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How Wilderness Stories Become Wilderness Skills

When I was nine, my father, my sister, and I went on a family vacation in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was the first time I stayed in a hotel. I saw the “Old Man of the Mountains,” which was then the state symbol and is now a pile of rubble and rock dust. I rode the cog railway. I crawled around the boulders of the Lost River, shivered in the frigid waters of Echo Lake, and marveled at the dank, mossy canyons of the Flume. And in the summit house atop Mt. Washington, I saw, for the first time, the list of names of all the people who had died in the Presidential Range.

Fall in the White Mountains

The tour guide told us the story of Lizzie Bourne, who in 1885 died of exposure only a few hundred feet from safety at the summit house. Standing outside by the memorial plaque, near a giant cairn marked with the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail, I wondered, how could you stand and die HERE, when safety was just over THERE?

And then clouds swirled round and the fog drifted in, a blue day turned gray and cold and damp, and in the sting of a bitter wind, I suddenly caught a glimmer of understanding.

That list on Mt. Washington keeps growing, and so do the stories. Hikers and skiers: Dead from falls, hypothermia, avalanches. Killed by the unrelenting chill of winter. Killed by a summer storm. Killed by a simple misstep, or a whole mountain of snow collapsing on top of them. Killed, sometimes, by ignorance or hubris or the simple inability to understand or imagine the brutal, stark finality when Nature runs amok.

They are stories we need to hear.

I was reminded of that just recently, when I read a blog post about a hiker dying in Glacier National Park. It’s called “You Just Never Know,” and it’s true: You just don’t. A fine day, a photogenic view, a fatal fall. Final.

Fog on Mt. Kenya

For the most part, adventure travelers go in and out of the mountains without incident. For all the potential dangers that are out there (and there are plenty of them)  the mountains rarely release their fury. And even when they do, good preparation or dumb luck, or both, intervene: You run out of water, but you stumble on a working windmill. You get lost, but someone appears and points you in the right direction. You suffer headaches and nausea on an ascent, and you run into more experienced climbers who tell you to camp with them because you’re showing symptoms of altitude sickness.

You could have become dehydrated. You could have been lost for days. You could have died of acute mountain sickness. But you didn’t.

Did you learn anything?

I gave a talk to a bunch of teenage adventure campers a couple of weeks ago, and one of the questions I was asked was “Did you you ever almost die out there.” The kids all leaned forward: NOW, finally, we were getting to the good stuff.

And then, I had to disappoint them.

Because the truth is that I’m a wimp. I always have an extra Band-aid, the right map, and the 10 Essentials on hand. You could spoof me in a satire, and you wouldn’t even come close. I think it comes from having read too many “Drama in Real Life” stories in the old Reader’s Digest when I was a kid. Or maybe it was tales like Jack London’s To Build a Fire.

Storytelling, I think, serves a purpose beyond recreation. Imagine early humans back in cave-dwelling times, sitting around their fires, telling tales of the hunt. Bragging rights?  Undoubtedly. Entertainment? Sure. But also education, warnings, advice. I wonder if perhaps storytelling might be genetically bred into us — an evolutionary strategy for education and survival. Groups that told stories learned and lived. Those that didn’t… didn’t.

I imagine the stories haven’t changed that much, despite the millions of intervening years. Our cave sisters and brothers might recognize those grizzly stories that were a staple of my childhood. They might have told the same stories of people getting stuck in mountains,  trapped in blizzards, lost in impenetrable forests. I liked to read those stories; I didn’t want to be the star of one. Perhaps that same thought occurred to some great-great-grandmother-times-a-thousand-generations as she sat around the campfire, cozy and warm, safe and hoping to stay that way. Perhaps we both survived because we both listened to the stories.

Several years ago, I was hiking the Arizona Trail. I had just finished reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, in which Abbey describes being stuck in a slot canyon: no way to go up, no way to go down. He thought he was going to die before he managed to haul himself out, and, being Edward Abbey, he wrote about it in a way that put me right in that canyon with him. The scorching sun reflected hot against the cliff and the air grew thick as furnace heat. As Abbey’s water supply ran down and what he had left got so hot it barely slaked the brittle claws of thirst that raked the back of his throat, I found myself reaching for my own water bottle. As I recall, Ed hauled himself up by the grace of a quarter-inch rope of vine that had the decency to hold his weight as he scrambled to salvation.

