A Dozen Ways to Die
How do hikers meet their maker in the backcountry? The answers may surprise you.
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Slavering grizzlies, pouncing cougars, killer blizzards: They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters, the terrors that send our pulses racing whether we’re sleeping in the woods or reading on the sofa. Perhaps that’s because we view wilderness schizophrenically–both as a womblike place where we can heal from civilization’s assaults, and as a hostile void where only the über-tough, prepared for death, should venture.
So which is it? Should you take the helmet and ice axe, the PLB and GPS, the bear spray and bug juice? To answer these questions, we studied hundreds of incident reports and interviewed scores of experts–rangers, rescuers, guides, scientists, surviving companions, and a few lucky survivors, too. Along the way, we came up with some surprising conclusions. For one, wilderness fatalities are extraordinarily rare. But when they do happen, they typically aren’t the result of climbing, skiing, or BASE jumping accidents; nope, it’s hikers who tend to die out there. For another, it’s not the giant man-eaters that pose the biggest risk; it’s you and me, and our tendency to make foolhardy decisions.
Here you’ll read case histories that illustrate ways hikers might expire in the woods. Most of these victims made mistakes–the same kind we all get away with on a regular basis. And therein lies the point: We’re not replaying these tragedies to wallow in others’ misfortunes. In each tale, we see a bit of ourselves, plus a few lessons that may help you avoid a similar fate.
Tempted to climb higher? Think twice: The backcountry’s #1 killer is only a slip away.
Dana Crane, an outdoorsy 19-year-old student at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, lay crumpled on the beach near Strawberry Point in Washington’s Olympic National Park. It was a tragic end to a trip she’d planned to celebrate her recently completed sophomore year. After 4 days in the Hoh Rain Forest, Crane had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to trek down the coast. Not expecting any trouble, she didn’t register at the Third Beach trailhead.
On day 2 of her coastal hike, she stashed her pack and jogged to Strawberry Point, where sand bluffs taper out from the shore to form a low spit capped by a 70-foot spire. Enchanted by the sea stack, Crane scrambled up for a view. Suddenly, she greased off mossy holds and cartwheeled 25 feet down onto jagged, fist-sized cobbles.
When she came to, Crane had a black eye, gashes in her back, two shattered feet, a broken thumb and pelvis, separated ribs, a displaced fracture of her lower right leg, and three spinal fractures. Despite those injuries, she crawled nearly 100 yards to the shelter of driftwood logs piled beneath the bluffs. There she lay for 48 hours without food, water, or gear, getting chilled, baked, and severely dehydrated. Finally, a couple of hikers came by.
“We heard a whistling sound,” recalls Brandon Smith, a 26-year-old hiker from Missoula, MT, who was with his girlfriend, Heather McKee. “I looked over, and this girl was smashed up pretty bad.” McKee stayed with Crane while Smith ran for help. He found off-duty ranger Dave Skinner, who had a cell phone. Two hours after Skinner reached a spot where he could get a signal, Crane was evacuated by helicopter to a Seattle hospital, where she underwent multiple surgeries (and survived).
“It’s a popular area,” says the ranger. “I’m surprised someone could have lain there that long, but she was probably in and out of consciousness, so people might have passed her.” Smith is a bit more judgmental. “She shouldn’t have been on that rock face,” he says. “It was way, way too steep.”
Unroped falls are the #1 cause of wilderness deaths nationwide. Our research suggests that most accidents happen while hikers are scrambling up or descending semitechnical peaks, crossing class III passes, or getting far out onto overlooks for better views and pictures. Steep snowfields, rotten rock bands, and gravelly ledges are typical culprits–combined with overconfidence. According to the rangers and rescue pros we interviewed, many victims could have avoided falling if they’d spent more time looking for an alternate route.
- Leave word Crane’s first error was failing to register or give her return date to a friend. This is critically important for a solo hiker.
- Carry a lifeline Her second mistake was leaving her pack–and all her safety gear. Always stash a basic survival kit in your pocket on side hikes.
- Climb smart If you’re alone, attempt only easy moves, and test each hold to make sure it’s solid. Avoid wet, mossy, and loose rock, and never ascend any face you wouldn’t be absolutely comfortable downclimbing. When contemplating sketchy moves or long, exposed snowfields, ask yourself what the worst outcome could be. If it’s ugly, find another way or turn around.
Mishaps on frozen lakes and whitewater rivers represent the second most common cause of death in the wilderness.
