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Death in the outdoors: Ignorance, Thoughtlessness, and Choice

Posted: Monday, July 25, 2011

Yesterday I had brunch with Laura Bly, a USAToday travel writer who wrote a very interesting blog article on several recent well-publicized National Park deaths, including the three people who were swept over Vernal Falls and two people who died in recent accidents in Hawaii. It's well worth reading.

Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree
As we discussed those incidents, we started recounting the times we had each done things that could have gotten us in trouble - but didn't. I told her about the time in my 20s that I climbed Katahdin with a friend, both dressed in cotton. When we got to the plateau, it started to rain, the temperature dropped 20 degrees, and we continued anyway. My friend got hypothermic but I was fortunate to have just enough wits left to realize what was happening and to get us down the mountain. Then there was the time I was swimming in Costa Rica and got quite far from the beach when I suddenly realized I knew nothing about currents, sharks, rocks etc. Fortunately I was able to swim back but not until 10 minutes of thinking I wasn't getting anywhere at all. She recounted a trip to Glacier where she went hiking by herself in grizzly country without bear spray or bear bells and didn't even sing aloud. But we both admitted that sometimes we hiked by ourselves and didn't want to stop doing that, even though one of the cardinal rules is always hike with a buddy.

This represents the three ways someone can end up dead or injured in the outdoors. My near-hypothermia incident was simple ignorance - it was at the beginning of my outdoor career and I really didn't know better. The Glacier hiking and Costa Rica were thoughtlessness- we both knew better! But we each didn't think about it until we were in the middle of doing it and suddenly thought - what am I doing?!!

And then there is choice: knowing the potential risks, taking steps to minimize them (e.g. letting someone know where you're going and when to expect you back), making a decision that the benefits outweigh the risks, and then being willing to accept the consequences. It's this latter situation that we often face on trips. They are adventure trips, after all, and it is not possible (or even desirable) to remove all risk. Instead guides make decisions based on judgement, and that  judgement is based on years of experience. Instead we make decisions based on good judgement, and that good judgement is based on years of experience. Of course sometimes that experience is based on bad judgement - which is why we never have cotton on the packing list in the mountains!

P.S. You'll be happy to know we haven't lost anyone yet!

 
 
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