A Harsh Reality

There’s an undeniable reality that every time we venture out to wild and remote places we are putting ourselves in a position where there is potential to encounter harmful or life-threatening situations. The more remote and rugged the terrain, the higher the potential for danger. As the climate becomes more extreme this risk increases exponentially. No matter how skilled, educated, or experienced we are, this is a reality that we all should be aware of when we chose to take part in any outdoor activity. For some people this reality is intimidating enough that they generally choose not to venture into wild and remote places, but for others it is this reality that is part of the allure of traveling into the wilderness. Not that we are specifically hoping to find danger, but that we feel alive and nourished as a result of visiting these wild places in a way that we just can’t get in areas densely inhabited by people. Because of this nourishment we choose to venture into the wilderness, in spite of the reality that we are exposing ourselves to countless dangers every time we do. A couple recent experiences have forced me to be more aware of this reality than I have ever been.

One evening in early February I was at home about to read bedtime stories with my step daughter when I heard a voicemail pop up on my phone. I often don’t listen to messages I receive in the evening until the following day, but for whatever reason I felt an urgency about listening to this one. It was from a friend who was calling to let me know that another friend was stranded in the mountains with three other people, pinned down by 100-plus-mile-per-hour winds that had been blowing for nearly 24 hours. The beginnings of a rescue attempt by the local mountain rescue team were underway and they were contacting me because they assumed I knew the best access to the location they were stranded. I know the area very well, and of course offered to be of any assistance needed.

After a long, nearly sleepless night, a ground rescue was initiated around 5 a.m. (attempts to get to them in the night with a helicopter had been unsuccessful due to the continued winds). I headed up the trail toward the ridge they were on just ahead of a few other folks, flagging the route for them to follow. When a small group of us gathered at tree line it was decided that myself and one other guy would make an attempt to get to the stranded foursome with food, water, and warm clothing; in hopes that we would be able to assist them in getting down safely, as the winds were still blowing far too strong to get to them with a helicopter.

The two of us set out from there with the plan to move quick and efficiently, but with the intention of turning around if at any point we felt unsafe or in imminent danger. Luckily the winds had gradually diminished to about 70 or 80 miles per hour and we were able to reach them safely. After assessing their situation (uninjured and not hypothermic) and getting them their first substantial food and water in over 24 hours, we were able to get them to buy into the idea that they could make it down the mountain with our guidance and assistance, but effectively under their own power. Luckily they all had crampons and ice axes, and luckily our assessment was correct. They were able to crawl down the first several pitches where the wind was the strongest and then walk the rest of the way down to the trailhead. Two of the four suffered severe frostbite on their feet and will need to wait months before they are certain whether they will be able to keep all their toes, but otherwise they all made it out alive and safe.

This was easily one of the two or three most intense days I have ever had in the mountains. Aside from the obvious intensity of having people I know exposed to such danger, the sheer force of the wind itself is what is most etched in my mind from this day. I have been out in 40 to 60 mile-per-hour winds numerous times, but the difference between 40 to 60 and 80 to 100-plus is impossible to describe unless you have experienced it.

I woke up the following day and felt pulled in two directions. Part of me wanted to stay in my sweat pants and not leave the house all day, and another part wanted to get back out in the mountains, knowing that that might be the most effective way to process everything from the previous day. The calm, dry, and generally clear weather helped push me to the latter. I was drawn to the idea of going out solo, knowing that I would have the best chance to ‘clear my mind’ that way, but I wanted to take advantage of the good weather and do something up in the mountains and relatively ambitious. After my experiences of the previous day I was unwilling, for safety concerns, to go out on a long outing solo so I poked around and quickly found a friend willing to head out and up for four or five hours.

