SURVIVE: If I Only Knew Then…

Three decades of trial and error from our favorite battle-scarred adventurer.

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If I Only Knew Then (Feature Narrative) | Recognize Grizzly Behavior | Save Yourself in Whitewater | First Aid Emergencies | Unsafe Snow Conditions | Unexpected Accidents | Make Good Judgment Calls

I had a large bulge the size of a peach protruding from my groin. I knew where the hernia came from: carrying too many heavy packs. It first popped out when I volunteered to throw the backpack of a sick teammate atop my already monstrous load. Combined weight: 130 pounds [1]. The initial extrusion was only the size of a marble, and I pushed it right back in. Of course, the next time I hefted a heavy pack, the little sucker popped right out again. I plugged it back in. Over the course of a couple years and half a dozen expeditions, the hernia grew larger and larger. Then one day in the doc’s office for a check-up, I dropped my pants and he gasped.

[1] Yes, we know heavy packs are often unavoidable on long or gear-intensive trips. But prevent a hernia—and embarrassing bulges—by carrying no more than one-third of your body weight for extended periods. And don’t injure your back while hoisting a heavy load; bring it up to bended knee first, then slip into the shoulder straps.

[2] Wet skin loses heat about 30 times faster than
dry skin. In subfreezing temps, moderate your pace and layers so you don’t get wet from sweat.

“How long have you had this?”

I mumbled.

“Don’t you know they can strangulate and kill you?”


Straight to surgery, where they put my insides back inside, found two more hernias in my belly button, laid in a swatch of nylon mesh, and stitched me back up.

When I came to, I was lying in a hospital bed next to a kid with no toes. He asked me what happened, and I told him I’d been stupid. I asked what had happened to him and he said, “Same here.”

The kid had gotten his truck stuck in the snow, and he decided to leave it and go hunting anyway. He was wearing insulated packboots, but the snow was deep. He walked all day and never saw a single elk. Without gaiters, snow flipped inside his boots, but since his feet were warm from walking, the snow just melted. By nightfall, his boot liners and socks were soaked. [2] When he got back to the truck, he had to dig it out, which took a long time, and he failed to notice that his feet were freezing.

If I Only Knew Then (Feature Narrative) | Recognize Grizzly Behavior | Save Yourself in Whitewater | First Aid Emergencies | Unsafe Snow Conditions | Unexpected Accidents | Make Good Judgment Calls

Admittedly, I’ve learned most things the hard way. For a number of years, this was a matter of pride. Now that I’ve grown older, I see it largely as a matter of extended adolescent hubris. Fact is, you don’t have to learn everything yourself—that’s what all those other jokers are out there for. My friends and I used to quip that the greatest asset of a good mountaineer is a bad memory—you know, the worse the trip the better the story. And although it’s fine to forget all the suffering, you should strive to remember lessons that might mitigate future misery.

For instance, once upon a time, my wife Sue and I were arrested on Mt. Kilimanjaro for an illegal ascent (guilty as charged). The park police frog-marched us 25 miles in one day to the warden’s office. We didn’t whine. We wanted to show them that we had no trouble keeping up. And we didn’t. But Sue severely blistered the bottoms of both feet. They were flayed. Looked as if they’d been whipped. It took her weeks to heal. Had we just said, “Hey, we need a break,” regularly chilled our feet in Kili streams, applied moleskin, and donned clean socks, that wouldn’t have happened. Pride goeth before the fall.

But it doesn’t have to. I’ve actually seen regular people learn by example. Some years ago, Sue and I climbed Aconcagua together. In basecamp, after the summit, we met two boys from Chicago. I don’t think either of them was 21. They were heading up the mountain, we were heading down. They took a long time setting up their tent, as if they’d never done it before. Later that night, we overheard them struggling to get their stove going. Eventually, I ducked my head into their tent and asked if they’d like a little help. Instead of puffing up their chests and telling me to mind my own business, as I might have done at their age, they said, “Sure.”

Once their stove was roaring, they cooked a freeze-dried meal for four (which they didn’t know would hardly serve two), invited us over for dinner, and we got to talking. One had once hiked a Fourteener, the other had never even been backpacking. This was their first mountain climb. “Figured we might as well start big.”

Their gear still had the price tags. Sue asked them how they had prepared for this expedition and they explained, with straight faces, that they’d spent one night in a meat locker in downtown Chicago.

The next morning, the notorious viento blanco struck Aconcagua. It was howling at basecamp. Up high, you could clearly see the summit capped in a jet-smooth, snow-white lenticular. The boys from Chicago were bewildered when we told them viento blanco winds could reach 100 mph. Sue and I advised them against going up.

