Sometimes Hikers Die

March 18, 2010 · 0 comments

Two hikers got lost on Blackhead Mountain last weekend.  One of them died.

When I talk to people about my hiking adventures, they are of one or two mindsets:

a.  They think it’s all just a walk in the woods and that nothing could be easier, or

b.  They think I’m some kind of sick idiot with a deathwish.

Needless to say, these are two extreme thoughts, and reality is somewhere in the middle.  Most people are of the ‘b’ type.  Others (the ‘a’ type) don’t believe that it’s dangerous at all.  Then they read articles like the one in the link above and become ‘b’ converts.

It’s a shame what happened to those two hikers last weekend; I’ve climbed Blackhead probably four or five times in the past couple of years.  It’s not particularly difficult and has some spectacular views – arguablysome of my favorites in all of the Catskills.

I was talking to a buddy of mine on the ADKHighPeaks forum today (yes, there are other hiking geeks out there besides me – I’ve found my people), and he offered to hike with me this weekend if I was planning on doing Kaaterskill High Peak (the final mountain in my winter peakbagging extravaganza) alone.  He offered to skip the mountains on his list for this weekend and partner up if I didn’t have anyone to go with.  I was like “fuck yeah, I’d be happy to have you along,” but “fuck no, you can’t come if you’re going to miss out on your goals.”  Well, more or less; that’s a paraphrase.  Theoretically, Scott will be bagging this last peak with me (which will also be 30/35 for his regular 3500 Club patch, I believe), but I probably just jinxed the whole fucking thing by not only saying that out loud, but saying it out loud ON THE INTERNET.

Anyway, it’s getting late, so I’m just going to scrape the PM I sent to my buddy and use it as my blog post.  It pretty much covers (in a broad sense) my feelings on hiking solo.  People ask me about that all the time (e.g. “isn’t that DANEgerous?”), and I may as well tell you about it too, dear reader.  So here we go:

I feel ya on the spooked thing as far as that dude dying on Blackhead goes.  I read the posts in WoolyBear’s thread – though I missed out on the ones that were deleted – the forum had a lot more detail than the couple of news articles I read.  The articles called those guys “experienced hikers”, but from what I read, they weren’t wearing snowshoes.  I feel pretty bad about the whole situation and I don’t want to start recounting all the things they “should have” done, but from what I read there are some pretty simple precautions that I take for every hike that those two didn’t.

Honestly bro, I think about dying on the mountain all the time.  Especially because I hike solo.  And that’s probably the thing that gets me safe & sound back to the car every time.  I’m well aware of the fact that one little mistake could lead to a broken ankle or something, so I’m much more careful than I would be if I were playing in the back yard.  I know it only takes one little thing to turn a situation bad – a rolled/broken ankle turns a 5 hour walk in the woods into a 10 hour struggle to just get back to the car.

I carry the basic emergency gear with me – bivy and whatnot – and I ALWAYS know where I am.  I have no sense of direction, so I keep an eye on my map, compass and altimeter regularly.  I carry raingear, an extra layer and a headlamp; I’ve always got more water than I need and/or a filter.  There’s a bunch of other things that I do “just in case” – I wasn’t a boy scout, but I think they’ve got a great motto.  The point is, while I can’t predict what’s going to happen on a particular day on any given mountain, I can hedge my bets to keep me safe.  And I respect Mother Nature.  She’s a sweetheart, but can be a cruel mistress if I don’t keep an eye out for myself.  Huh.  A lot like my ex-wife, that way.

Above all, I don’t panic.  That’s what happened to those two hikers last weekend:  they panicked.  It sucks to say, but I’m sure that’s what got them so hung up.  It’s a shitty way to go, and not the way I plan on going.  I’m knocking wood as I write this.  If Mother Nature wants to hold me against my will in the bosom of some mountain forevermore, she’s welcome to try, but I plan on staying slippery so I can get my hands on her tits another day and tell good stories.

No matter what happens, I don’t panic.  In scary situations, I lean heavily on the things that I know:  I’m prepared for most eventualities and I have a good idea of where I am and the most direct route to a road or civilization or something.  I climbed Doubletop and Graham back on 2/13 and got popped in the eye by a branch about 100 yards off the summit of Graham.  It took me several hours longer than it should have to get back to the car – what should have been an easy and fun bushwhack turned into a friggin nightmare of pain and uncertainty – then I had to drive 8 miles just to get to 28 where I could flag down a cop and get a ride to the emergency room.  I had my parents come pick me up that night, after driving another 30 or 40 miles or so to get back to 87 and realizing I’d never make it down the Thruway like that.  I was out of work for a week.  My cornea was scratched real bad and it was still a little blurry now.  Scary shit at the time, but I didn’t freak out.

Anyway, enough of the effin rant.  Hang on to that ambition:  it’ll get you up and down those last 5 mountains in time.  Just be prepared and weigh out your game-time decisions carefully (and, btw, they’re all game-time decisions:  we plan, god laughs), you’re a sharp guy and you know your limitations.

I’m not getting any mixed messages from you; we’re cool.  I appreciate the offer, but either way I’d want you to shoot to finish your lists.  Good luck and if you need a shuttle, let me know.

So yeah, talk to you soon and kick some ass this weekend.

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