Of Outdoor Accidents and Dancing Bears

This Thursday's Round-up brings a trio of instructional accidents, serious tech anticipation, and black bears with mojo

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Welcome to Thursday, beginning with my usual apology about slow postings. Life, work and blogging can be an interesting juggle. Here’s a smattering of hiker-relevant media that hit my radar screen over the last week. First the downer news, then the happy-happy:

Climbing Injuries and ‘Failed’ Equipment

Two climbing-related incidents offer a chance to examine how the media covers mountaineering mishaps.

On Tuesday the 17th, an unidentified 30-ish rock climber in Colorado’s Clear Creek Canyon along Highway 6 near Denver took a 40-foot fall when – according to news reports – his ‘equipment failed.’ He was hospitalized with serious head and other injuries, but is expected to survive. The man was not wearing a helmet at the time, although this can be standard procedure on well-traveled sport climbs. Translation to climber-speak means some of his intermediate protection points (chocks, cams, pitons, or expansion bolts) pulled out of the rock. Technically this is a failure of the ‘placement,’ not the equipment. Non-climbers should realize this is a common mistake in mainstream news reporting.

This mirrors the initial reportage of an event that happened last October when James Welton of Durango fell 300 feet to his death on Zion National Park’s Touchstone Wall (a 1,000-foot big wall climb). He was one of a three-person party climbing the overnight route. Early media reports cited ‘equipment failure,’ and climber message boards echoed with many perfectly plausible explanations for the tragedy. Climbers noted that some of the lighter-weight pulley devices currently in vogue for hauling heavy overnight loads up vertical faces are not rated for extreme weight. No ascenders or ratchet devices are rated for serious impact falls. Neither are the ‘static’ ropes used for caving and hauling. These non-stretch ropes cannot stretch, rubber-band-like, to absorb the huge but short-lived forces of a high-momentum fall.

However, recently-concluded Park Service investigations (go to the March 16th report) showed that the pulley/cam (a Petzl Pro Traxion) had not been properly closed and locked with a carabiner, so the two plate halves of the cam twisted when the device was weighted, allowing 15 feet of static, non-stretch rope to slide through the device. Once the slack tightened, all the impact force was transferred to the cams on Welton’s ascenders, which peeled off the rope’s protective sheath, then chopped the load-bearing core. In fact, the fall was a result of unique and subtle factors on how the party climbed and hauled over two linked pitches, and the general complexity of big wall rope rigging, which can lead the most experienced climbers to miss important details. But again, this was the failure of a rigging system, not equipment per se. While climbing equipment failures do happen, they are extremely rare.

Seven-year-old survives sub-freezing night in Flagstaff Mountains

On the afternoon of Monday, March 16th, a seven-year-old boy became separated from a 13-person hiking group organized by the Coconino Community Guidance Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. The three counselors and 10 youths were hiking on Red Mountain, a volcanic cone located just West of US 180, roughly 30 miles NNW of town. The boy spent a night out in 23F temperatures. Searchers found him in surprisingly decent condition the following afternoon, despite the child being dressed only in light clothing. This was probably not an experienced group of hikers, but the incident illustrates several general cautions for anyone leading or joining group hikes.

[] It’s normal for larger organized parties to have a leader, and a sweep hiker who picks up stragglers. However, that still can’t correct for wrong turns at trail junctions, or parties wandering on less structured routes.

[] Inexpensive two-way radios can help a lot with communications from front to back of a large group.

[] Group leaders, especially those leading younger children, need to have periodic head counts, perhaps every 30 minutes or so. It’s easy to assume an individual is with another subgroup. This has led to numerous disappearances over the years.

[] Always have individuals carry extra food and clothing, even on short walks, which don’t always stay short, especially in the case of brief strolls along the edge of large wildlands.

[] Outdoor education is much in vogue these days and that’s great. However, many organizers still view such field trips as a simple walk into benign and beautiful nature. Leading any group outdoors in an official capacity demands much more planning, in-field organization, and continual caution, than private trips.

[] The old motto ‘safety in numbers’ does not always hold, particularly in groups of novices. Another way of looking at it is; ‘The more people you have, the more chances there are for things to go wrong.’ This is especially true of youth groups, where the children are inherently fascinated by new things, don’t retain directions very well, and may purposefully wander from the group as a resistance to authority.

Good News: Super-fast rechargeable batteries

As originally reported in the science journal Nature, researchers at MIT have developed a way to make lithium-ion batteries recharge much faster – perhaps in as little as 10 to 20 seconds. Lead researcher Gerbrand Ceder noted that improvements are the result of a more porous battery structure that would let free electrons move faster through the medium, not new materials. “If manufacturers decide they want to go down this road, they could so this in a few years,” he told Yahoo news. The next domino that’ll need improving to make this work? Beefier wiring to handle the flow and heat build-up. This discovery has the potential to revolutionize field recharge for items like GPS, iPods, cameras and sat phones. The normal lead time from raw tech developments like this, to their appearance in consumer-level items, is about two to four years.

Good News: New iPhone OS to improve mapping capabilities

For all you iPhone-a-holics, Apple recently conducted another one of their sexy lecture demonstrations on the new iPhone OS 3.0, which will supposedly include better searching (cool), MMS capabilities (cool), and improved onscreen mapping (super cool), among other ostensibly revolutionary capabilities like local-wireless multi-game player networks (yawn), and cut-copy-paste function (wow, the 20th century today). Company representatives noted that many of the new developments have been limited by battery life concerns (memo: Have your geeks get with MIT’s geeks). The new OS will be a free download to iPhone owners, and also loadable onto iPod Touch for $9.95. While competitors continue to meet or exceed some of the iPhone’s versatility, the ubiquitousness of Apple handhelds and music players has led to at least 12 million iPhones being sold since autumn 2008. The upshot: In ten years these things will generate artificial intelligence, blur the line between silicone- and carbon-based life forms, and probably own our monkey a**es. — At least until the batteries die.

Napoleon Who? Black bear with mojo

As a palate-cleanser, check out this YouTube Wildlife Awesomeness, courtesy of the US Geological Survey’s Northern Divide Bear Project. Rest of the story: And then he tried to eat the camera.


Ciao campers. Gotta go work on my moves. Dance safe. –Steve Howe