Shit happens. This year has been quite a ‘shit happens’ kind of year with many SAR operations taking place in states like Washington and California who have had a very heavy and lingering snowpack. With that comes comments from folks back home with the benefit of hindsight and a birds eye view of situations transpiring in the outdoors, remarks with good intent originally that just kinda end up making them look like assholes. A common comment I hear is that the outdoor world “isn’t Disneyland”. I only agree with the sentiment in that: Yes, it literally isn’t Disneyland. It’s far better. But I get what they mean.
A lot of avid hikers have found themselves in really shitty situations here and there, it comes with the territory. There is a definite line between ‘really shitty’ and ‘really dangerous’. I’ve had a lot of really shitty moments, a handful of dangerous moments, and one really dangerous moment. Of which I’m sure I’ve brought up before, but for old times sake: I was climbing to the Utah state highpoint, I noticed weather blowing in which I ignored, I continued on and found myself in a thunderstorm when I reached the summit, freaked out and bolted back down not being mindful of my footing (as well as my route down) and almost got thrown off a cliff by a shifting rock. WHOOPS.
One case of someone going from really shitty to real dangerous popped up on my Youtube feed the other day which is worth sharing.
I’m not sharing this to analyze decisions made by this hiker or anything of the sort. I usually find that really distasteful, though hindsight can be helpful we’re pretty much all aware of what hikers “should have done” which usually amounts to “turn back” in basically every situation gone wrong. Another thing all hikers are aware of is we’ve all been in situations where we shouldn’t have gone any further for a number of reasons but chose to do so anyways. Maybe the danger wasn’t apparent, maybe it was but we didn’t understand the full extent of it, or maybe we just fucked up because we’re human. It doesn’t matter, the lesson is clear as day.
What I do want to say is what went right. Jennifer – despite falling off a cliff initially – stayed pretty calm through the ordeal, even enough to consider venturing on to the Canadian border (which I’d like to add was a smart decision for a time until further conditions appeared, the way back was the present danger but if she were able to reach the border she could take a pretty leisurely hike through the woods back into civilization via border crossing into Manning Park, away from danger). As she pushed on there were snowfields where traversing would have been difficult due to poor structural integrity, and she felt it was unsafe to push on due to that as well as the unknowns that lie ahead. Then there’s the ‘chaotic right’: She survived the fall without serious injury, her gear rolled to a convenient and identifiable spot instead of going all the way down the mountain.
The unknown is a thing that adventurers find romantic in a way: challenging it and facing it. It’s the thing that allows people to push themselves and progress in ways they can’t if they live within predictable parameters to a degree. Sometimes the unknown is something to give your full respect however and back out, to challenge it another day with another plan. Some people don’t and conquer, some people don’t and don’t come back from it. It’s sometimes difficult to know when we shouldn’t, but at least in my experience it takes form in many ways: A gut feeling, loss of rational decision making, speeding through scary traverses wanting to get to safety, and at times a sign from nature itself like a rockslide or what-have-you. We’re not all given the benefit of experience in situations we get thrown in, being able to visually evaluate terrain before we set foot on it. One could argue that if you can’t do that you shouldn’t be there at all, and I wouldn’t say that’s unfair. But again, adventurers are going to adventure. They’ll push themselves, test themselves, and maybe fail. With failure comes lessons learned comes experience, etc. I’m not advocating for someone with no climbing experience to go out and do a free-solo climb, more advocating to try and fail with some measure of reason.
Jennifer was someone with enough reason to be where she was initially (In essence, there was no harm in her being out there to personally identify what the conditions were between Point A and Point B of her journey) who for circumstances both predictable and unpredictable to be thrown into a situation some may have not come back from through the different stages of her crisis. Falling off a cliff for one has its obvious dangers, sliding down a snowfield was another stage, then finally becoming essentially cliffed out with nothing but a tree to hold onto. There’s many different decisions or scenarios in which she maybe could have avoided it, but she evaluated her surroundings to the best of her ability and made decisions based on that which is all anyone can do, all of which with a dash of luck and keeping a cool head (as much as one could) got her out safely with the help of SAR (Search and Rescue). Her decision to ask for help wasn’t quick or rash, but at the time where she could no longer progress due to being both suck on the side of a mountain due to terrain as well as physical exhaustion. Trying to progress any further most likely would have had bad results.