On June 26, 2005, four thru-hikers showed up at the McClure Meadow ranger station in California’s Kings Canyon National Park with an urgent message. They told ranger Bob Kenan they’d seen a red backpack floating in partially frozen Evolution Lake, an idyllic rockbound pond set at 10,850 feet on the John Muir/Pacific Crest Trails. Unable to reach the pack himself, Kenan called in a chopper. From the cockpit, pilots could see a human body floating beneath it.
A journal identified the victim as Peter Spoecker, 64, a Joshua Tree resident who’d registered a few weeks earlier for a weeklong solo loop. An obviously fit hiker, Spoecker had been carrying high-quality gear, photo equipment, and snowshoes. He’d reached Evolution Basin by crossing Lamarck Col, a tough, 13,000-foot, class II gap.
Spoecker was a fascinating individual by anyone’s measure, a long-bearded Hindu vegan and professional didgeridoo player. An autodidact, Spoecker regularly taught himself subjects from music to advanced computer graphics. In recent years, he had taken to landscape photography, backpacking for weeks at a time to build a library of images. He was also a wilderness veteran with expert climbing and survival skills; he’d been hiking in the High Sierra, often solo, for more than 40 years.
So how did such an accomplished hiker drop through the ice of a tranquil lake? Several possible scenarios emerge. First, Spoecker may have been trying to get water, since both his bottles were empty when he was found. Second, his snowshoes may have caused him to slip as he traversed the steep sidehill above Evolution Lake. A third possibility is that he detoured down onto the lake for easier traveling, and broke through where currents had weakened the ice.
“Any place there’s water mixed with hiking, boating, and fishing, drowning usually wins first place,” says Robert Koester, a researcher with Virginia-based dbS Productions and creator of the 30,000-case International Search and Rescue Incident Database (ISRID). Most victims are whitewater paddlers or rafters who get trapped under strainers or ledges, or backpackers who fall while fording rivers, often in spring runoff.
- Doubt yourself A recurring theme in wilderness fatalities is overconfidence or simple neglect of basic safety procedures by veteran hikers. Spoecker’s case is typical of Sierra fatalities: He was an expert, and alone. “Our frontcountry incidents are usually newbies,” says Alex Picavet, public information officer for Sequoia-Kings Canyon. “But our backcountry deaths are often extremely experienced hikers.” The lesson: Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by years of trouble-free hiking. Always expect thin ice.
- Be ready to swim You’ve probably heard it a hundred times, but it bears repeating: When crossing turbulent rivers, unbuckle your hipbelt and sternum strap so your pack doesn’t force you under water if you fall.
- Recline in rapids If you fall in whitewater, point your feet downstream (so you can push away from rocks) and float on your back until you can swim to shore. Never try to stand up in a strong current; if your foot gets trapped between rocks, you could get pushed over and drowned.
3. Heart Attack
At risk: Baby-boomer men trying to keep pace with their younger selves.
On a windy day in late July 2001, a group of senior hikers who call themselves the Over-the-Hill Gang were climbing 8,952-foot Mt. Cannon in Glacier National Park. It’s a stout ascent with some scary class IV scrambling, but these men were veteran Glacier backpackers with numerous technical peaks on their resumés.
Suddenly, 69-year-old Harry Isch didn’t feel well. “He joked about somebody having to take his pack,” recalls George Ostrom, 78, one of the group’s founders. While most of the party moved ahead, two members stuck by Isch. “I turned around and saw Harry sitting down,” recalls Hi Gibson, 75, a retired physician. “He said he felt dizzy, so I checked, and he was in atrial fibrillation, with a weak, vibrating pulse.” Gibson and fellow hiker Pat Jirion decided to take Harry back down to the cars. They considered calling for a helicopter, but gale-force winds and the steep location precluded it.
“I picked the easiest way,” says Gibson, “then we started down together. I kept taking Harry’s pulse, and it was normal.” They intercepted the Hidden Lake Trail and began climbing again to where a boardwalk descends to Logan Pass Visitor Center. “Harry was doing OK. Then we happened to run into a friend. I stopped to talk briefly, and when I turned around again, Harry was down on the trail.
“Immediately, a man and his son arrived,” Gibson recalls. “He was an ER doc in Minnesota, and his son had just completed CPR training, so we took turns trying to resuscitate Harry.” Within minutes, an ER nurse from Chicago happened by, then an ICU nurse from Stanford. “You couldn’t get that kind of expertise on a sidewalk outside a hospital,” says Gibson. “But it was no use.”