Despite being very alert and conservative minded as a result of the previous day, we allowed ourselves to get lulled into making some poor choices. We were traversing a ridge that had several icy stretches, but the first several were all sloped in a way that they were quite safe and effortless to travel in the direction we were going. This was a loop route we were doing so we were only intending to travel in this one direction. In hindsight we should have more thoroughly considered how safely we would be able to come back the same way if needed because as we got further along the ridge we encountered several more challenging pitches. We made it slowly and effectively to the last challenge before we would be descending back to the valley. By this point we had passed several moderately challenging crux points (most of which would be harder going the other direction) such that turning back was more or less not an option. This last challenge looked risky, but not significantly more so than many that we had already traversed. If everything had been a simple walk up to this point (as it typically would be without the ice that had formed from the recent winds and freeze/thaw cycles) we almost certainly would have turned back rather than cross this last slope, but with knowing what was behind us it was going to be much safer to cross than it was going to be to turn back.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, we didn’t make it safely across. My friend lost his footing and ended up sliding 400-plus feet down the icy slope and came to a stop out of view below. Luckily he was conscious and seemingly not severely injured. After a few minutes he was able to move to where I could see him and we were able to communicate a plan to meet up in the basin we were originally heading for, as it would have been nearly impossible for me to descend directly down to where he was. I chose to go back and up high on the ridge above the slope he had fallen on, and after about 20 very stressful minutes we were back together. He was visibly very shaken and had some pain in his shoulder/back, but he seemed stable and alert, and he was able to steadily walk the six miles out of there. He suffered three broken ribs and several other minor scrapes, cuts, and bruises, but fortunately avoided any other more serious injuries.

It probably goes without saying, but this experience most certainly did not clear my mind of my experiences from the previous day. It only gave me much more to ponder, process, and integrate over the coming days. As I have worked through all of this in the past few weeks, I have had dozens of reactions and responses to the things I experienced those two days.

I realize more now than ever just how important it is to learn not only from our experiences, but the experiences of those around us. No matter how educated and experienced we are at anything there are always going to be new things to react to, and new things to understand. I learned so much about mountain safety, and about myself in these two days, but I remain more aware than ever about how continual of a process of understanding I am on. No matter how much I think I comprehend, there are always going to be situations and decisions which seem to occur inexplicably. I think the most important thing we can do to properly deal with these situations is to be aware that they are going to come, and to not be too overwhelmed by the fear of this reality. This isn’t to say that we can’t and shouldn’t do certain things to attempt to avoid dangerous and challenging situations, but no matter how diligent we are it is inevitable that unexpected challenges will arise in life. It is how we respond to these situations, not how well we avoid these situations that really shapes us into the people that we become.

Certainly there are numerous things that could have been done in both of these circumstances to avoid the amount of danger that was ultimately present. My direct involvement in both of these situations will forever change the way I approach and respond to similar situations going forward, but I don’t hold any illusion that I am never again going to be in a dangerous situation. Not that I ever have or ever will ever go out looking to put myself in danger, but there is a harsh reality that our safety in this life is a fairly fragile and fleeting thing. We have any amazing ability to survive and persevere, but our strength in the face of mountains, rivers, glaciers, weather, and other aspects of the natural world of this planet is essentially zero. If we immerse ourselves in this natural world we are going to be humbled by, and challenged by its strength over us time and time again. We can either accept this reality and pursue a path of constant learning through our experiences, or we can attempt to reject it by avoiding the natural world altogether. I will forever embrace the former, a feeling that has been even more solidified by my recent humbling experiences.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you ever been in a situation where the natural world felt more dangerous than welcoming, or where your skill level didn’t meet the requirements of a route you were trying to travel? How did you make it out of that situation?
  • From those harsh experiences, what did you learn and what do you take forward into your future adventures?

There are 15 comments

  1. @frumioj

    Thanks for this insightful post Geoff!

    I have this winter encountered many dangerous situations on the trails.

    In the middle of a long run in sub-zero (F) temps, I got frostbite on a finger. I knew I was getting dangerously cold despite the clothing I had on, and simply had to run my way out – another 8 miles back home.

    On a different run, I also fell very heavily from a high rock, landing down the hill, after a fall of only 6 feet. I landed almost entirely on my left hand, leaving my thumb very swollen and with several large cuts on the hand. In the middle of nowhere, I had to run the last 6 miles home.

    What I have learned from these experiences is very similar to the way Geoff describes his experiences.

    Despite my best efforts to protect myself, I have been in dangerous situations.