So, when I encountered a slot canyon traveling on a secondary, seldom-used trail, I remembered old Cactus Ed stuck on that ledge, convinced he was going to die. I was short on water. It was getting dark. Because Ed had gone down his slot canyon, I didn’t  go down mine. I turned around and back-tracked two miles before I even found a spot flat enough to camp. I’d tackle the canyon in the morning, when I could see. Be sure. Be safe. Be boring.

The unexpected: A yucca in a surprise spring snow.

So no, I don’t have any great stories about near death experiences. I’ve been cold, and thirsty, and I’ve had a touch of altitude sickness. I’ve been rattled at by rattlesnakes and I’ve argued with bears over the rightful ownership of my food bags. And I’ve been scared silly in grizzly country by the mere thought of what was lurking behind the next clump of huckleberry bushes. But I put on extra clothes, found some water, rested an extra day before continuing a climb, stepped around the rattlesnake, won the argument with the bear, and got over my fear of what crouches in the shadow of a huckleberry bush.

Still, part of what I take with me when I travel in the backcountry are the stories that keep me just slightly on edge, a little more alert. They are no guarantee: Things can still go wrong. But people who study such things come to the same conclusion time and again: Most wilderness disasters are at least in part caused by operator error. Conditions may factor in. Bad luck may factor in. Panic may factor in. But lack of preparation or poor decision-making can, and often is, the difference between life and death. So I listen to the bell in the back of my head that said “don’t go down that canyon tonight.” I look at a steep slab of ice or some gnarly rock on a slope and think of the hikers in Glacier who didn’t make it across. I remember Lizzie Bourne, out there in the cold clenching fog, minutes from safety. Then dead.

It’s usually a benign place, the wilderness. But not always, and therein lies the danger. If it were ALWAYS dangerous, we’d know enough to respect it. But there it sits with its crystal blue skies and gorgeous views, beckoning us, seducing, giving no sign of its evil twin.

Writing in National Geographic Adventure about Mt. Washington’s legacy of fatalities, backcountry safety expert Laurence Gonzales says, “We come from the relatively safe environments of the city, where our mistakes are mostly forgiven, and we bring with us the careless ways we’ve learned there. Worse still, we travel to these danger zones and have a benign experience — like mine on Mount Washington on that beautiful sunny day. And that gives us a false sense of security.”

Without the direct experience, it is the stories that may save us when Mother Nature changes her mind.

Lessons From A Walk in the Woods, at Night

This is a story in which nothing happens. but much could have… and that’s what I want to share.

A couple of weeks ago, you would have found me hiking up the Jug End on the Massachusetts Appalachian Trail at 8:30 in the evening, in the quickly falling dark. I carried a stick I had found on the forest floor to which I had jerry-rigged a battery-operated musician’s light. (Reason: I hadn’t been able to quickly find a headlamp, and I needed to be quick). I was not carrying raingear (it wasn’t going to rain) and I wasn’t carrying warm clothes (it wasn’t cold — yet, although that would change as the night wore on). I did have an orange and a pint of water in a shoulder pack slung across my back. I had not left a note on my car, and I had left no word at home where I was going. And, if you know the Jug End hike: It’s steep and rocky, and here in Massachusetts in August, it’s getting dark earlier every day.
So right about now, you are (I hope) wondering: What did she think she was doing, and why the heck am I taking advice on hiking from THIS woman?

The Phone Call:

Here’s what happened: At about 8 p.m., I got a call from an AT thru-hiker who had been planning to stay the night at my house. I had been expecting to pick her up at the trail, oh, about two hours earlier, so I was concerned, and very relieved to hear from her. But then she told me she was feeling ill, and she was still up high on the Taconic Ridge. The trail up there is one of those boulder-strewn ups-and-downs that makes for slow going, even for a fit thru-hiker 1,500 or so miles into the hike.  She was calling from her cell; she didn’t know exactly where she was or when she would be down and dusk was falling. I, on the other hand, knew what lay between the top and the bottom on that section of trail: A couple of miles of steep rocky scramble. And I was worried.

