This post is courtesy of Rob Hart, a photographer, writer, climber, hiker, diver, and adventurer from Boise, Idaho. He also happens to the person that taught me how to climb and was the catalyst for some of my more memorable adventures. All the photos in this post are from his website www.hartimages.com, where you can read more of his essays and see and purchase prints of his photographs.
The following article was written for the participants of a backcountry adventure run called the Death Hike. It is a loosely organized, un-sanctioned, un-official, ultra-marathon that covers from between 25 and 90 miles in a single day. Each person is totally self-sufficient during the event. It takes place each year in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho.
Death Hike Ramblings
“Things that have never happened before happen all the time” – so said Scott Sagen in his book The Limits of Safety. And so it will be that one year, perhaps even this year, someone will become a truly unfortunate victim of the Death Hike ritual. The odds increase every year.
One person, running back and forth across a central-Nevada freeway, might not get hit by a car for years. Well-timed sprints, good shoes, and choosing the hours of minimal traffic, could still find this person living a quite long and uneventful life – other than the occasional eventfulness of plunging into traffic. However, if there are dozens of co-morbid sprinters frogging across the Los Angeles I-5 at rush hour, then inevitably someone is going to eat chrome. It’s rudimentary statistics. In many respects the Death Hike has become the freeway – and all of you, myself included, are the traffic sprinters. Instead of pavement and speeding steel containers, the simple forces of the mountain realm are what will cull us from the herd.
Mountain accidents happen all the time, although none of them are true accidents. Each disaster starts with a single human error, which then gains momentum. And if left unchecked these errors gain energy, gathering more errors by neglect or through our own attempts to correct them. As Laurence Gonzales writes in his book Deep Survival, “The seemingly simplest accident is complex, if only because it involves the human brain.” We cannot escape the pitfalls of the Sawtooth Mountains; the jagged rocks and spans of scree, the patches of boilerplate snow and the giardia riven water, the West Nile mosquitoes, the poorly spaced roots, boulders, and creeks that complicate the trails. By entering such an environment we challenge everything our brains can handle, everything basic – just pure physics versus our own evolved, emotional, primitive brains. We can plan for everything – and be sabotaged by a pine needle through the eardrum or a small grain of calcium wedged in the slender tubes that drain our kidneys.
Most of our lives are spent in relative safety. Everything around you is engineered to keep you safe and productive, to keep the machinery of industry moving forward. The airbags in your car, the sea of signs along a road, antibacterial soap, sunglasses and safety glass, warning labels on food, mattresses, iPods and scissors – everything is designed for your safety in mind. Because, God forbid you ever fall out of the taxpayer environment. The mountains have no such engineering strategy. They are raw and untamed places where nature calls the shots and we must be able to tuck and roll. You will all screw up sometime, and perhaps you have already done so dozens of times in the past – only you got away with it; the events didn’t line up to produce a disaster; you didn’t even know you had tipped over the first domino. It’s not about if its going to happen, it’s about when.
I think that we often underestimate the scale of the mountains that we frequent here in Idaho. The vast acres of wilderness and miles of white water – nothing in our normal lives gives us any hint at such forces, forces that are hidden by such beauty. How could something so beautiful want to kill us; want to suck the moisture from our bodies, tear the skin from our knees, freeze us and bake us and drown us – it just doesn’t seem possible. But to venture into the wilderness is to be drawn into a wondrous trap, one that, if you emerge without a scrape, you will forever want to return – with vivid memories of happiness and fun. These happy memories are stored in our little gray brains where they are played back over and over again, slowly becoming only the highpoints, only the best memories. And so, with a brain full of only good memories, you plan your future adventures. Each successful outing will add to your bank of experience, tempting you to push the envelope a little farther each time. “Nothing happened last time, so why should it happen today – the weather is even better and I have these great new shoes.” You are, however, working with only half of the potential experience – the good half. By having no reservoir of bad experiences, of the steepest grade on the learning curve, you are heading into the woods not as a well-rounded mountaineer, but just another lucky guy about to step off the glossy slope of the bell curve.
Each person that signs on as a Death Hike participant will have some minor flaw in their day, or perhaps many – but almost none will evolve into a life-altering ordeal. They will pass by un-noticed and benign. But epics happen all the time. It’s the nature of nature – and no one is immune to an epic.