Heart failure is a top-five killer everywhere, but it jumps to second place in areas where steep, high-elevation trails are located near lowland cities. Isch was both representative and atypical of these victims. He was the least fit member of his group, which makes him a typical target. But he was much older than the average backcountry heart-attack victim, a male in his 50s pursuing the same fitness goals he attained in his 30s–or attempting some kind of life-renewing challenge for which he has not adequately trained. Heat stress or hypothermia are often contributing factors.
- Get your ticker tested In the backcountry, heart attacks disproportionately affect baby-boomer men, so if you’re a guy pushing 50, get to a doctor for a full cardiac workup. That goes double if you haven’t done much hiking lately.
- Boost your training There’s no need to back off big goals, but the days are gone when you could race up Rainier without substantial preparation. To improve your odds, start working out 3 months before any big backpacking trip; include a 6-plus-hour hike with a pack at least once a week.
- Check your pace Isch wasn’t going fast, but he may have been going too fast for the altitude, given his conditioning. Find a speed that lets you maintain conversation.
Exposure attacks both body and mind, quickly compromising your dexterity and decision-making ability.
On Saturday morning, November 30, 2002, Arthur Birchmeyer, a 58-year-old outdoors enthusiast from Syracuse, NY, ventured into the swampy Moose River Plains in the western Adirondacks. He was familiar with the area, but still carried a map, three compasses, and a GPS unit, in addition to a lighter, matches, a flashlight, and hunting equipment. Around midday, a cold front swept through, dumping 2 feet of snow and dropping temperatures into the teens. When Birchmeyer’s wife reported him missing on Monday, an intensive search began.
“By the time we got in there, we were dealing with subzero temperatures,” says ranger Will Geraud. Two days later, a helicopter pilot located Birchmeyer’s body less than a mile from the snowmobile trail he’d hiked in on. “Our initial assumption was that he had screwed up, that he didn’t know how to use the GPS,” Geraud recalls. Then searchers found his Garmin still on, recording data. When they combined that with evidence from his tracks, a far more tragic picture emerged.
Before he died, Birchmeyer had made several attempts to intersect the gated road that led to his truck. Unfortunately, he hit it in a whiteout, after heavy snow had bent the trees, obscuring the narrow track. A few hours later, he crossed back near the same place again, less than 300 yards from the road. He then climbed over a high ridge to the banks of the Indian River, where he built a fire under an overhanging spruce.
The next morning, Birchmeyer beelined northeast, heading for a waypoint labeled “end of road.” At 8:30 a.m., a “man overboard” waypoint appears on his GPS. He’d fallen in a beaver swamp up to his waist. To start a fire, he pried a bullet apart, but the gunpowder flashed too fast. His fingers probably weren’t working. “He was less than a half-mile from the gate,” says Geraud. “His vehicle–another mile and a half up the road–had a stove, sleeping bag, insulated one-piece suit, food, and water.”
But Birchmeyer thought he’d been wrong before, so he turned and headed back to his previous night’s camp on the Indian River. Failing to relight his fire, he died soon after.
Hypothermia always ranks among the top three killers in cold-weather and mountain environments, and it’s a contributing factor in many other fatalities. In spots like Mt. Rainier and New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, cold is villain number one. But you don’t need winter to die of exposure. From the Smokies to the Sierra, hikers have been felled by the pernicious combination of wind, humidity, and 45°F temps.
- Rehydrate and rest Dehydration and fatigue accelerate hypothermia, so don’t plod along in a single-minded effort to escape the cold. Stop regularly to eat and drink, and find a pace that will keep you warm without exhausting your muscles.
- Pack some heat Like Birchmeyer, many hypothermia victims are dayhikers who leave their sleeping bags behind, expecting to return before dark. That may be a fine strategy in summer, but always pack a bag in winter. Chemical handwarmers and a thermos of hot soup are also wise, and a reliable supply of firestarting material–not just a lighter–is essential.
- Learn winter tricks Leaves stuffed in your shirt make good insulation. A south-facing slope is warmer and less snowy.
5. Heat Stress
A formidable threat in the Southwest, this killer strikes with extreme force, though not without ample warning.
On 9 a.m. on Thursday, July 8, 2004, 24-year-old Margaret Bradley and a male companion left the Grand Canyon’s South Rim for a 27-mile trail run. Their plan was to descend the Grandview Trail to the Tonto Trail, cross 16 miles of hot, rolling plateau, then climb 3,200 feet in 5.5 miles back to the rim on the South Kaibab Trail.
