The Sierra Nevada is known as “The Gentle Wilderness” for lots of reasons, but each year visitors manage to prove that the name doesn’t always apply. About the only upsides to that unfortunate truth are the lessons we can learn from their missteps (both figurative and literal).
An event took place within Yosemite National Park, on June 28th of this year, which painfully illustrates one critical lesson: hiking alone and hiking off-trail substantially increase the danger of injury or death.
Before I get into the details, I want to emphasize that I am not asserting that hiking alone, hiking off-trail, or doing both at the same time is never the right thing to do. Some risks are worth the benefits, and individual hikers need to make that risk/benefit calculation based on their own values and judgment. This story should provide some context for those calculations.
The hiker in question was an older gentleman, in excellent shape, and with hiking experience. He left a “hike plan” with his wife in two ways: a voice mail on her cell phone and a text message to the same device. Neither worked out exactly as planned (the voice message wasn’t noticed for hours, and the text message was never received at all), but that single act of good judgment probably saved his life.
The trip he had chosen was up the Illilouette Creek drainage towards Illilouette Falls. The going was difficult. His route took him over lots of boulders, both large and small, and was increasingly steep. He reached an area near the base of the falls without incident, and without seeing another hiker for the duration of the scramble.
As he neared the falls, he decided to try a route which, almost imperceptibly, went from class 3, to class 4, to class 5. Not long after that, he lost his footing and tumbled 100 feet to a granite slab below.
Fortunately, he had the good sense to fall at place with some—not great, but some—cell phone coverage. After communicating with the rescue team, and after spending a very uncomfortable night where he fell (the rescuers did not arrive until near dark), he was evacuated and transported to a trauma center. None of his extensive injuries (including five different fractures) were life threatening, but it’s safe to say he’ll be doing no more hiking for months.
First the obvious: had he failed to leave a “hike plan” and had fallen somewhere without cell phone coverage, he very likely would have died. Since depending on a cell phone is lunacy, the big lesson is to make sure someone knows your intentions, including when you plan to leave, your route, and what you have with you.
The second lesson is a bit more subtle, particularly for less experienced hikers: it is amazing how easily you can transition from a class 3 hike to a class 5 climb, almost without noticing. There are no signs, off-trail, that announce you are leaving one kind of wilderness experience and are about to enter a new and far more perilous one.
Here are two cues that should immediately put you on high alert:
1. You start to use your hands.
2. You expose yourself to falls.
These signals are impossible to miss. The second you touch a hand to the ground, you have entered a new and more precarious phase of your hike. Even when there is no exposure to heights, it probably means that you are on uneven terrain, and you can break a leg on uneven terrain in a moment.
When it comes to exposure the rule is simple: if where you are standing is higher off the surrounding ground than you would want to jump, you need to treat it as a climb, not a hike. Remember, also, that the fall need not be vertical or even near vertical. Throughout the Sierra Nevada there are plenty of places where the incline starts benign enough, but the granite is slippery and the slope increases rapidly (anyone climbed the back of Half Dome?).
I go off trail, alone, all the time. When I do, however, the envelope of permissible situations I allow myself to get into shrinks considerably and I become twice as careful as my normal cautious self. If you’re going to push yourself or challenge your limits, take a buddy.
Good hiking, Ray