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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat


Heeding the Still, Small Voice

By Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

Ed and Brenna will be back next week with a new boat, all ready to get on with their "Trip of a Lifetime." This week, however, the news of a narrow escape in the Adirondack High Peaks reminds Farwell of the importance of not depending too much on the kindness of strangers—whatever the season of the year.

March 13, 2001

Last Sunday, as I was sitting down to write "Batteries Not Included," two young men were snowshoeing along the trail from the parking lot at Adirondak Loj toward the ranger's cabin at Lake Colden. They were strong and fit and confident. So confident, in fact, that they got up at two in the morning, intending to slog four miles on snowshoes, watch the sunrise from Algonquin (elevation 5,114 feet), drop down to Lake Colden, and then slog another four miles to the top of Mt. Marcy, at 5,344 feet New York's highest peak. Once there, they planned to camp on top of the mountain and hike out the next day. Total distance? Twenty miles, more or less. Total elevation gain? Somewhere around 6,000 feet. Piece of cake, eh?

Well, I suppose it might have been, but for the storm making its way up the East Coast while the two young men were trudging toward Lake Colden. As things turned out, however, three feet of new snow blanketed the Adirondack High Peaks in the next 48 hours. The tracks left by earlier hikers disappeared beneath the drifts, and the two young men found themselves snow-bound just below the summit of Mt. Marcy. Worse yet, their snowshoes, designed for packed tracks and steep slopes, proved all but useless in deep powder. In the end, they spent three nights on the mountain, not one—and three long days struggling to plow their way back to Lake Colden. When they finally stumbled on a packed trail left by a search party and followed it to the ranger's cabin on Wednesday, they were exhausted, dehydrated and hungry. It had been a couple of days since they'd last eaten a meal.

Still, they were alive. A happy ending? Yes. But it could easily have been otherwise. The two young men were strong and fit. Since they were planning to spend the night on the mountain, they'd brought a tent, sleeping bags, and a stove. And they had snowshoes, even if these weren't much help. But what if they'd been less fit, or less well-equipped? What if they'd completely missed the trail left by the search party? Then they might never have made it out.

The press coverage that followed their safe return ignored these questions. The "incident commander" who directed the rescue summed things up this way: "They were smart. They had shelter. They hunkered down and they did the right thing. When things cleared, they were on the move."

Fair enough. They did the right thing once they got into trouble. But that's not quite the same as avoiding trouble in the first place, is it? And avoiding trouble, not surviving it, is the hallmark of all really "smart" backcountry travelers.

So…where did the the two young men go wrong?

First and foremost, they relied too much on the kindness of strangers. On Sunday afternoon, they stopped to visit with the ranger at Lake Colden. By their account, the ranger told them that a "small storm" was in the offing. They apparently accepted this without question, even though "it started to get real snowy" shortly after they resumed climbing. They had no barometer, and therefore no way to judge the intensity of the approaching low. They had no understanding of the limits of forecasting, particularly in mountainous areas. And, most importantly, they ignored the evidence of their own senses. The ranger had reassured them that the storm was nothing to worry about. He was the expert, after all. They relied on his judgment. With what result? They continued on up the mountain in the face of a deepening winter storm.

I call this the Blanche Du Bois syndrome, after the tragic heroine in Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche, too, depended on "the kindness of strangers." It didn't help her much in the end, I'm sorry to say. And it's never been a good idea in the backcountry. You can't delegate responsibility for your own safety, after all. Experts—even experts in uniform—can be wrong. In fact, they frequently are. Experts become experts by making mistakes. But a ranger having a cup of coffee in his cabin won't be the one who pays the price for your mistakes on a mountain or a river. However well-intentioned an expert may be, therefore, and however well-informed he (or she) is, it's always your ass on the line. So, if what you see doesn't jibe with something that you've been told by an expert, believe what you see.

Moreover, heed the Scout motto: "Be prepared." It's not enough to have good gear. You have to use it properly. And you have to know its limitations. The young men on Marcy were dehydrated at the end of their ordeal. Why? Because most water's frozen on winter peaks, and winter air is very dry. Every breath sucks moisture away from your capillaries. Even though Tamia and I aren't often plowing through drifts, we drink more water in winter than we do in high summer. (How do we know? Because every gallon we drink has to be hauled into our cabin.) But the two young men on Marcy had a stove. They should have been able to melt ice and snow easily. Why didn't they, then? I don't know. Maybe the stove wasn't working. Maybe they ran out of fuel. Maybe they started to panic and simply didn't stop for a mug-up. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that these young men couldn't cope with one of the most common problems of winter backcountry travel.

Nor did they have enough food. Tamia and I take several days' worth of concentrated food—chocolate and hard candy, mostly—whenever we go for a winter walk, even if we're only going into the woods behind our cabin. Neither of us would think of heading up Marcy in winter without at least three days' rations in our packs.

And what about the young mens' snowshoes? The little metal-frame bearpaws used by climbers are almost useless in deep drifts. If you're going out to bag a couple of winter peaks, and if you're smart, you'll bring snowshoes suited to all conditions that you might encounter on (and off) the trail. A nuisance? Certainly. But not as much of a nuisance as three days spent floundering through hip-deep snow on the flanks of a mountain.

Be prepared. It's very good advice. But what if, despite your best efforts, you're not prepared? What then? At the first sign of trouble, heed the still, small voice in your ear, whispering caution. Turn round. Come back another day.

Simple, isn't it? Yet it's one of the hardest things for most of us to do. Pride is involved, of course. It's hard even for an over-the-hill hack like me to heed that still, small voice. It's all but impossible for a fit young man or woman. But it's important all the same. Nature doesn't care what happens to you or me. She kills the unprepared every day, in all seasons of the year, whatever their age or promise. She's neither malevolent nor kindly. She just is. And she won't respond to threats or flattery. You're either prepared or you're not. If you are, you'll get where you're going and get out again, and probably have a good time in the process. If you're not, though, you'll likely have an "adventure"—if you're lucky. And if you're not lucky? Then you'll die.

That's a very high price to pay for stubborn pride or inattention. Happily, though, it's easy to be smart. Winter or summer, whether on a mountain or a river, simply heed the still, small voice. And always be prepared. Take what you need—or might need—and know how to use what you take. Don't depend on the kindness of strangers, either. Listen to the experts, to be sure, but never forget whose ass is on the line. Someday you'll be glad you remembered.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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