    Like Geoff, I plan on continuing my trail running adventures as long as possible. But here's the issue I've found about myself. Not only do I discover new situations that have not previously encountered. But each year older I grow, I have new vulnerabilities. Perhaps my body runs cooler than it used to, which explains why I got frostbite on a day that previously hasn't bothered me with the same clothing? Each new pair of running shoes has a different feel when running; and different properties on slippery rock. All of these things are continuously changing – not just the conditions *outside* me, but also conditions *inside* me.

    Ultimately, I feel that my best protection is going to be that I always consider that I will have to save myself if something goes wrong. And I continuously assess whether I feel OK with that – if I have to save myself – do I feel I can still do it? And is it still OK, even if I can't save myself? In other words, I give myself up to the possibility that I may make a terrible or fatal mistake, or one that relies on someone else. I defend as much as I can against those mistakes, but I worry that one day, I will make a fatal mistake. I can only hope that before that mistake is made because of the inevitable decline in my skills and fitness, I adjust appropriately.

    Perhaps, finally, I will have to buy that treadmill my wife has been suggesting? ;)

  2. McDuff

    The harsh reality is that your bad decisions can affect others, which you allude to in the first story. A good lesson too on how a series of seemingly innocuous choices can lead to something unexpected down the line. Glad all made it through unscathed.

    As more people head out in search of these "experiences" I can't help but think that if you choose to have an experience where a SPOT locator might be needed, as was the case recently of an experienced hiker who headed into the Presidential range with a blizzard forecast, you should leave the locator behind and assume total responsibility for yourself and your fate. If you come out on the other side, great. You've "lived" how you wanted to live. And if you don't? Well, at least you didn't put others at risk and your loved ones will know you died doing something you felt compelled to do, even if your days ended a bit sooner than expected.

    Maybe I've read too many close call accounts recently. Why are these the only kinds of experiences that make some people feel like they are truly living/connecting? I guess I know they're not, but it does often seem to be the theme running through accounts like this/these?

    Not from my own, but from others close calls I have learned to not knowingly put myself in situations where I might have to rely on others for a way out. Or maybe my needs are very simple. Heck, I'm still amazed at the way the sun comes up every morning, a full moon lighting up a snowy pasture or the three bald eagles I saw last weekend in a relatively urban park. Sometimes it's all right in front of you. Which makes it harder to see ;-)

    1. pretensesoup

      Your attitude seems a bit harsh–"good luck, and don't make any mistakes"? I think the way people develop the judgement to know whether or not something is a bad idea is kind of by getting into these types of situations. I mean, obviously I can read stuff and know that I shouldn't try to go live in an empty van in the Alaskan wilderness, or (a la this story), go up into the mountains when it's super windy, but hasn't everyone taken a wrong turn, or even gone down a ski run that turned out to be too difficult for their perceived skill level? Isn't the logical conclusion of your theory that if Geoff's friend hadn't been able to walk back to the trail head (and assuming Geoff couldn't carry him), he should have left him there to die?

      I mean, I'm one to talk–I live where there are no mountains, and about the worst outdoor running experiences I have involve walking in the last six miles of a marathon after a pretty bad fall messed up my hip, or accidentally winding up running through knee-deep snow. And I also find people who intentionally seek dangerous thrills for the purpose of feeling like they're "truly living" kind of annoying. But I think everyone makes some mistakes, don't you?

      1. McDuff

        Your attitude seems a bit harsh–"good luck, and don't make any mistakes"?

        I didn't say that.?

        "Isn't the logical conclusion of your theory that if Geoff's friend hadn't been able to walk back to the trail head (and assuming Geoff couldn't carry him), he should have left him there to die?"

        No. They went out together and were in it together. That seems more logical to me.

        I guess what I am more curious about is the different things or levels or risks people choose to go through to feel "alive" or in touch with the natural world. Which maybe goes beyond what Geoff is writing about here. But that's what his article brought to mind for me probably because I have read other recent accounts of near misses as I mentioned before. Everyone is different, so there are many approaches.

        I make mistakes every single day.

    2. Jill Homer

      Much of what people perceive as risk is mitigated by skill and experience. Everything in life carries some level of risk, but people put on blinders around the situations which they are most familiar. Pedestrians are killed by vehicles every day, and yet you don't see much criticism for the "dangerous" and "unnecessary" past-time of running on roads.

