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?