epic raises several cautions:

[] His itinerary was unrealistic, especially given the conditions. These days, people toss around talk of 30-mile day hikes and 24-hour speed climbs very casually. Unless the trail is groomed or you routinely train by doing similar mileages and projects, disregard these often-exaggerated examples. Even when people do those mileages and speed climbs, it’s usually on trips they’ve already done.

[] Aspiring climbers often tackle big projects in first-time-I’ve-ever-tried-that style. Learn skills in a controlled setting before attempting to apply them in high adventure situations. Novices (though not necessarily Mason) also tend to have their egos tied up in climber-as-hero concepts like perseverance and failure, which often lead them to push rather than change plans. The fact that Mason ran into problems while attempting to retreat, not ascend, is unusual.

[] Mason had discussed his planned bail-out route, but taking shortcuts to get back on- or off-route is one of the biggest reasons hikers get lost. If possible, always retrace your inbound tracks.

[] Knowing wilderness and survival skills is important, but knowing how to recognize and avoid problems in the first place is much more important. Caution and smarts make far more difference than shelter-building and fire-starting skills. Once the dominoes start toppling, your control of the situation is largely gone, and luck often matters more than preparedness or ‘survivor mentality.’ This is not a popular view in adventure media (witness all the survival shows and books) but it’s the truth.

[] Aerial searches miss people all the time. Signal as aggressively, brightly, and obnoxiously as possible.

[] Conditions are everything in mountaineering, and there’s more to conditions than just nice weather, which tends to make people careless. In this case, high temperatures created high avalanche danger and sketchy river crossings during the search. Mason is lucky not to have triggered a snow slide while thrashing steep terrain.

Tucson backpacker injured in wildlife-induced rockfall

On Saturday, May 9th, a 43-year-old Tucson, Arizona man camped near the Verde River/Fossil Creek confluence was struck on the head and neck by rockfall dumped into his camp by desert bighorn sheep. His two companions managed to dodge the fusillade, but the man was knocked unconscious, and seriously disoriented once he came to. One companion hiked out five miles to get a cell signal and call for assistance. The victim was evacuated by helicopter.

Just a heads up for you wildlife watchers: One of my closest near-death experiences occurred in similar fashion. I was sitting at the base of a cliff band, shooting photos amid a herd of mountain goat nannies and their kids, when several billies on the cliff brink above dropped a massive rockfall on top of me and the herd. The huge blocks missed me, but several nannies were struck. Bighorn and mountain goats are excellent climbers, but not particularly tidy. Their ovid brains have no concept of rockfall hazard, so never get below them in potentially dangerous terrain. I’m surprised accidents like this don’t happen more often in wildlife watching hotspots like Glacier and Denali.

Hike safe out there. — Steve Howe