      Of course mountain environments are different. The margins can be tighter. There are many more unknowns (unfamiliarities.) The numbers of participants are far fewer. There will always be factors outside your control (as there is with everything.) Mistakes can be and are made. But with the right skill, experience, preparations, and knowledge, a windy mountain ridge can be a manageable and survivable environment — maybe even more so than a busy urban street.

      It's always an important consideration — what activities make you "feel alive?" What are the risks involved? Why do you disregard them?

      1. McDuff

        In the same sense can't all that skill and experience lead to blinders too? I can see how it would give someone confidence to keep pushing on when perhaps it is not the best thing to do.. I dunno. It works out sometimes and sometimes not. But it's in our nature to explore I think. Every day we might make small decisions that lead to our demise. I guess when it happens in the natural world, it's amplified somehow.

        "She stood, finally, her canvas Keds tied tight, on May 3, 1955, atop the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world, facing the peaks on the blue-black horizon that stretched toward heaven and unfurled before her for days. Facing a mean landscape of angry rivers and hateful rock she stood, a woman, mother of eleven and grandmother of twenty-three. She had not been able to get the trail out of her mind. She had thought of it constantly back home in Ohio, where she tended her small garden and looked after her grandchildren, biding her time until she could get away.

        When she finally could, it was 1955, and she was sixty-seven years old."

        -Ben Montgomery, Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail

        Amazing, right? I'm kind of glad she took those risks.

    3. northacrosseurope

      "Heck, I'm still amazed at the way the sun comes up every morning, a full moon lighting up a snowy pasture or the three bald eagles I saw last weekend in a relatively urban park. Sometimes it's all right in front of you. Which makes it harder to see ;-) "

      I love McDuff's comment. So true. To feel alive all you really need to do is pay attention, no matter where you are! :-)

  3. ClownRunner

    All your years of training/racing/suffering was put to good use. Nice work. And another good couple of stories for when you're sitting around the fire, sifting through the embers…I am surprised there were no thugs stealing the flags you left on the ridge for the rescue team….:)

  4. northacrosseurope

    I REALLY enjoyed Geoff’s piece. I thought it was thoughtful, well written, and shows deep appreciation for the realities of the sometimes harsh landscapes that he – and we – move through. Even taking into account Geoff’s second story I sense he feels real humility in the face of the outdoors, something I’d say is essential if one wants to spend many years visiting wild places and also reach old age!

    The subject “how our actions impact not just ourselves but others too” seems like a thoroughly worthwhile theme to delve into. This 'harsh reality' was a subject I considered only passingly as a youth, but wrestle with often now as a parent, knowing full well what a mistake would mean to those who now depend upon me…

    When I was 23 I slipped and bounced down a glacier in the Alps, loosing 1,000 feet of altitude rather more quickly than I wanted! I was on a week-long solo trip, in a remote location, and for the first time had to fully accept the consequences of my actions. It was a life-changing moment for sure – it truly brought home how my “safety in this life is a fairly fragile and fleeting thing”, as Geoff observes above. I had a great deal to think about, once I'd rescued myself, and while I lay recovering in hospital. But the accident didn’t stop me from heading to mountains, although my approach afterwards became significantly more careful! What this near-death experience did was to set me examining what it was that I wanted from life, and it led – ultimately – to giving up work and the ‘normal way of doing things’ and heading off alone into the wilds for months at a time.

    I couldn’t then, and still can’t now, give up being in the wild. I don’t go running or backpacking to experience dangerous thrills – far from it – but potentially dangerous situations will always arise, as Geoff observes, and to be honest, managing them safely is one element (of many) that makes being in the wild worthwhile.

    I love Geoff’s frequent references to the fact that he is forever learning: “I remain more aware than ever about how continual of a process of understanding I am on.” I feel this too, even after three decades of wilderness travel. I might feel more at home out there than ever but a deep feeling of humility stops me from taking any aspect of the wild for granted. This humility grows each year, not lessons.

