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Personality and the Accident Victim

Two radically different incidents illustrate that it’s about us more than the wilderness

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I often remember what Teton climbing ranger, Utah avalanche forecaster, and super-experienced SAR veteran Tom Kimbrough once told me: “Often its not about the weather, or the country, or the terrain an accident happens in, its about the circumstances of the victim, or the factors in their personality, that drive them into a search or rescue situation.” Since then, I’ve seen the truth of that statement in numerous wilderness accidents, and particularly disappearances. Eccentricity, ego, ambition, spirituality and like traits, are often a contributing factor – along with weather, and even plain dumb luck.

And while I can’t say for sure, personality and motivation might well be contributors in the following incident, where Patrick Higgins (52) is currently missing in Hell’s Canyon between Boulder and EstesPark. Rather than comment directly, I’ll simply refer you, the reader, to the workshop he was attending when he set off. Since the area is steep and craggy, and Higgins set out for a short solo hike but has been missing overnight and not yet found despite a significant search, I sincerely hope he’s OK. Such scenarios often portend tragic falls.

The same principle, in a completely different vein, also factors in to the death of long-time mountain guide George Gardner (58).

The ultra-experienced Gardner fell and died on Saturday, July 19th, while soloing the Grand Teton’s Lower Exum Ridge (5.7/5.8). As stated in the NPS Morning Report for Wednesday, July 23rd , Gardner took of on a quick training round-trip after settling clients into the Lower Saddle camp so they could rest for a predawn start next morning. Apparently this is not uncommon for guides taking groups up the standard Exum and Owens-Spalding routes. His body was found the following morning. Gardner had 28 years of guiding under his belt, and numerous ascents and ski descents in the Tetons, South America and the Himalaya.

Fellow guides say the route was well within his soloing capabilities, but also reported a freak high wind gust during the evening. This incident illustrates the all-consuming passion that many mountaineers have, their mental ability to accept unbelievable risk, and the committing nature of high-angle soloing. We all make mistakes, but in this game, they’re not allowed, and the slightest variation in weather or route conditions can radically change the bet in mid-game.

Ever since talking with Kimbrough years ago, every now and then I do a mental review of how I look at wilderness adventure, and what I’m in it for. It’s a worthwhile check for anyone, regardless of their experience level. Hike safe. –Steve Howe

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