First of all, she was hiking alone. And second, she was “slackpacking” and didn’t  have much (or really, anything) in the way of gear. I had met her earlier that morning at the trailhead and I’d taken her pack to my house so she could hike unencumbered for a day. She had a rain jacket, but no flashlight. And she certainly didn’t have what she needed  to spend the night. With dark falling so quickly, she might not have enough light to get out.

When you’re exhausted and it’s dark, the descent off Jug End is about the last place on the entire Massachusetts AT you want to be. So I told her I’d drive over to the trail (It’s about five minutes from my house) and start hiking up to meet her.

Well, my hiking stuff was in total disarray at the moment: I knew where my boots were, and that was about it. I’m not the most organized of people at the best of times, but my hiking stuff had been displaced by a home renovation project; in the current disarray, no way was I going to be able to find a headlamp quickly (let alone a working one with the right sized batteries). And as luck would have it, our house emergency flashlights — the ones we keep around for power outages — all seemed to have come down with some type of flashlight illness… dead batteries, rusty contact points, etc. So I grabbed the one light I did have handy: a four-LED-bulb musician’s light — the kind orchestra players use to light their music stands. And I headed out.

Driving to the trail, I couldn’t help but notice how quickly night was falling, and how very dark the woods looked. I parked at the trail head, and as soon as I started into the woods, I immediately realized that heading onto a dark trail in the fast-falling night was with no gear and a tiny music light was not an ideal situation. I especially missed my walking sticks, which I’d simply forgotten — they live right by the front door, so there’s no excuse for that. But trail magic is pretty reliable, and an obliging hiker had left a perfect stick right on the trail.  I clipped the base of the musician’s light to the stick.

But I didn’t turn it on: There was a full moon, and I’ve found with night-hiking that your eyes can often adjust. Until you really need artificial light, you can be better off without it. Although it was dark, I could pretty much feel the trail underfoot; every once in a while I caught a glimpse of white blazes, which seemed to briefly catch the moonlight through the pines. I made sure I always noted where the blazes were, because it’s easy to wander off on an animal trail. However, luck was with me again, as this part of the trail is frequently marked. Plus it’s on a pretty steep ridge: There isn’t really anywhere else to go.


It was actually a nice walk: Perfect temperature, clear night, no bugs, quiet and peaceful. I settled into a moderate rest step, and climbed about half an hour before it got too dark to pick out the blazes anymore. All the while I was wondering just what exactly I thought I was doing: If the hiker had been injured, I wasn’t carrying anything useful except for water and an orange. The most I’d be able to do would be go back down for help. Or, I could get myself into trouble in the dark and become a second problem for someone else to solve. I walked carefully, and slowed down on the rocky bits.  I had deliberately not left a note at home because I didn’t want to worry my partner. That was (very) arguably a dumb move, but my partner isn’t a hiker, and I didn’t want him freaking out and calling the  volunteer fire brigade just because it was dark. It seemed like a good reason at the time, but as I continued uphill, it started sounding dumber and dumber, even in my own mind.

Finally, after I’d been walking close to a half an hour, It was fully dark. When I could no longer see any hint of a blaze, I turned the light on, and shone it up the mountain, hoping it could be seen from above. Sure enough, I heard a yell, from quite a ways up. I resisted the temptation to call out “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” and continued the climb.

When we met, my friend was relieved; she’d been thinking of simply sitting down and waiting for me, but she didn’t know how far she still had to go, or how long it would take me to get to her, or how cold it would be by then. We walked back down together, me carrying the light above both of us like a camera man’s lighting assistant. We looked ridiculous.

And that was that: No drama, no real problems. It may have been another 20 minutes till we got back to the truck. We drove home, ate a lot of food, and slept.

Lessons From a Non-Event

But I thought this little story of a non-disaster worth sharing because it has an alternate ending. Rain, which would have made the descent frankly dangerous. A fall. One, or both of us, getting lost off trail. It did get cold later that night, cold enough that the tree frogs stopped yammering. Cold enough that a stranded hiker might have become hypothermic.