That spring, Bradley had finished the Boston Marathon in 88°F heat, placing 31st among women with a time of 3 hours, 4 minutes. Anticipating a similar effort, the duo was traveling light. Bradley’s partner (authorities refuse to name him) carried a gallon of water; she had 1.5 liters. There are no water sources along the route, and neither carried maps or headlamps.
By 3 p.m., the temperature had reached 105°F and the pair had covered only 12 miles. On the exposed plateau, their run turned into a walk. Soon, the man crawled under a bush, unable to continue. Bradley went on for help.
Around dawn, the man woke to cooler temperatures and pushed on. As he neared the South Kaibab Trail, he encountered a USGS employee with a satellite phone, who called rangers for directions to an emergency water cache. Inexplicably, the companion never mentioned Bradley. “In all the confusion,” says Grand Canyon SAR Coordinator Ken Phillips, “he assumed she had gotten out of the canyon.”
Bradley wasn’t reported missing until Saturday morning. At 2 p.m., a helicopter spotted her body 300 feet below the Tonto Trail in the Cremation Creek drainage. She was curled in a fetal position, a casualty of acute dehydration and heatstroke. Like all too many Grand Canyon fatalities, Bradley was apparently trying to reach the river, only to be stymied by unbroken cliff bands.
“She had descended several small pouroffs,” explains Phillips. “The last one, a water-polished slickrock trough, was high enough and tough enough she couldn’t get back up.” Authorities estimate she had died 12 to 24 hours before being found, as many as 30 hours after her companion had reached a satellite phone.
“We do about 300 rescue missions a year,” says Phillips. “About 80 percent are related to heat.” Most victims are either new to the desert, too ambitious, or forced by circumstances to move midday.
The result is one of four conditions:
1) Heat exhaustion, where dehydration leads to acute fatigue and potential organ failure.
2) Heatstroke, a life-threatening rise in core body temperature.
3) Hyponatremia, a dangerous combination of heavy sweating, high water consumption, and low salt intake that leaches electrolytes from the body, leading to seizures; and 4) exertional rhabdomyolysis, the breakdown of muscle fibers from exertion and heat, which releases myoglobin that clogs the kidneys and leads to renal failure.
- Train for heat In just several weeks, you can adapt your body to extreme hot weather. Go to badwater.com/training to learn about proven techniques developed by ultramarathoners, including exercising in a sauna, driving in summer without air conditioning, and running in heavy fleece layers.
- Lose weight Obesity exacerbates all forms of heat illness.
- Stash water Not sure if you’ll encounter a stream or spring on your hike? Take half a day to drive and/or hike extra water into one or more locations along your intended route; 8 liters a day is wise for a hot climate.
Going high in July? Start early–afternoon is high-voltage hour in many mountain ranges.
In some parts of the country, Boy Scouts have gained a reputation for walking into disaster. But Troop 7001 from St. Helena in California’s Napa Valley was different.
These boys had gone on 110-mile canoe trips and winter campouts. They’d climbed the Grand Teton and Olympus. They’d studied first aid and navigation. And now, in late July 2005, they were tackling a 70-mile, 9-day trek in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks.
Around 2 p.m. on day 7, the 12-person party pitched camp in a clearing at the eastern foot of Mt. Whitney. The plan was to turn in early, get a midnight start, and summit at sunrise. As the boys lounged, a storm cell moved in from the north. This was little cause for alarm: The forest rose a thousand feet above them to ridgeline. They were beneath tarps, sitting on their sleeping pads, and atop dry groundsheets when the rain began.
“We were counting the time between flash and thunder,” recalls leader Stu Smith, “and teaching the kids about sound speed. We never finished the conversation.”
The bolt hit a nearby tree and arced horizontally under the tarps. All but four members of the troop were immediately knocked out.
“I came to in this brown sea of hurt,” says Smith. “It was like when your foot goes to sleep then comes awake, only all over and to the 10th power.” Three people were in cardiac arrest, and a fourth lay moaning, with blood streaming from his mouth and nose.
As Smith directed CPR efforts, two of the boys raced to a nearby ranger cabin. Two adults came around quickly, and ranger Rob Pulaski arrived within the hour, followed by a helicopter. Despite the troop’s efforts, 29-year-old Stephen McCullagh, a burly winemaker and father of two, never regained consciousness. Ryan Collins, a 13-year-old who would have entered 8th grade that fall, was resuscitated, but loss of brain function led to removal of life support weeks later.
