Smarten up

A smarmy checklist of 8 steps that would prevent most searches, rescues and deaths in the woods

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Hey campers, I’ve been reviewing the summer’s more interesting and/or instructional rescue incidents and basically yawning over 95% of them. Not to minimize the pain, suffering and pathos of the several dozen unfortunates who died or were injured by falls, heat stroke, hypothermia, or kayaking accidents this summer, but the vast majority of mayhem was caused by what park rangers call ‘vacation brain’, and what outdoor writers call ‘the naturalist’s trance.’

Basically, you’re in the glorious outdoors, ecstatic to get away from urban or career hell, and you relax, watching the clouds, listening to bird calls, rippling water, and wind blowing through the pines. And then suddenly it’s dusk, you’re not sure where you are, the temperature’s dropping, and it’s started to rain. All of a sudden nature’s not so fun.

This does not just occur to urban refugees btw; The modern ski-town crop of lycra-sheathed hardbodies has had their share of ‘training mishaps’ this summer, setting off on hammer trail runs without map, compass or awareness, and scrambling peaks in ultralight, ultra-clueless style.

Since survival is all about avoiding survival scenarios, not perservering through them, it’s fairly easy to stay out of trouble (most of the time) using a few simple measures. This is not rocket science:

[] Never assume that expertise will keep you safe. That attitude is just a clue that you’re not as experienced as you think. Arrogance is no substitute for awareness and preparedness. Expertise and ability just mean you push harder to get the same challenge, so you end up walking the same fine line as a scared newbie.

[] Don’t drop into la la mode, especially if you’re traveling solo. At the very least, you’ve got to surface for air every now and then to take some bearings. Get in the habit of turning around every 5-10 minutes and looking at your route from the 180 view. This simple measure would save A TON of hikers from getting lost every year.

[] If you get disoriented, always retrace your steps to get back on track. Never shortcut from a point you’re not sure of, trying to get back on-route. It’s the surest way to get lost.

The above two points go double for peak-baggers, many of whom aren’t paying attention to route details on the way up because of ‘summit hypnosis’ – always looking up, never looking around. On peaks, all routes converge toward the summit, and diverge on descent. Hence many baggers descend the wrong ridge into an epic. Even when they think they’re offroute, they’re too tired to climb back up, so they try to correct by continuing their descent, resulting in a sweaty, shivery, hypothermic overnight. Many peak baggers also assume that their descent will be much faster than the climb, but on rougher terrain, up- and down-times are often very similar. Brief Note: Variations on these principles apply to Grand Canyon hikers as well.

[] Take some freakin’ gear. I mean really, a 5-pound day pack isn’t that painful to haul, or even run with, but some folks act like it’s torture. Toss in some extra clothes including a rain shell, a map and compass, a butane cigarette lighter, a headlamp, and perhaps a cell phone, pocket flares, or an emergency beacon.Yes, you could and should do the whole Ten Essentials thing, but we should all exercise every morning at 6 a.m., avoid processed carbs, and go to the dentist twice a year too. The above items would allow most people to avoid, or survive, an unplanned overnight.

[] Know the weather report. It’s amazing how many hikers set out totally unaware that a storm’s coming in that afternoon. This goes double for Pacific Northwesterners, for whom afternoon fog is a steady diet, and Rocky Mountain types who have to dodge hail and lightning by 2 p.m. on most days.

[] Have a plan, or at least a memory. Most people who get lost are just ‘out hiking’. They’re not sure where they’re going. They don’t know the surrounding area or its trail network. They just want to walk in the woods. That’s cool, but If you didn’t start with a plan, at least remember what you’ve done during the day. i.e. “I walked for 20 minutes down the valley, then turned right onto a trail by that cairn and climbed through the forest for an hour…” That way you have at least a prayer of backtracking.

If you’ve got bigger goals, you’ve got to actually plan them out. Have a thumbnail list of what you’ll do for the day, and check that off mentally as you move. i.e. “Hike 4 miles east up the valley. Turn right/south at the pass and continue past the head of two gullies. Then turn left/east and climb ridgeline to summit. Descend same way.” Then, if you don’t start passing your checkpoints, you’ll know you’re off-route.

[] Don’t scramble unroped on cliffs, drop-offs or snowfields, especially if you’re alone. Solo scrambling can be fun and exhilarating, and a lot of aspiring mountaineers get into it, but climbing down is always more sketchy than climbing up, and “Third Classing” is never even remotely safe, regardless of your experience. Everybody’s Joe or Jane Mountaineer until the handhold crumbles. Keep in mind that climbing magazines are one of the few publishing genres that have, and regularly fill, obituary columns. And the eulogies almost always include the sentence “I never thought this would happen to…”

[] Last but not least, don’t be afraid to dial back your plans. Nobody really cares if you summit that 14er this week, or turn around on your 30-mile point-to-point trail run. And you shouldn’t either. We all read about rough-tough athletes and their accomplishments, and assume that they never fail simply because the failures don’t get published. Even Reinhold Messner, the first mountaineer to climb all eight thousand meter Himalayan summits, had to try Makalu three times before he succeeded, and Lance Armstrong rode at least four Tour de France’s and a cancer recovery before he won the big seven. You might have to do likewise. Patience, grasshoppah.

So, that’s a quick, off-the-cuff list of steps that would have prevented 95% of the SAR incidents and accidents that occurred over the summer busy season. I’ll briefly review the other items: Hot/cold weather deaths, kayak drownings on lakes, rivers and oceans, and Grand Canyon fatalities, in my next post.

Until then, have fun, smarten up, and hike safe. — Steve Howe