For the rest of the day, as we packed up, we could hear them debating. A donkey passed by carrying an Austrian climber with frostbitten feet. He’d worn single-leather boots to the summit. We’d seen him at a high camp and warned him that plastic double-boots were essential, but he’d snorted, “I never use them in the Alps!”

As we were leaving, the Chicagoans walked over to shake our hands.

“Thanks for the advice,” one said.

“We’ve decided this trip is a reconnaissance,” said the other. “We’re not going for the summit, we’re just going to learn everything we can.”

Can you believe it? Climbers are never so humble.

If I Only Knew Then (Feature Narrative) | Recognize Grizzly Behavior | Save Yourself in Whitewater | First Aid Emergencies | Unsafe Snow Conditions | Unexpected Accidents | Make Good Judgment Calls

Humility. I wish I had more of it, as that’s what I’ve needed most on more than one occasion.

Case in point: There was a time when I thought I knew the mountains in my Wyoming backyard so well I couldn’t possibly get lost. To test this theory, Sue and I set out in a blizzard one afternoon. I knew where I was going the whole time. Never once looked at the map or compass. Around midday we stopped, got out the compass, and something was awry. The needle was pointing the wrong direction. I told Sue I was sure the compass was broken. She looked at me quizzically.

[3] Called bending the map, this is a classic mistake made by lost hikers. Be realistic about what you see, not what you want to see. Elevation can be a dead giveaway when you’re bending the map; use an altimeter to check your altitude against where you think you are. Trust your instruments.

[4] You can use this leapfrogging technique in a whiteout, as well, even with no trees. Send your partner ahead on the correct bearing. When he’s almost out of sight, have him stop, then walk to his location and repeat.

[5] Stay tuned to where you are on a map by constantly checking your location using “handrails” like rivers and ridges. Can’t place yourself? Triangulate your precise position by identifying two distant landmarks (like peaks) and taking a bearing to them. Transfer the bearing to your map. You’re standing where the lines intersect.

[6] These are not widely available in the wild. If you find one and need help, don’t scare her away by approaching too quickly.

[7] But emergency snow trenches are not. Just scoop out a trough in the snow, line the bottom with tree branches or your pack or bag, climb in, and cover the top. You can do the same with a tree well. Both will protect you from wind, if that’s your main concern. But beware: Snow sloughing off branches could bury you.

We continued on our course until late afternoon. I did an impressive job of making the landscape fit what I thought should be there. [3] I occasionally identified obvious landmarks, even though we should have arrived at our destination hours earlier. It began to snow so hard that the forest became dark. Expecting our jaunt to be a dayhike, I’d failed to bring a headlamp. Before being doused by snowflakes, my lighter revealed that the compass was still pointing in the wrong direction. We spent the entire night taking bearings from one tree to the next to get back out. [4] We crossed country that looked utterly unfamiliar, terrain where I had spent years. My shame was so great, Sue never said a word.

In serious backcountry travel, an orienteering compass is your most important piece of gear. Learn how to use it, and always believe it. [5] After I fully accepted this, wilderness veteran Ken Cramer and I skied the length of the Wind River Mountains along the Continental Divide, and even in snowstorms we were never more than 50 feet off course.

We used a tent on that Winds trip, unlike my first traverse of the grand range, when I took a tarp. At that time, backpackers were all bragging about the beauty of the tarp. The first night, I draped it over a boulder and spent an hour lining the edges with rocks, and I was still eaten alive by mosquitoes. By morning, my entire body was covered with itchy, red bumps.

The second night, I used my trekking poles to hold up the tarp. It started pouring at dusk and didn’t stop until dawn. By midnight, there was a slurry of sleet running beneath my sleeping bag. I only kept from dying of hypothermia by viciously scratching my mosquito bites.

The third night, the wind was so strong that the tarp flapped itself to death: It tore in two and was quickly shredded. Thank God! I bummed a bunk from a pigtailed college girl who’d been smart enough to bring a tent. [6] 

Take-away: Tarps work perfectly when you don’t need any shelter. Get a sub-five-pound, two-person, double-wall tent and rejoice. (Also worth noting: Two bivy sacks are the same weight as a tent, and waterproof/breathable tents don’t work in warm rain.) And while I’m on the subject of shelters: Unless you’re building a basecamp, snow caves are nonsense. [7]

If I Only Knew Then (Feature Narrative) | Recognize Grizzly Behavior | Save Yourself in Whitewater | First Aid Emergencies | Unsafe Snow Conditions | Unexpected Accidents | Make Good Judgment Calls

Avoid losing your partners. I once temporarily lost a buddy in the Wind River Range. We went climbing, and he went photographing. The plan was to meet back at camp for dinner. He never showed. We strapped on headlamps and did a cursory search, but we had no idea where he’d gone. At breakfast, he wandered into camp looking haggard. He’d gotten lost, been benighted, and huddled beneath a boulder until the morning.