Lightning injures 500 to 700 people a year in the United States, and kills 75. Few are backcountry accidents, perhaps because electrical events are so impressively frightening. Most wilderness incidents happen to boaters, or hikers and climbers caught on high ridgelines during afternoon storms. “We get near-daily summer lightning storms,” says Renny Jackson, head climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park. “But when we had a major disaster on the Exum Ridge 2 years ago, we checked our records and were surprised to find we’d never had another fatality inside the park.”
- Climb early, camp low Your single smartest move is to descend from above-treeline peaks and ridges by 2 p.m. during the summer. If there’s a black cloud within 5 miles, you’ve waited too long.
- Split up Should a lightning storm approach your party, spread out so a single strike doesn’t disable the entire group.
- Avoid electricity magnets Bad: single tall trees, metal objects, and high rock outcrops. Good: gullies, depressions in a meadow, and any spot lower than your current position.
- Learn CPR “Nearly everybody who dies from lightning dies from cardiac arrest,” says Grand Teton’s Jackson. Troop 7001’s training and the fast SAR response surely saved two lives.
They’re rare among hikers, but these snow slides are deadly and highly unpredictable.
At 6 a.m. on March 20, 2004, Dave Bennett, Joel Siebersma, and Kyle Fitzpatrick set off to hike 14,336-foot La Plata Peak, the fifth-highest summit in Colorado. Experienced peakbaggers, they’d taken avalanche courses and were equipped with shovels, probes, emergency gear, and a promising avalanche forecast.
After summiting a bit behind schedule, they decided to speed their descent by glissading down. “We found a nice, long patch that would take us all the way to La Plata Creek,” says Siebersma. He waited until Fitzpatrick was about 400 yards below him, then followed. “I’d descended about 10 yards when the snow fractured,” Siebersma recalls. “I tried to self-arrest, but the axe ripped out of my hands.
“Your first 5 or 10 seconds,” he says, “your life flashes before your eyes. Then it’s just this morbid waiting game. You don’t know which time the slide slows will be the last, and whether or not you’ll be buried. When it finally stopped, I was on top.”
Bennett, meanwhile, had seen the slide scour the mountainside from 13,200 feet down to 11,600. When a lone figure emerged, he thought it was Fitzpatrick, because he’d watched Siebersma getting pummeled and assumed he was dead.
The pair searched for Fitzpatrick for 2 hours using avalanche probes. “By then it was getting dark, and I was in bad shape,” says Siebersma. “Dave has a WFR rating, and he thought I had a cracked skull, because I had this huge lump, blood was pouring from it, and I was hallucinating.” A 6-hour struggle to the trailhead ensued.
Fitzpatrick had driven, so they smashed his car window to get to the extra food and clothing. “Just then a sheriff pulled up,” says Siebersma. His girlfriend and Fitzpatrick’s fiancée had called authorities when the trio didn’t make their meeting time. The next day, a rescue dog located Fitzpatrick’s body buried in 3 feet of snow that had frozen so hard it broke searchers’ probes.
Avalanches are a rare threat for three-season peakbaggers (we could only find two fatalities in a decade), but they pose a very serious risk for backcountry skiers and mountaineers. An average of 22 skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers die each year in backcountry avalanches in the United States. More than 90 percent are caught in slides they triggered by crossing an unstable slope. Surprisingly, most victims are skilled outdoors enthusiasts with avalanche training. “We used to think education was the key,” notes forecaster Tom Kimbrough, “but people seem to think that because of their knowledge, they can push closer to the edge.”
- Time your climb Morning is better than afternoon, and cold days are better than warm ones. Also, stay off steep slopes during or soon after windy storms, which create unstable snowpacks.
- Spread out The same practice that holds for lightning applies to unstable hillsides, but in the case of avalanche-prone slopes, it’s wise to increase the distance between individuals from 100 to 200 or more feet.
- Try another day Because many victims die from injuries sustained during the slide, even companions with beacons and rescue skills can’t necessarily help. Best advice? Avoid getting caught altogether. Turn back, and revisit when the slope is safer.
Less Common but Still Lethal
8. Suicide When wilderness SAR teams respond to a frontcountry call, chances are the distressed party is what the ISRID lists as a “despondent.” Suicides are especially common in national parks, but the victims tend to launch from drive-up cliffs and other accessible spots. Backcountry suicides are much less frequent–only a handful are reported annually. Advice: Call a suicide hotline, if for no other reason than to spare rangers the worst task they face.