I largely don’t care/make an effort to not care about the things people bring with them when they go backbacking, but there’s one piece of gear that helped her in the final moments of her horrifically bad day which is something I try to coax people to carry when I can: A PLB (Personal Locator Beacon. Brands like InReach, SPOT, etc. She calls it a GPS in her video which isn’t inaccurate, but not entirely specific). Maybe it’s not guaranteed to work (what even is?), that doesn’t devalue its potential worth. A common mantra I hear in response to this item is “Don’t pack your fears”, but in my mind it’s no more packing your fears than taking a water filter, insulating layers, etc. It isn’t a silly item with questionable use followed by questionable results (IE someone with no experience with firearms taking a gun with them). I will defend up and down that going out in nature doesn’t come with outstanding risks in contrast to daily life in society, but I do recognize that the biggest risks out there are isolation and sometimes ourselves. I also see the frequent mindset of ice axes being unnecessary, but it was another item that helped Jennifer through her situation. Another item that makes sense to have under the context of when and where she was and was lucky to have. There’s a darker side to the mindset of not being prepared for one reason or another (some find it liberating, some like the challenge, some like the weight savings) which is relying on passersby to help you should you get into trouble. Weird things happen, people make weird decisions under stressful circumstances, situations arise that displace us from the safety net of proximity to others along a trail. If you’re going out into nature with the mindset of others happening across you in crisis, you’re already under-prepared. Self-accountability is the invisible 11th essential to take with you outdoors. Having the means to ask for help under varying circumstances is huge, I don’t usually see people scoffing at emergency whistles.
I’m not saying you need to go out there with an item to cover every situation imaginable. That much is clear by the fact that I also favor a relatively minimalist setup, but I do carry a few extra things to cover the more dire scenarios with me and I always go out having the things I need to have for the hike ahead of me (clotting agent for massive wounds, space blanket for hypothermia, extra fire source, stretchy bandage for a number of things.. all very reasonably lightweight). If I run into surprising circumstances (IE: Snow when I didn’t expect it), I come back later with the proper setup to tackle it. Don’t pack your fears, but acknowledge that some fears are there for a reason and have merit. Fear isn’t an abstract spooky ghost floating through the ether, tapping on our shoulders and leading us astray. It’s a natural response to outstanding stress, and if you’re experiencing outstanding stress you’re likely losing your shit. Losing your shit is sometimes a very bad thing to be doing under certain situations, which means it’s time turn around. Fear – like the unknown – is sometimes worth challenging and sometimes it’s not.
Then sometimes things out of your control just happen and sans staying home that day, there’s no way of avoiding it. Same shit can happen at Disneyland, at the supermarket, walking your dog, etc. This is the part I don’t find outstanding about the outdoor world, it’s just the world in general. The universe’s balance to serendipity. There’s a rock out there that potentially has your name on it, through decades of rainfall and surrounding erosion may one day come loose under the hoof of an innocent mountain goat, roll down the hill, and knock you in the head. Or maybe one day you’re at Disneyland and the contraption securing you to the rollercoaster fails and you fly off the side. You can’t plan or anticipate weird chains of events like this with countless triggers and outcomes; hence why the phrase “shit happens” exists, Murphy’s Law, as well as existentialism in general. Most people recognize the chaotic nature of our normal lives, and recognize it’s an unknown we can neither challenge nor respect, just concede to.
People who set out into nature usually have a clear goal in mind: I want to see that lake, I want to reach the summit, I want to walk 1,000+ miles. Not meeting our goals sucks, failing sucks. I’ve had my fair share of defeat, and it hurts. Especially when I initiate said defeat by making the decision to just turn back. I am usually too hard on myself over it, especially in the case of my leaving the PCT last year. But the thing to remember is: The greatest feats both personal and historically are rarely done on the first try. It took early mountaineers multiple attempts to summit Everest. It took generations of Yosemite climbers to define certain techniques and make the climbing industry what it is today. You will fail, and from that comes success in knowledge and the ability to adjust your route, giving you a better measure of success when you try again. It’s an undervalued consolation prize. It doesn’t look cool to turn back, it’s not an exciting story to tell most of the time, but its value is sometimes far greater than success in that: You usually don’t learn anything when things go right.
The outdoors are a wonderful place full of exciting possibilities and endless adventure. It’s a place that invigorates and humbles us with each step. There is nothing in our world like it. Sometimes the possibilities aren’t exciting, sometimes they can terrify us and endanger us, but maybe that’s part of the draw as well.
Have fun out there!