Same thing happened on the north face of Everest. A certain team member always got off to a ridiculously late start. One day, he didn’t make it back to camp. It was snowing dogs and doilies, as the Norwegians say. At 9 p.m., we had a team meeting and decided to give him until midnight. At 12 a.m., we met again and only two of us voted to go look for him. A beastly blizzard was raging at that point, and most of the team believed it was too dangerous to be wandering around on a glacier that was already landmined with crevasses and seracs. The two of us set out swinging our headlamps and screaming our heads off, but we didn’t make it far before realizing that the others had been right. We retreated.

[8] Sitting on your hands reduces circulation, speeding frostbite. Keep your extremities insulated and close to your core, if possible.

[9] Unfortunately, wood is usually wet and cold when you need an emergency fire. Look for dry stuff off the ground (A, B), inside soaked limbs (use a knife to peel away the outer bark), and in stumps (C) that are full of flammable pine resin.

Sometime after lunch, our teammate found his way back to camp. He’d sat out the blizzard, literally and stupidly sitting on his hands to keep his ass from freezing, and had frostbite. [8] We were just glad he was alive.

The point? Searching for someone lost in the mountains at night is dubious at best. Everyone in your party should know beforehand what to do if they get lost: Stop, keep yourself warm (often you can build a fire if you’ve had sense enough to carry a lighter) [9], wait for morning. Don’t worry about food; you can go days without it. You need water, but not much.

Which brings me to one of my pet peeves: sleeping late. If you can’t get your ass out of the sack at 4 a.m., you can’t be a mountain climber. If you can’t get your ass up at 6 a.m., you can’t be a backpacker. Go home. Try bowling. Take up golf.

And this foolishness about not bringing a watch into the wilderness in order to be one with nature: Spare me. Casio 50m: $20, waterproof, light, alarm, stopwatch.

Not that an early start—or experience—can always save you. Consider avalanches, for example: I’ve taken avalanche courses, and I know how to dig a pit and I know the difference between TG and ET and MF metamorphism. So I’m not an idiot, and yet I’ve been caught in avalanches. Just because there is no evidence of recent avalanches, doesn’t mean it can’t suddenly happen. I once put a camp at the base of a face in Sichuan, China. We dug out a tent platform on a cone of ancient avalanche debris. Nothing had slid here for ages. That night a freakishly warm wind swept in, and the cornices 4,000 feet above us started avalanching. Chunks of ice tore through our tent.

And just because there is no known history of avalanches, that doesn’t mean, with the right conditions, they can’t happen. While I was ice climbing with a close friend in Wyoming two years ago, we were hit by an unprecedented avalanche. Unbeknownst to us, contrary winds had built a giant, precarious cornice over the previous few years. I lived, he didn’t.

And just to be clear, there’s precious little consolation in the notion that someone died doing what he loved. When friends are dead, they’re not here. For themselves, for their families, for their buddies. Forever.

If I Only Knew Then (Feature Narrative) | Recognize Grizzly Behavior | Save Yourself in Whitewater | First Aid Emergencies | Unsafe Snow Conditions | Unexpected Accidents | Make Good Judgment Calls

[10] Show off your survival IQ with this emergency compass: Rub a needle with a magnet, set it on a floating leaf, and it’ll point north. Keep a magnetized needle in your first-aid kit and use this party trick if cloud cover eliminates help from the stars, sun, and moon.

[11] Going on a long trek or to a remote location far from medical help? Talk to your family doc about getting a versatile antibiotic to treat infections. Example: Z-Pack.

[12] Avoid spreading germs. Don’t share water bottles, put hands in the gorp bag, or cook without first cleaning your hands with a sanitizer.

[13] Cold hands and no gloves? Use a spare pair of socks or pull your hands inside your jacket sleeves; or let your sleeves hang empty and pull your hands and arms inside, close to your torso.