9. Flash Flood Deaths due to flash floods are quite rare, and occur almost exclusively in canyoneering environments. But when they do kill, floods tend to take out groups, keeping the fatality average up around two per year. The good news: Almost every deadly incident we investigated resulted from an unwillingness to turn back despite obvious weather warnings. Advice: “If you’re heading to a slot canyon, have a fallback plan,” says Shane Burrows of Climb-Utah.com. “Then, if the weather’s bad, you won’t feel so determined to go on with your vacation.”
Ticks and mosquitoes Every year, hundreds of people fall victim to the illnesses carried by these tiny pests. The list includes Rocky Mountain spotted fever, encephalitis, and West Nile. Advice: Apply deet-based insect repellent, do frequent tick checks, and wear bug-net clothing if necessary. Bees, wasps, and fire ants These 50 to 60 annual deaths almost always involve allergic reactions. Advice: If you’re sensitive, carry an oral antihistamine such as Benadryl, or a prescription epinephrine injector pen.
11. Snakes and spiders Several thousand people are bitten by snakes in the United States every year, but only 12 to 14 of them die. “Without antivenom,” says Langley, “there would be many more deaths.” While black widow and brown recluse spiders are the most dangerous species, years often pass without a fatal spider bite in the United States. Advice: Keep the limb cold to reduce swelling, and get to a hospital as soon as possible.
Alligators Gators have claimed 5 victims in the last 12 months, but only 30 in the last half-century. Most attacks occur in lakeside Florida suburbs and on golf courses. Advice: Don’t linger on the banks of gator-country swamps, particularly at night.
Cougars One to two people a year lose their lives to these cats, which show a distinct preference for children and smaller adults. Advice: Take your big dog or a partner along when running trails in known mountain-lion country.
Bears “From 2000 through early summer 2006, there has been an average of two deaths a year in North America attributed to black bears,” says renowned grizzly researcher Steve Herrero. “In that same period, there were nine fatal attacks by grizzlies, less than two per year on average. None of the incidents involved backpackers.” Advice: Herrero reports that all of the black-bear attacks were predatory, while the grizzly incidents were mostly defensive. That stat reinforces a general rule of thumb: Fight black bears, play dead with grizzlies. Always travel noisily, contain food odors, and store food securely in bear country.
Animal Attacks (10, 11, 12)
Despite the media attention given to every bear or cougar attack, predators are a tiny risk on the trail. You’re much more likely to die from an allergic reaction to a wasp sting in your backyard or from a collision with a deer while driving to trailhead than in the jaws of a belligerent grizzly, says Ricky Lee Langley, M.D., an animal-attack expert with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. At left are his estimates of total annual U.S. fatalities for various animals, large and small. These numbers include non-backcountry areas; Langley says the vast majority of the deaths occur in rural or suburban settings.
The 6 Deadly Sins
Experts say these bad backcountry behaviors contribute to many wilderness fatalities.
Forget about your “average” victim: Men and women of all shapes, sizes, ages, experience levels, and ambitions die in the mountains. But while there’s no common demographic profile, victims do share certain traits, especially the following.
Summit Hypnosis “Two years ago in autumn,” recalls Mark Magnussen, chief ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, “we had a guy who’d attempted Longs Peak three or four times. He was determined to summit despite inadequate equipment and an incoming snowstorm. We found him the next day, on top, dead from exposure.”
Big-Trip Blinders “Most of our fatalities involve thru-hikers or people who’ve planned big vacations,” says Adrienne Freeman, public information officer at Yosemite. “They get to a section with more snow than they expected, but they’ve been preparing for months, so they do it anyway.”
Poor Conditioning “This is a huge contributor in a lot of our accidents,” says Mike Gauthier, Rainier’s head climbing ranger. “It complicates everything, from your ability to stay warm to your response in an emergency.”
Inattentiveness “Victims fail to pay attention to the factors around them,” says Magnussen. “Weather, your partners’ physical condition, terrain–too often, they’re preoccupied with reaching a destination, looking at the scenery, or just relaxing.”
Bad Communication “People often don’t know the true strengths and weaknesses of their partners,” warns Gauthier. “If a guy says he knows crevasse rescue, make sure.”
Soloing “I’m a huge advocate,” says Freeman, “but our victims have often been successfully soloing for years. They’ve just never had anything go wrong–and now there’s no one to help them.”