    The activities I engage in now would likely seem outrageously dangerous to some people who have no real contact with nature, but they are tame compared with what I once did. I used to spend weeks on end traveling alone in the wild (through places like Kluane and the northern Rockies in Canada), and no one ever knew where I was. A simple mistake would have been costly, but the rewards FAR outweighed the risks. Self-reliance IS an empowering thing! These days, I have several safeguards in place, but only for my dependents sake, not for mine. My need for uncluttered connection with the wild remains entirely undiminished.

    The wild is home. It is not something to fear, but it is definitely something to respect.

    Apologies for the long post! Must dash… there's nearly two feet of fresh snow out there this morning… time for a long off-trail powder run. And my wife knows where I'm going and when I'll be back. :-)

    (PS: kudos to Geoff for the rescue!)

  5. Mike_the_runner

    I think it's a different equation when talking about wilderness experiences when you are responsible for more than yourself. If you're single and going into the wild – that's on you. If you have a family, I believe it's a different consideration when going into the wild. Not saying to stay on sidewalks, but to put yourself in a position where the consequences can impact your family is irresponsible. Maybe I'm a downer, but that's a trade-off, or at least additional consideration in the decision making process, we all make when you have a family. For me it's being very mindful of lightning…I alter the timing of my adventure runs to mitigate the risk as much as possible, and I've bailed on many runs early due to threatening weather before it went bad or blew over and wasn't a big deal. Maybe I missed out on a longer run, but I'd rather come home safe than have an exciting story to tell.

    1. northacrosseurope

      Having a family most definitely effects how I act in the wild. And if you saw how I acted in the wild you might withdraw your judgment that by going I am being irresponsible.

      I’m genuinely fascinated by this: do you really see the wild as being so full of danger that parents who enter it are behaving irresponsibly? What about parents like me who spend as much time in the wild with their children as by themselves? Is that irresponsible? What about Geoff Roes? He’s a parent…

      From what I can see, there are a great many ways parents can be irresponsible, both in their own actions and in the actions and choices they allow their kids to take. Just turn on the news! Compared with what you'll see there my wilderness visits seem very mild to me!

      The secret to life, as I see it, lies in finding balance… in all things; in family, work, and in play; in how we relate to one another and in how we treat the earth we all share. For me, the right balance involves (amongst many other things) spending some time alone in untrammeled places. I function far better as a parent because of it.

      And I take heart from how my kids behave. Today was a snow day, the schools were closed, and my kids didn’t choose to spend it indoors watching TV. I wish you could have heard their laughter, and seen their smiles, as they rolled around in the snow, immersing themselves in the natural world…

  6. safety_officer

    That story had a better ending than the one in New Hampshire earlier this month.
    http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/hampshire-moun

    Trips in wild spaces are extremely valuable to the human experience. However, everything has a blanace. Knowing when to stop and turnaround is often a harder decision than deciding to push forward. The reality is sometimes unexpected things happen. Having the skills and knowledge to deal with those situations can mean life or death in some instances.

  7. grroes

    Thanks all for the responses. I think there are bits of logic and wisdom in everything posted here (more in some than others). My general response to everything here in totality is that I think it's really important to remember that this is not a black and white conversation. Everything is on a spectrum. Going out in the wilderness doesn't mean the same thing in all cases, and doesn't have a quantifiable degree of danger. there or dozens of factors which influence the amount of risk and danger. Much the same way that there are with driving down the road or walking down the sidewalk. In many cases the most risky part of an outdoor adventure might be the drive to the trailhead, and in many cases it may not. It all depends on the things that are encountered. No matter what we do in life we will at times encounter dangerous situations. we can live life in denial of this or in fear of these situations or we can remain ever present with this reality and realize that someday we are all going to end up in a situation that is dangerous and life threatening. it's not a pleasant thing to think about, but it's reality. we are all on the same path in this regard. we all knowingly put ourselves in dangerous situations where we might need to rely on others for help every moment of everyday. We do this simply by living life. This is the harsh reality… and also one of the most comforting and worthwhile aspects of being the social creatures that we are. We support each other and we help each other when in need. you might try to convince yourself that you can make choices that will guarantee that you will never need to rely on someone else for your safety or for your life, but this is simply not something that one can legitimately achieve.

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