I first published the article, below, back in July 2012. I did so because I thought there were many lessons to be learned from the incident. A recent accident, with many of the same basic facts, occurred last month. Here is a short excerpt from the accident report:
Upon speaking with the subject, he was most anxious to convey to other Yosemite hikers and backpackers that, if they choose to hike alone, they assume additional risks in doing so. With that in mind, they should do all in their power to mitigate any further risks along the way. He left the trail and entered loose, steep, difficult terrain—a choice that could have been deadly if he had not been able to stop his fall. He suggested that those traveling alone should “have a little more humility,” and recognize they are far from help if things do not go as planned.
Well said. If you are considering hiking alone, and almost everyone does from time to time, please take a minute to read this old, but evergreen, blog post.
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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 upside 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 , 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 benefit 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 a 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
Heck, I’m living proof of the ease of injuring yourself ON the trail. I’m one month into healing up from a broken ankle sustained on an easy trail, hiking with a whole group of people. I never saw the darn tree root that grabbed my foot, but the guy behind me said that was what happened. All I knew was that my ankle rolled and I went down. Then it became a matter of how I was going to get back to my car (I didn’t know it was broken until later either). In retrospect, hiking with the group was actually a detriment in one way because I was hiking much faster than I would have solo. Also my own ego – I decided not to use my hiking poles “because it was only a day hike.” Lessons learned.
I’ve lost count on how many times my poles have saved me from a fall; it’s certainly several dozen. Thanks for the comment, Jill!
Great blog post Ray. I have done lots of off-trail hiking for 35+ years, but you are right — you have to constantly remind yourself not to be cavalier. Off-trail, I pay particular attention to underlying rocks that are loose or have potential to teeter, to prevent/minimize fall or twist injuries.
I had a humbling experience a month ago on my own property, which borders a wilderness area. I was working along the stream, and a 150-200 pound rock shifted a couple inches, crushing my hand between it and the overlying rocks. It was only with great effort that I was able to move the rock off my hand. Had the rock been much larger I would have been stuck.
Wow. Great story but a scary experience. Thanks for the comment, Fred.
Good post and always an interesting topic. I believe that it is ok to die. It’s ok when you’re 20, 50 or 100. It is ok to die at any age and at any time; many do. It is indeed sad for those left behind, but it’s not “tragic” to die in the wilderness; it’s a great place to go, far better than a hospital. I’m totally ok with dying out there. I’d rather die that way than never go out at all. But I’m at the age where I think about these things, having known a lot of friends and family to die recently, and I don’t feel entitled to live a long life.
I’m *not* ok with putting others at risk however, either my rescuers or good samaritans, or even fellow hikers in my party. I’m more careful when hiking with others, because if I get injured the pressure is on them to help me.
Terrific comment, Karen. There was a time in my life when I would have disagreed, but I think there is a lot of wisdom in your words. I remember reading a few years back about a group of seventy- and eighty-year-olds who were members of a hiking group. They did NOT avoid trails that had exposure to falls. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but one quote that stuck out to me was something along the line of, “About once a year, one of our members will grab his chest, windmill his arms, and go over the side. Instead of motivating us to pick a different and safer trail, we just nod and hope we go as gracefully.” Thanks for the comment.