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Late September Digestation

Chaotic insights on gear testing, Colorado growth, senior hiking mayhem and Germanic adventure.

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Hola campers. Focused thought is an unaffordable luxury in my present situation, so consider this post a train-of-thought digest.

Our Rocky Mountain National Park gear testing festival went off without a hitch, although managing (attempting to manage) so much gear and so many people -most of whom are simply ecstatic to be liberated from the office – is kind of like driving a herd of cats on LSD. You pitchfork all the gear out of your truck, keep prompting folks to look at gear details and fill out the test forms, but everyone’s too busy laughing, hiking, oohing, aaahing, and whittling away at the impressive assortment of liqeurs that magically appear. But somehow, in the end, it all works out. Still, looking over the test forms, I get a taste of what school teachers see when grading homework.

I was going to try bagging a 14er on the way back to Torrey – perhaps Mt. of the Holy Cross, just to see how so many people can get lost or injured on a Class II trail hike – Then I made the mistake of checking my e-mail (Yuppie Alert! Starbucks now charges for WiFi!!! That shit ain’t right!!!) so deadline angst sent me flying back West along the I-70 corridor, fighting for survival in the 90mph racetrack flow of Cadillac SUVs, F350 welding trucks, and Halliburton drill crews that define Colorado West Slope traffic. Seeing the cancerous growth that’s overtaken Estes Park was another shock. Trophy retirement homes have covered the hillsides, and I estimate the average age of hikers on the trail was about 70. Not to bash the homeland of the Johns (Denver and Elway) and Coors beer, but I’m glad I bailed from the Mile High State in 1979. It’s a poor fit for my misanthropic character.

On the survival scene, my SAR e-mail alerts are slowing down as autumn begins and backcountry user numbers taper off. Fine by me, the endless train of tragedies – most of them easily preventable – was getting depressing. The majority of recent events have involved senior solo hikers doing things like disappearing into jungle, plunging into ravines, or sliding into crevasses while traveling glacier icefalls with their ice axe stowed (sorry, that’s super dumb). As in most news reports, the victims are described as ‘experienced and fit,’ with varying degrees of accuracy.

I recently passed the 54-year-old age mark, so I feel somewhat qualified to comment on the age situation, especially since the majority SAR events this summer have involved folks over 50 (which is in line with trail numbers. I rarely see 20- or 30-year-olds far from a trailhead anymore, unless they’re in a university, NOLS, Outward Bound, hoods-in-the-woods, or Christian youth group).

Aging no longer means the same as it did for previous generations. People who are 70-plus are regularly running marathons and riding century bike tours. But regardless of how fit or experienced older athletes are, their (our) bones are more brittle, the joints less flexible, the reactions slower, the heart and lungs less capable of anaerobic overdrive. The margin of safety is narrower. The ability to push through an emergency less sure. And often we’re struggling with pre-existing chronic injuries.

Far be it from me to say oldsters shouldn’t go for it, since I hope to end my own life’s novel in some distant wilderness, fighting to keep from – in the old mountain man expression – “going under”. But often, the hiking attitude of seniors is just plain careless. They tend to travel in ultralight style in order to keep joint and aerobic stress down. And the first thing most ultralight hikers ditch is their First Aid and emergency gear, justifying that with the pat slogan “substitute experience for equipment.” Sounds good, but like most slogans, it doesn’t really compute on the reality scale. If you’re a geezer jock in the woods, take a reliable emergency beacon, extra meds for any condition you might have, and a real First Aid Kit – Period.

Indeed, many of the recent incidents seem to resemble wind up toys walking off the table top, or poodles escaping from the yard. In fact, the only interesting or instructive SAR item I’ve seen recently is the case of Michael Raster, a 43-year-old German solo trekker who failed to show up at his bush plane rendezvous in the remote Muskwa-Kachika region of British Columbia’s northern Rockies – after a 40-day, 93-mile cross-country solo trip from Tuchodi Lakes to Frog Lake. Search efforts are underway, although aerial spotting in such conditions is a stretch. Planes miss frantically signalling people all the time.

