The mountains of the Western U.S. is an amazing place to live. With over 360 million acres of public land in eleven states, people come from all over the world to enjoy outdoor activities here. But like all mountainous areas, it can also be a dangerous place. It seems that someone dies almost every week in our state alone, whether it is from an avalanche or snowmobile accident in the Winter to lost hikers, falling climbers and children being swept away by fast moving streams in the Summer.
There will always be a certain amount of risk inherent with pushing the limits of power sports and with extreme versions of skiing, snowboarding and mountain biking. Most people participating in “adrenaline” sports, know the risks and act accordingly, but there are far too many cases where hikers get into serious trouble. It happens to the experienced and inexperienced alike, whether they are simply out to get some fresh air, exercise, see the sights or just to be immersed in the natural world. They get into trouble because they make the assumption that they will get back to their vehicle at a certain time.
I read somewhere that day hikers and hunters are statistically most likely to get lost. They are usually carrying only some basic gear and are not prepared for survival situations. Well Duh! Who else is going to get lost? It’s kinda hard to get lost in a parking lot. I take that back, I get lost every time I have to go to the city. Seriously, it’s hard to get lost riding the roads. It happens, but not many people die because of it. When a guy gets off the 4-wheeler and heads into the woods, he turns into a hiker or a hunter and that’s when he can get lost.
Recently, a 59 year old woman vacationing from Maine went out hiking alone. She slipped and broke her leg. Accidents happen and a broken leg can be a life threatening situation even when close to medical care. I personally know three people that have broken legs (2 falls and 1 snowmobile accident) in the Back Country and had to be rescued. Luckily for our hiker from Maine, she was found alive after four days, thanks to the hard work of rescuers and the hotel staff that reported here missing when she didn’t check out of her room. Her story is an amazing survival story, but if she would have told someone where she was going and when she expected to be back, at least the last two days of her experience would have been avoided completely.
Everyone knows the story of Aron Ralston by now. He was hiking alone near Moab and while scrambling up a slot canyon, he dislodged a boulder that trapped his arm. On the fifth day, he cut his arm off to escape. He wrote a book about his ordeal that was
later made into a movie; “127 Hours“. Aron was an experienced mountaineer, but he made a rookie mistake. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going or when he would be back. Since nobody knew he was missing, nobody came looking and he was running out of time.
A North Carolina man broke his leg in the same canyon in 2011. He was also hiking alone and didn’t tell anyone about his plans. He crawled about five miles back towards the trail head, but luckily was found by rescuers on the fourth day. Rescuers only started looking for him because someone noticed his car never returned to his campsite. Ironically, the man was inspired to hike the same canyon because of the movie that told Ralson’s story.
Several years ago, only a few miles from here, two people visiting from the east, were out for an afternoon hike on a beautiful September day. They didn’t tell anyone where they were going. According to one source, they even ignored advice from someone at the trail head about taking more clothes in case the weather changed. The weather did change. A storm rolled in, it rained and snowed and the temperature plummeted. Nobody knew they were missing until their plane arrived in Atlanta without them. Their bodies were not recovered until the following Spring.
Back in the Fall of 2010, I ran into two lost hikers (by pure luck) at dusk. They were still moving, but since they had no light, they were about to spend a cold night in the woods. They hadn’t told anyone where they were going, so nobody would have been looking for them. They didn’t have any way to make fire. Who knows what would have happened? You can read more about their outcome here.
There are many other incidences, but just with the last few years, there has been at least five people dead (or presumed dead) and three people that were rescued after induring four or five unimaginably miserable days. I have no idea about how many people had close calls or had to spend one unprepared night in the woods.
What are the Common Themes for Hikers that Get into Trouble?
1. They did not tell anyone where they were going.
2. Those hiking alone got injured.
3. They got lost.
O.K., it appears the best safety net for everyone that goes hiking or hunting should be to tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. The second thing is don’t get injured if you are alone. Obviously, nobody plans on getting injured alone or otherwise, but a risk that you are willing to take at home might not be such a good idea when you are five miles from your vehicle and 100 miles from a hospital.
As an example, one of my friends had to be rescued because he jumped from one rock to another several miles back into a wilderness area. The jump was only about 8 feet, which is usually nothing for a young guy, but this time, he broke his ankle. He dragged himself for about three hours back toward the trail head before someone found him and took him to the hospital. Because of swelling and poor blood supply to his ankle during that time, he almost lost his foot. If he had taken a buddy with him, help would have come a lot sooner. He was lucky he was found and lucky not to loose his ankle.
There will always be people that get lost. For whatever reason, they will continue to walk into the wilderness totally unprepared to navigate. Do they expect that all the trails are paved and clearly and properly marked? If so, ask yourself this. Who is responsible for maintaining and marking trails on public land? That would be public employees or volunteers. Nuff said.
As Murphy’s Law predicts, the most important navigation signs on the trail will be the ones that are missing. You should expect that trails are not properly marked and that signs at intersections will be destroyed, knocked down or even deliberately turned. Yes, there are lots of jokesters. Probably the same knuckleheads that have the energy to pack a full six-pack of beer to the top of a mountain, but are unable to pack the empty cans back out.
You must be prepared to depend or yourself to get into and back out of these areas, so it is your responsibility to have GPS, compass or maps and the knowledge of how to use them.
Our public lands are a tremendous resource for everyone to enjoy and we want people to come visit, spend a little money and see what our mountains and deserts have to offer, but we also want you make it back home safely. So make sure you tell someone where you are going. Hike and hunt with a buddy when possible. Spend some time looking at good maps before you go, so you know what to expect from the terrain and that you understand which direction you could find roads and other potential exit points.