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Coming Home Alive

It’s sometimes fun to gently tease clients by announcing that we have made it half way just as we’re summiting or meeting our day’s so-called objective. They’re tired and have been “earning it” all morning so some wear a look of horror when they hear these words even though it’s clear — if we’re not in a whiteout — there is no more up. Others just laugh because they get the joke. But the joke really isn’t a joke at all: you see, the exclamation that we’re only half way there is an absolutely serious one. After all, our real objective for that day and every day isn’t to summit a mountain (or whatever we have planned); rather it is to summit a mountain then return back to base in one piece. There is an important difference.

It’s safe to say that if you don’t return to base in one piece, the mission is a failure. To prevent this, one thing we can do at the onset is to identify the probable causes of failure. In doing so we can avoid them. Hopefully. Here are some:

1. Not Planning

Benjamin Franklin coined the adage that “failing to plan is planning to fail.” It’s so true. It can’t be helped. Fortunately planning is easy. We have the Internet and while it does slosh with sewage, it is also a terrific source of genuinely accurate information and data that we can put to use. Information on trail conditions, distance and elevation (how tough it is going to be), duration estimates, the current and forecast weather, maps (and lessons on how to read them), necessary gear lists, access road statuses, even wildly subjective and anecdotal information about the area from others who have been there and done that… which may be quite useful (check our Resources page for some links). We can also look inwardly for information. How do the demands of the task compare to our fitness level? Assuming one can accurately assess themselves and the task. Good luck going directly from a sedentary lifestyle to summiting Mt Washington in a day, for example. It’s a really challenging climb. Plan on it.

2. Lack of Gear

This is part of planning, really, but we wanted to single it out for a closer look since there are such varied viewpoints out there. Everyone pretty much agrees that avoiding a thunderstorm in the mountains is wise, but people are less collective in their thinking about gear. Some folks run fast and light foregoing a buffer of security, while others prepare for the worst carrying a lot more stuff and do it more slowly. In the guide world there is no such thing as fast and light, not while on duty. A mountain guide must be able to go fast and heavy. Heavy because of not only their own gear, but group gear that may be used by anyone should a situation arise. The person going fast and light is counting on either nothing going wrong, or somehow finding it in themselves to pull through if something does go wrong. In essence, if their skill fails them — just one unplanned misstep — they could quickly be facing an ultimate test. This should be plain to see so it really comes down to a matter of choice.

3. Going Alone

Solo hiking is a great way to immesrse yourself in thought for hours on end. It can really clear the cobwebs. If soloing in the daytime, on a popular trail in the summer on a weekend, with a stable high pressure system firmly over the area, and pack filled with thoughtful gear and extras, it’s a pretty safe thing to do. The risk is less on many levels so the odds, so to speak, are stacked in favor of success. If you’re soloing in the winter, on a weekday, on a seldom-used trail, with minimal gear… well, you’re just asking for trouble. Not going alone, by the way, includes not splitting up a group. We’ve seen this go bad several times. Go in together, stay together, and leave together. These are words to live by.

4. Not Leaving Word

Tell somebody where where you’re going. If something does go wrong, having a ton a gear will only get you so far. In the winter, for example, everything freezes eventually. There are countless cases of folks not informing others or not being clear about when and where they were going that resulted in the loss of life and even more near misses. In one case a hiker told friends they would be hiking for one week out of a two-week period, but they were unclear if it’d be week one or week two. As it turned out, it was week one. Nobody knew the hiker was missing, though, until after week two. Searchers later found the body, which had indeed been out there for a week.

5. Bad Luck

So, yeah, then there’s that: Lady Luck, as they say. If we plan, gear up right, don’t solo (or do it when it’s safer to do so), and leave word with someone, we will effectively increase our chances of making it back to base in one piece. There is, however, no guarantee. That you get by staying home. Life is a gamble so we can make decisions that increase our odds of winning. It boils down to choices: Do you ride a motorcycle without a helmet? Roll the dice. Do you smoke cigarettes? Roll the dice. Do you dismiss decades of mountain wisdom in favor of embracing more risk? Roll the dice. We love to summit mountains, that is where the photos are taken and the cheering commences, but there are no real high fives or real congratulations until we get back. Only then has the day been a true success. Lucky for us, the mountains spare most fools.

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