Bad luck can happen, even to a thru-hiker with thousands of miles of experience. I wasn’t exactly being Ms. Brilliant Outdoors Educator by choosing to head up the mountain quickly, rather than stopping to try to find some gear. It seemed like the right thing to do — to try and get myself and my light up the mountain as far and fast as possible. It turned out to be the right choice… but it might not have been.

It takes smarts to learn from your own experiences. It takes real brilliance to learn from other people’s disasters. But it takes something else — perhaps imagination — to learn from what could have happened to someone else — and didn’t. Not to say “Well, everything worked out and was great” but “What can I learn from what didn’t happen.”

Please imagine.

As for us: I’m pretty sure next time my friend slackpacks, there’s going to be a headlamp in her daypack. For my part, it wouldn’t hurt to have a first aid kit and a little daypack containing the ten essentials on hand. Plus fresh batteries.

As it turned out, we had a power outage in the house that night …. and the piano light, still tied to the make-shift walking stick, was pressed into service again.

These Are Days You’ll Remember….

Long distance hiking days.

I’m listening to the song by the same title.  “These Are Days” by 10,000 Maniacs seems the perfect soundtrack to thru-hiking memories, and I’m using it to introduce a slide show on long-distance backpacking to about 70 kids at my old summer camp later today.

Remember slides? Those film things with the cardboard edges, and you have to put them all in the carousel one at a time (backwards and upside down) and if you put a slide in the wrong way, it’ll show up with the writing reading back-to-front and inside out.

There’s another song I like to use in my slide shows: “What a Wonderful World.” The reasons should be obvious.

It can be overwhelming to look at hundreds of slides of the Triple Crown Trails (The Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide national scenic trails) all at once. Plus, I admit that a few spectacular slides from other places around the world have snuck in because really, when you have put a hat, a pair of sun glasses, and a tie on a giant lobelia near the summit of Mt. Kenya, how can you NOT use that picture to show the goofy fun of hiking? (I’ll post that picture here as soon as I can scan it…. another project on the “to do” list).

Two things strike me in this trip down memory lane:

First, the incomparable variety of landscapes on our long-distance hiking trails. The Triple Crown trails add up to some 7,500 miles of some of the most glorious terrain on the planet. There’s the “long green tunnel” (aka the Appalachian Trail), which turns blazing orange in autumn, and then brown followed by white, and has plenty of above treeline grandeur, as well. Or take the wild and harsh drylands of southern California and New Mexico, and the very different mountain landscapes of the Great Smoky Mountains, the White Mountains, the Colorado Rockies, the High Sierra, the North Cascades, the northern Rockies. I’m always asked if I have a favorite place. How could I possibly? How could you ever choose?

And second: The people. It seems contradictory, but hiking in the wilderness is (as long distance hikers know) also about the people you meet along the way. I’ve hiked with college kids and grandparents, with doctors and police officers and students and the gainfully ,gleefully unemployed. And then there are people from the local communities: The purveyors of trail magic.  When everything in real life turns cranky, it’s comforting to remember the people who leave out a few gallons of water for hikers on a dry stretch, or who invite disgustingly odorous hikers into their homes for a shower, a meal, and a bed, or who volunteer to keep the trails passable. From the raucousness of the Trail Days festival in Damascus Virginia to pictures of hikers relaxing in camp, playing music, goofing off in the rain, or posing atop Katahdin, my pictures of people show the elements of a life lived on the trail.

I’ve been dreading going through my slides in order to organize them for scanning, Thousands of pictures makes for a massive filing job, and filing is not my best subject. But after spending the last couple of days pouring over photos of sunsets over the Maine ponds, above-tree huts in the Whites, snowfields at Muir Pass, sand dunes in the Great Divide Basin, the russet autumn willows of the Wind River mountains, the alpenglow on a Rocky Mountain ridgeline, the groves of quaking aspen turning into treasure troves of gold leaf coins… instead of dreading the project, I’m looking forward to it.

These WERE great days … and I remember.

I’ll be writing much more about them here.