The 15.5-million acre Muskwa-Kachika conservation area is where the Rockies proper taper off on their northern end, while blending westward into the Coast Ranges of the British Columbia/Alaska panhandle border. I haven’t been in the M-K, but looking at photos of the region, it’s a virtual twin of the Northwest Territory’s Mackenzie Range, which Drew Ross and I trekked through for nearly three weeks, 13 years ago. Subarctic mountains like that are massive but generally traversable, with alternating pockets of marsh, tussock tundra, deep muskeg moss carpets, and plentiful talus hopping on the heights. There are boucoup bears, and often big river crossings. Lots of alder thicket thrashing, deafall to cross, and squishy terrain that’s slow and wet.

Raster’s plan – 40 days for 93 miles – is an emminently doable pace. I’ve crossed similar ranges in the Arrigetch, Tordrillos, Chugach and Wrangells and generally budget eight miles per day as an average in such conditions. That allows for weather, swamps, river level delays, and the usual myriad of routefinding surprises. Whenever possible, I have the pilot overfly my route before actually dropping me off, while I trace our flight on the map and pencil in the often rude awakenings such scouting flights reveal. If the feasibility is a joke (and it often is) I’ve already got a shorter or simpler alternate route handy, so I can change plans literally on the fly. That’s saved me some serious epics.

News reports note that Raster had map and gps, but no gun or pepper spray. Frankly, the bear fighting gear is a non-issue if Raster traveled noisily. I’ve never had a nasty bear encounter in remote wilderness. Aside from hiking near salmon streams, such encounters are far more probable in front country, where the Yogis are habituated or food-conditioned. But I do a lot of hollering around streams or thickets, and anytime I’m traveling into a headwind. It’s far more probable that Raster is just running late (although his planned pace was glacially slow), or he broke a leg scrambling through deadfall timber, or got swept on a river crossing. If he got swept, he may have lost gear and currently be doing a Jeremiah Johnson epic. These scenarios happen so often in the northern boreal forests that they barely make the local pub gossip, much less the news wires. But Raster’s 40-day time frame is exceptional, especially since he was solo, had no communications, and no bush plane check scheduled enroute.

The biggest question I have is how Raster planned to feed himself for 40 days with no resupply. The average hiking rations weigh 1.5 to 2.5 pounds per man day, so his food weight alone would be between 60 and 100 pounds. Logistically, that’s a no-go in rough XC conditions. If his food weight was 60 pounds, he was traveling hungry. If it was 100 pounds, he was struggling every time the terrain got rough, and log hopping would have been treacherously dangerous. It’s possible Raster planned to supplement his rations with berries and fish, but that’s a foolish proposition. Aboriginal hunter/gatherers let local and seasonal food availability – not adventure planning – determine where, when and how they traveled. And the Tarzan/lone wolf model of survival is a myth. Only tribal support makes long-term aboriginal survival possible in the spare resource setting of subarctic mountains where fish are often absent, berry crops are localized, and birds are unavailable unless you’re humping a shotgun. Native tribes in such regions also had intimate local knowledge built up over generations, yet starvation was a constant threat.

But Germans often engage in remote wilderness thru-journeys that make us North Americans look like pussies. And anyone who sucks it up and makes such an attempt at REAL adventure has my profound respect. It has always been a surprise to me how much people talk about wilderness, and how seldom they punch into the real deal. Not so for Raster. So, he may surprise everyone by emerging disheveled and skeletal, but alive. Then again, he may already be compost or raven scat, and his story never known. That’s the game, and its rules, in true wil-deor-ness, “the place of wild beasts”. No worries following up on Raster’s tale. If he emerges from the wild, you’ll be hearing about him everywhere from CNN to Oprah. He’s been neck deep in howling wilderness since August 1st. Bergheil dude! And I sincerely hope you’re OK.

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