A blister could cause you some pain, pain enough to make you stop and repair it. The 15 minutes you spent applying tape and arranging your sock might have made the difference in finding the correct trail cutoff at twilight or seeing a headlamp in the distance. During the day the blister needs to be repaired multiple times and you curse your brand new shoes and your lack of proper break-in. The time spent repairing heels eats at your day and you push harder to make up time. You don’t want to hike in the dark twice in one day – you want to finish with a good time, to prove something to yourself and to your friends. In your rush you drink less and forget to put on sunscreen at mid-day, and your neck and arms redden with UV exposure. Things are starting to snowball – although you still don’t know it. The chaos theory is taking hold of your life. You begin to feel dehydrated, your mouth has a metallic taste and when you try to pee it burns deep amber. Your partner, who is more fit, has gone ahead – “just running for a little ways on this downhill section.” You never see him again. Your water bottle is empty. You stop at the next stream to fill up, but your partner has the pump and he is way ahead now. You are alone – and so you drink now – even if it means diarrhea later. The sun begins to set and now, instead of hurrying, your heels are so painful that you are barely moving. Emotion and work has dangerously lowered your blood sugar – your energy – and you begin to stumble on small irregularities in the trail. Your emotions turn black as you put your headlamp back on your head. “I’m taking too long. This forest sucks. This trail sucks – I suck!” As you check the maps and question your position your headlamp starts to dim and you remember that you do not have any spare batteries. In the dark, disoriented by overwhelming fatigue and psychological collapse, you miss a critical turn in the trail. The twilight becomes carbon blackness. You hold your serviceless cell phone next to the ground, letting the screen illuminate what you think is the trail, praying you come to a camp – or more water. You forget to eat, food doesn’t sound good anyway – in fact, you feel nauseous. You decide to sit for a while – just a little nap, in the dark, in the cold rocky dirt of the trail, where you die during the night of hypothermia, in a hypoglycemic coma.
Gonzales describes this sort of falling of dominos as the Butterfly Effect, “the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.” A tiny little thing like ‘not breaking in your shoes could lead to your death’ is a little hard to believe – but so are most mountain epics when viewed from only the first mistake. By accepting the fact the shit happens and that we will ultimately be involved in something bad, we can then become more flexible with what nature has to throw at us. Rigidity of plans spells disaster – if that is what is about to happen. Adapting to the environment with a brain full of mistakes and near-disasters is what will keep us safe. Interacting with the wilderness on every level, and as much as possible, will build strong memories and give us the ability to deal with situations in creative ways. Hiking in the pouring rain for three days, camping in snow caves, forgetting your sleeping bag or stove, becoming sick with the flu during a month of remote trekking – these will all build suppleness into your backcountry survival kit, that primitive neural network that is so often preoccupied trying to find food, water, and the opposite sex.
Survival is one part art and one part skill. To tackle a long distance adventure run in the mountains for the first time is great. But to do it knowing that your total knowledge of such an ordeal is based on doing two marathons or triathlons is asking for trouble. You may be the fittest guy around (which can be an advantage since speed in the wilderness usually equals safety) but if your mental picture of how you will behave during a backcountry run is based on aid stations, volunteer massage therapists, medical help, cheering crowds, parked cars with heat, and guys handing out Powerbars – you may become the next epic. Your brain, specifically your hippocampus, may not have the information required to give you correct bearings in a mountainous forested world. Your memory may not have the past experiences to keep you safe, to break the chain of falling dominos, to maintain all of the physical calculations that go into each and every step on uneven ground, to manage your body alone – without the food and water being thrust at you at precalculated intervals. And if something does happen – will you recognize it? Or will it be some catastrophic accident such as breaking a leg, which then will put your wilderness art degree to the test.
Be humble in the wilderness – for it is large and quite capable of extinguishing you with the slightest of ease. Never underestimate the power of knowledge – ask questions of previous Death Hikers, utilize their mistakes to your advantage. Don’t place your life into the electrical hands of technology, because when it fails – so will you. Prepare by experience. Prepare by learning simple mountaincraft. Prepare by being flexible and knowing when, and where, to bail out of a bad situation. Enjoy the beauty of the Sawtooth Mountains, because even during an epic, if you still find splendor in your surroundings, you will also find yourself open to options that would normally pass by a clouded mind. And if something bad does happen – enjoy each moment of success as you try to extricate yourself from the disaster, set small goals, and never give up. For twenty years the Death Hike has thinned the herd of would-be adventurers, and for twenty years there has never been a serious injury. Sure, there has been the occasional broken ‘this’ or sprained ‘that’, but nothing horrific – just like the adolescent years of the space shuttle program. Be prepared and know for yourself what you are getting into – because 99% of the past participants wouldn’t trade the experience for anything; chains of sparkling emerald lakes, jagged wild ridges of whitebark pine and pink granite, deep green forest of pine and ferns, the wonderful openness and isolation, the amazing fact that humans can do such a thing and see such places. It truly is amazing.