- photo by BENNETT BARTHELEMY
"What's the worst that could happen?"
Alarm bells ring whenever I hear these words uttered. Yes, there are times when you find yourself in situations while exploring the wilds that you have no choice. Go for it! Do or die time! It's a good day to die! I wouldn't say I seek these moments out per se, or that any are my personal motto. I will leave the fatalism to the class V boaters, A5 aid climbers, downhill mountain bike racers and 8,000-meter peak baggers. But I am comfortable enough with my skill base and have been in enough hairy situations that I can keep a cool head and generally figure out and do what needs to be done. It helps to come in armed with a little 20-20 foresight and preparation.
So if you are like me, and you find that these potentially dangerous and adrenalized situations do arise from time to time — "Make that move, or six-foot groove" kind of deal — then it is nice to take solace in the fact that the things that you can control, you have chosen too. I'm not talking about getting your estate in order or anything, just freeing the mind up by having already taken care of the things you have control over. The converse of this is that all the little things you have chosen to overlook because of bravado or ignorance will add up to a tragic comedy of errors.
My two-week stint as a boy scout is a fuzzy memory, but I recall something about "being prepared." Number one of the seven Leave No Trace principals is Plan Ahead and Prepare . If you have yet to hear of the international non-profit Leave No Trace (LNT) they are a great org, so do yourself a favor and surf their website if you ever plan on breaking the chains of suburbia.
So let's quickly explore the anatomy of a disaster. Did you know that the percentage for snakebite victims outrageously favors men between the ages of 18 to 25 who have been drinking? Hmmm, go figure. And that a motocross rider's last words are commonly, "Hey, Ted, watch this!" Avoidable? Yep. So do we need to move into our own personal bubbles and breath only filtered air, or wash our hands 300 times a day like Howard Hughes? No, it's much simpler than that.
Water is life — there's a good motto. I think a vast portion of the population goes through life dehydrated. Kidney stones are the least of your worries here. What keeps us sharp in tense situations, and what has given humans the edge over all other animals at survival is not only the ability to adapt to situations physiologically, but mentally, too. Really tough to make good decisions when your pee is bright orange and your head is bursting from headache. Avoidable? Ninety-seven times out of 100.
Warmth. How many times have you found yourself shivering, having eschewed the 8 oz. rain jacket because you were only going to be out for an hour and all hell broke loose in the heavens with Zeus lobbing lightning bolts at you, wind roaring and rain drenching all? At least once, right? What is often nice about these gnarly situations, if we are lucky and survive, is that we can file this info away so a rain jacket now lives permanently in the daypack. Especially if you ever deal with an injury situation — keep warm! Really hard for the body to deal with trying to keep itself warm on top of trauma.
Destination known, preferably by someone not going. Aaron Ralston, an experienced climber whose body was pinned by a rock slide, sacrificed his own arm, in perhaps the most insane way imaginable. It might have been avoided if he had told someone where he was climbing that day. Even if you screw up you can count on your actions serving as a bad example and bringing some good. I sacrificed my pride when skiing (falling my way down) a slope in Tahoe, too cheap for lessons, and a ski instructor on lifts yelling to his students on the nearby chairs, "See him? Don't do what he's doing!" So take some lessons already, don't just read about it on the Internet and expect to be an expert.
If you don't want to bring the cell phone, and don't count on coverage if you do, give someone some details of where the hell you are and when you plan to return. If you don't do this? A great way to put a lot of people at risk unnecessarily when they come to find your dumb ass and you are having a great time picking your nose by the river. It happens more often than you think. They gas up the chopper for you, thinking you are more important, while the other poor soul that does need help is really getting hosed.
I love my dad, don't get me wrong, but four years ago we went to hike the Chilkoot Trail, an Alaskan trail that takes three long days and which killed hundreds of miners back in the rush of 1899. The route climbs from the rainforest of the coast over a high pass to the alpine regions of the Yukon and is notorious for rain and snow even in summer, and what did my dad bring? All cotton. Amazingly we had perfect weather — the first clear three days in an epoch, no doubt. The take-home message here? Bring wool or some synthetics that stays warm when wet, or — best — something that repels water!
Oh, and learn how to read a map and always know the cardinal directions — learn to tell by the sun, landmarks. Get lost and find yourself!