Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Tough Lessons from a Failed Hike

"We extract people from the canyon all the time. Rafters, mountain bikers, dehydrated hikers - a lot can go wrong out there. If you find yourself needing help, the best place to get picked up is Bradley Wales; about the halfway point. There's a road and cell service there. We can just drive up and get you if something goes wrong."

I could here his words ring in my head as I dialed the number for the outfitter that had shuttled us to the southern terminus of the trail.

"Pine Creek Outfitters. How can I help you?" a kind sounding voice answered. It was the same guy that shuttled us out.

"Hi... you guys, uh, dropped us off at the southern terminus of the West Rim trail yesterday... Uh..." It was almost painful to spit out the next part. "We need you to come extract us from the trail. We're at Bradley Wales."

As I assured the man on the phone that nobody was injured or dehydrated, and that we would be fine to wait until morning, I couldn't shake the shock of finding myself making this call. I wasn't sure if I was more embarrassed or disappointed.

I like to finish what I start. As an ultramarathoner, I have only DNF'd one race and it wasn't until the trail was completely washed out and one of my pacers fell into a ravine that I decided to call it a day. I'll push myself to breaking. I take pride in that. And if I'm honest, some sick, twisted part of me, enjoys the challenge. Yet here I was, making the call. Not because I felt tired or broken but because half of my team did.

It was an eye-opening experience. Over the last few days I've been reflecting on how this happened and I've come to the realization that I will need to modify the way I organize trips in the future. It turns out, my easygoing, laissez-faire attitude toward organizing backcountry excursions can be problematic, if not kept in check. I'm not saying that I have any intention of becoming a type A trip planner. But I've realized that there are a few things that I will never do the same way again. If you're like me, and you like to let the adventure just happen, here are a few tips that could help reduce the risk of finding your group in need of rescue, on your next outing:

Know Your Party
Before, I kind of had this attitude of "the more, the merrier!" I let anyone invite anyone. Never again. You need to know someone well before you head into the backcountry with them. And I'm not talking about their favorite color, food, or political views. What I mean, is that you need to know their level of experience and their backpacking philosophy. Everyone has their own personal take on backpacking. Everyone's packing list is different. But not everyone's philosophies mesh out on the trail. If you are an "Ultralight" backpacker on the trail with an "Overly Prepared" type, there's a good chance you'll run into problems. If you prefer to move slow, taking in the scenery, and making lots of detours and you're on a trip with someone who's trying to cover 15+ miles a day, you're both going to be frustrated,  no matter how well you get along in your everyday lives. Before you (or your friends) invite anyone new on a trip, make sure you know how they approach backcountry life.

Stragglers Must Carry a Map
I've seen it on documentaries about backpacking and now I've experienced it firsthand. Stragglers get lost. Why is it that nobody ever thinks to make sure they have a map when they end up at the back of the pack?? In retrospect, it seems like common sense that the guy (or girl) a half mile behind everyone else, should probably have a way to know where they're going. Make sure the the person at the back of the pack is armed with a map, a compass, and the knowledge of how to use both. Or better yet, insist that everyone carry a map & compass just in case. If you have someone on trail with you who is inadequate at orienteering, DO NOT LEAVE THEM BEHIND. Otherwise they could find themselves wandering onto private property with signs posted saying that trespassers will be shot on sight. And a lost or dead hiker is bad for moral all the way around.

Foggy Sunrise Over the PA Grand Canyon 
Plan to Start Unnecessarily Early
To me, this one is the hardest to swallow. But, what I have found is that, more than half the time there is a delay in getting on the trail, the first day. If you plan to get started at 10am there's a good chance that you won't actually hit the trail until noon. Once you have determined what time you need to get started, move that time up a few hours. Getting into camp at 11pm is no fun. Making up missed mileage the next day is hard. Sitting at camp a few extra hours, or having time to do some exploring without a pack on your back, can only be a bonus. Get started early, then if something doesn't go as planned, you'll roll into camp on time instead of late.

I've read a thousand blog posts about backpacking and none of them have suggested these things. Maybe everyone else assumes that they're a given. Or perhaps, learning this is all a part of the initiation process. Either way, it is my hope that sharing the lessons I learned from my mistakes will help others to have a more enjoyable hiking experience. This is by no means an all inclusive list, so if you have any other tips that you've learned the hard way, please share them in the comments section!

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