There’s considerable machismo that gilds outdoor pursuits—I’ve certainly been accused of having more brawn than brains myself. And while I gratefully acknowledge that being tough is useful now and again, being smart is surprisingly valuable. [10]

I remember telling a fellow climber high in the Himalayas that I didn’t bother with sunscreen; a week later my lower lip had split open down to my chin. I remember bragging to a buddy in the Congo that I didn’t use deet because insects didn’t bother me; a week later my hands were swollen like baked bread from a billion bug bites, my face puffy with sweat bee stings, my ass full of African ticks. In Switzerland, I mocked a hiker with trekking poles, then immediately hyperextended my knee for my blasphemy, and have used poles ever since. Once in Siberia, I failed to bring personal antibiotics and got a staph infection [11], which ballooned into full-body sepsis that almost killed me (no hyperbole; I had kankles, and the Russian doc said I was less than 24 hours from buying the farm). I’ve been known to boast that I have an iron stomach, and can eat and drink anything. I’ve also had it coming out both ends so explosively I was a fountain of filth.

Having gone 73 days without bathing, I know for a fact you can get by with bad hygiene. However, I’ve been on several expeditions where one person has spread his ghastly germs to everyone else. Wash your goddamn hands when you take a crap! Alas, since some people won’t or don’t. Bringing along a bottle of hand disinfectant isn’t a bad idea, as well as a course of antibiotics. (Beware of Cipro; side effects include a heightened risk of torn tendons.) Two months ago, I tore my calf muscle off my Achilles tendon when I used Cipro on an expedition to Xinjiang province, in northwestern China.

Disease is often spread by unclean hands handling unclean cutlery and dishware [12], so I carry my own large titanium cup with lid, and titanium spoon (plastic is pointless; it breaks and melts). No one touches these utensils but me. I don’t use communal dishes. Even in a Tibetan’s black-hair hut, I’ll pull out my own cup so the boiling yak butter tea goes straight from the cauldron to my clean cup to my gut. Often simply looking after little things will prevent big problems. While caving in Vietnam with a team of Yorkshire madmen, they delighted in showing me macabre pictures of trench foot before we went underground for a week. And it worked. I dried my feet every chance I got, kept them powdered with antimicrobial talc, and put on clean socks at night. My feet escaped unscathed from the bowels of Southeast Asia.

When your fingers start to get cold, don’t ignore it [13]. Stop. Put them on your neck, on your stomach, against your genitals; windmill your arms, whatever it takes to get blood flowing again. Too many mountain climbers older than 50 are missing digits. At least among my friends.

Eat. As an experiment, I once climbed a mountain in Tibet on half rations: one package of hot cocoa and one package of oatmeal for breakfast; half a candy bar and half a can of sardines for lunch; half a two-person freeze-dried meal for dinner. We summited, but on the hike out, it seemed like I bonked every hour all the way back to the road.

Drink. It was three in the morning when I jackknifed in bed. I got up and began pacing around the room bent in half. It was excruciating, but I thought it would go away. When I started puking from the pain, Sue had had enough and drove me to the ER. We were living in Spain, so she translated while I roiled about.

“The doctor says you have a kidney stone,” Sue said to me, speaking slowly and close to my face, like I didn’t understand English.

It was sometime during my delirium when the doctor spoke to me directly:“So, I hear you are a mountain climber. Not very bright.”

Turns out if you desperately deplete your body of water too many times, you’re gifted with little pearls of wisdom for the rest of your life: kidney stones, gall stones, bladder stones.

If I Only Knew Then (Feature Narrative) | Recognize Grizzly Behavior | Save Yourself in Whitewater | First Aid Emergencies | Unsafe Snow Conditions | Unexpected Accidents | Make Good Judgment Calls

Though it may sometimes seem otherwise, mountains are neither benevolent nor malevolent. They are rocks with a thin skin of snow and soil, plants and animals. We are one of the animals. Mountains care no more or less about us than they do about marmots or mountain goats. Mountains, in short, don’t give a shit, so we have to care for ourselves and for each other.

No matter what your motivations are for exploring the backcountry—physical rigor, mental challenge, spiritual solace, nature submersion—the onus is entirely upon you to watch out for yourself. Expect to be surprised. Expect things to go wrong. Expect to make mistakes. As my friend and backcountry historian Ken Cramer says: “In the outdoors, you work your way up, keep going farther and farther from the car, hopefully not getting in over your head. You have to take things in the right doses.”

When I tell him that I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew more times than I can count, he scratches his dense gray beard and says, “Well, apparently not. You’re still here.”

“Luck,” I reply.

Ken grins and balances his long, lanky body on one foot.

“Well, you know what they say: ‘Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.’”


Mark Jenkins, formerly BACKPACKER’s Rocky Mountain Editor, is a contributing writer for National Geographic and writer-in-residence at the University of Wyoming.

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