A Mountain of Problems
LT. COL. EMILY SIMMONS
School of Army Aviation Medicine
Fort Rucker, Alabama
There I was — plastered to the ground on the side of a mountain, 35 miles into Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. I dug my heels into the loose scree, trying not to send more of it cascading below me. My hands gripped loose shale, searching for the sweet spot between pulling off chunks of rock and holding myself in place against the force of gravity trying to send me down the hill. My fifth point of contact was planted on the ground, trying to spread my weight across more surface area. I looked below and knew that if I slid much farther, I would have no way to climb back out.
I looked to both sides above me, where the faint social trail in an otherwise intentionally trail-less area faded from solid ground into the steep scree field where I was currently trapped. My cellphone was in my pocket, accessible if I could release a hand, but I already knew there was no service. I was on permanent change of station leave, so the Army wouldn’t be looking for me anytime soon. My family, 4,500 miles away, knew I was camping and wasn’t expecting to hear from me for at least a few days. Maybe a park ranger would look for me if they found my tent and pack when the next camper tried to occupy my campsite.
How did I get there? What sequence of events led me to the point where I was contemplating whether someone would eventually find my body at the bottom of that scree field? I was 32, had a graduate degree, and just finished three years as a brigade staff officer. I was promoted to the rank of major the week prior. I wasn’t an impulsive teenager. I had done plenty of hiking and camping before and was pretty well-prepared for the short, before-dinner trek I had set out on. I was dressed appropriately in good boots and had water, snacks, a jacket, a headlamp, and some first aid and emergency supplies in my daypack. I carried a map and compass with me, but I was only a mile or so from my campsite and not lost. There was no alcohol involved, yet there I was. Where had I gone wrong?
I realized I failed to appropriately incorporate risk management into my trip. I had multiple opportunities for both deliberate and real-time risk management, but did not take advantage of them. I knew where my campsite was, but I went out to it without any specific plans. Before I left, I could have searched for trail descriptions and seen that this particular scree field was described as “hair-raising” and “precarious.” Perhaps I would have decided this wasn’t the best route for a leisurely, late-afternoon solo hike. Had I planned earlier, I could have left an itinerary with the park rangers when I picked up my campsite reservation, or sent a note to my family while I was within cellphone range. As a last resort, I could have pinned a note to my tent with my hiking plan.
While those measures could have kept me off the trail or provided some reassurance that I would at least be found if I didn’t return, real-time risk management is what really could have kept me out of trouble once I hit the trail. Denali is a trail-less park, but I was in a (relatively) well-traveled area and had followed a vague path that others before me had made en route to this small mountain peak. When I came to that scree field, I recognized that it looked a little sketchy, but I failed to properly assess the degree of hazard it held and didn’t develop any controls.
Knowing that I was alone — I hadn’t seen another hiker yet and it wasn’t peak season so there were a limited number of others spread throughout the vast park — I should have recognized I would have to be self-sufficient and capable of self-rescue from any situation in which I found myself. I should have exercised more caution than I may have if I knew there was someone around to pull me up or at least send for help. Once I started sliding, I should have stopped, reassessed my ability to safely cross the rest of the field and turned back. As in so many cases, hindsight is much sharper than foresight, and I was only able to see these things clearly once I was clinging to shards of loose rock.
Eventually, I was able to carefully crab walk my way back to solid ground and return to my campsite. The backside of my hiking pants was a little worse for wear, having ripped in numerous places on the sharp rocks. Fortunately, the only other casualty was my ego. Since that day, I have made a habit of ensuring someone always knows my route and when to expect me back. I’d like to think I now exercise better judgment when it comes to identifying and assessing hazards and responding appropriately to changing conditions. You never want to be stuck on the side of a mountain in a 6-million-acre park when you discover your risk management plan was severely lacking.
Even experienced wilderness travelers can have an accident that results in injury or death. Accidents are possible anywhere, so the information below is important to all park visitors. You may also want to read the safety information in the park newspaper to prepare for your trip. The tips below are listed on Denali National Park and Preserve’s website, but they can apply to almost any park or wilderness trail.
- Wildlife. Animals can behave unpredictably. Do not intentionally approach wildlife. Read the Wildlife Safety section for more details at https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/safety.htm#CP_JUMP_5215540.
- Plants. Do not eat berries unless you know what they are and are sure you have no allergy to them. There are no poison oak, sumac or ivy species in Denali National Park, but some other plants can cause allergic reactions, such as cow parsnip.
- Hypothermia. Hypothermia is always a factor in the subarctic. Rainy, chilly days are normal during summer at Denali. Dress in layers, preferably made of wool or synthetic material that is able to insulate you even when wet. Bring rain gear or an umbrella.
- Injuries. Be wary of falls. Most of Denali is trail-less, and long hikes are often on a route of your own choosing. If you are hiking up a rocky hill or mountain, be careful of your footing. More people die from falls than any other cause in the park.
- Don't go alone. You should always hike with at least one other person. Even then, make sure someone else knows where you're going. Have that person park rangers if you are overdue from your trip.
- Know thyself. Even if you plan to stay on trails or the park road the entire time you are here, keep in mind that even the entrance of Denali is several hours from the nearest hospital. Locations on the park road (i.e., during a bus trip) are even more remote. If you know you have a medical condition, such as a heart problem, talk to your doctor about your travel plans to see if you should do anything to ensure a safe trip.
More information on wilderness travel can be found on the Denali backcountry camping webpages at https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm.
Source: National Park Service