It was early in the season to be hiking above 10,000-feet along the Continental Divide Trail – even for experienced hikers. But monster wildfires in New Mexico had chased dozens of thru-hikers north before the snow had a chance to melt. So when the hiker we’ll call Not a Care reached a large snow gulley, she wasn’t surprised. Still, her snow experience was limited, and she worried about the 200-foot drop below her.
Armed with an ice ax and traction devices, she took one step across the slope. Then she took another. She made it about halfway across the pass before her foot slipped, and she began gliding down the mountainside. As she gained momentum, she watched the boulder field below racing towards her, growing larger with every second.
Just as her body slid past the 150-foot mark, she jammed her ice ax into the snow, slowing her pace to a crawl. And then, miraculously, she stopped. She was alive. She was uninjured. But she was too terrified to move.
Surely, her trail family would turn around after they realized she hadn’t caught up with them. Maybe they could help usher her to safety whenever they retraced their steps to find out what happened. She waited, watching the sun dip lower over the horizon. And then she decided to hit the SOS button on her GPS tracker just in case her friends weren’t coming.
A few hours later, a helicopter flew by, taking a moment to locate her. She was still clinging to her ice ax on the side ofthe mountain. Her stomach was raw and red from several hours of exposure and her teeth were chattering. But by the time darkness descended, she was in the air, en route to a nearby hospital. And then she got angry.
Why didn’t my friends backtrack to make sure that I was all right? How long had they been set up in camp before they realized I wasn’t coming? If they’d come back, I wouldn’t have ended up with hypothermia. I could have avoided all of this
Up ahead, her trail family had, indeed, set up camp for the night. They’d crossed the same pass earlier, but after a bit of investigation, they had found a less dangerous route above the snowfield. They assumed Not a Care would find it, too. After a snack break and a glance at their watches, they they decided to get as far as they could in order to set themselves up for their mail drop the next day.
By the time that evening fell, they were surprised that Not a Care hadn’t made it all the way to camp. But it wasn’t the first time that a tramily member fell behind. Maybe she’d decided that she’d had enough for the day. Maybe she hit some trail magic, and it slowed her down. Or maybe she just needed space. Turning on their phones, they discovered that they had one bar of service. Then a message pinged. It was Not a Care. And she wasn’t pleased with them.
If you ask a random thru-hiker what they think their tramily owes them, you’re likely to get a variety of responses. One friend told me that he often stopped in areas that were particularly challenging, just to make sure that everyone got past them okay. Another friend told me that during a high snow year, he and his tramily hiked at the same pace through the worst sections. But hikers almost never backtrack, since it’s forward motion that contributes to the success of a thru hike.
Not a Care hoped that her hiking tribe would detect that something was wrong. But the reality is that they hadn’t had any reason to believe that.. Hikers change their plans and their pace on a daily basis for something as small as a trailside nap in the middle of the day. No one could have predicted that she’d fallen or that she needed help. Assuming they’d turn around to figure out what happened to her was unrealistic.
Instead of taking accountability for the choices that she made by staying stuck to a snowy surface for hours, she blamed her trail family for her predicament. She would’ve turned around if someone else hadn’t made it to camp, or so she told herself. But, ultimately, no one was more equipped to handle her safety and well-being than she was.
Even if Not a Care’s trail family suspected that something had gone awry, they wouldn’t have been able to safely extract her from the snowy slope without putting themselves at risk, since they were equipped with the same hiking tools. They could’ve just as easily fallen down the remainder of the slope, catching themselves with the jagged rocks at the base of the peak.
Backtracking after noticing Not a Care’s absence would also add unnecessary miles onto the trail family’s hike. And over the course of several months, added miles can quickly compromise your hiking timeline, making a completion more difficult. Thru-hikers are notorious for tackling ambitious miles over the course of their hike. But when it comes down to taking a 0.3-mile detour for an overlook, many hikers bypass the opportunity. Since Not a Care’s trail family didn’t know that she’d fallen, adding miles to their day likely seemed like an unnecessary exertion.
Yes, hiking with a trail family is usually safer than hiking alone. But long trails are full of independent people with a mission. Every thru-hiker is out there chasing their own dream. They have their own deadlines, aspirations, paces, and expectations. And you can’t assume that your trail family will get you through your own thru hike. That’s up to you.
If you’re not confident in your ability to make it home safely, bring a GPS tracker like Not a Care. Stay connected with someone at home. And communicate clear expectations with your tramily if you want a little bit of extra assurance. But you should never assume that your trail family is going to come back for you without a prior discussion. If you’re not prepared for the risks of hiking by yourself, you shouldn’t be out there.