Hiking Dangerously



Finger Lakes Trail with White Blaze


(This 977th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 13, 2009.)


Last fall a middle-aged man and his mother set out for an afternoon hike. Here are excerpts from his report about what happened:


"My mother, age 86, and I are lifetime hikers and campers in all seasons, yet we still found ourselves in trouble on our Columbus Day hike in the Adirondacks. At 12:30 p.m., we began hiking up Round Mountain near Keene Valley, giving us six hours for the 4.5-mile loop.


"We were equipped with fleece jackets and gloves, sweatshirts, wool hats, wool socks, boots and a jacket. We had packed a lunch of sandwiches, apples, pumpkin bread and a quart of water. We had no watch, flashlight, matches or a space blanket to use as a tarp."


Clearly the two hikers were ill-prepared for any problems, but the length of the hike seemed reasonable. Many hikers walk at 2-miles per hour or more, which would give them plenty of time to complete their trip.


In this case, however, the hike was up and later down steep grades and that slows the pace considerably. Even hiking downhill is a problem as your toes get jammed into the end of your boots and your legs get rubbery. And recall the age of this woman: few 86-year old women or men would be out on such an adventure.


On the way back down the mountain, the hiker's narrative continues: "We finally made it to the trail intersection and had 1.7 miles to get back to the car, but we didn't have much daylight left. The idea of my mother hobbling out the rest of the way was absurd. We decided I should try to get down to the car to fetch a flashlight.


"I hurried down the trail in the deepening gloom, feeling my way. I finally tumbled face first into the blackness as I stepped off a rock. I realized I simply wouldn't get out that night and needed to hunker down and wait until morning. The unimaginable had occurred. My heart pumped from anxiety as I considered the threat of hypothermia for both of us. The forecast called for rain and snow.


"My cotton T-shirt was soaked with sweat, so I took it off and wore just my fleece jacket and wool hat. I began feeling my way around for branches to build a shelter. After more than an hour, I sat on a log and tried to pull the branches over myself like a blanket, but all of them fell off.


"I jogged in place to stay warm, and the air temperature that night never got below the mid-30s. With a tent and sleeping bag, that would have been comfortable for camping. Even a sweater under my jacket would probably have been enough to pass the night safely, but I had none of those things.


"Finally, the sky slowly brightened. I descended the now snow-covered trail, which took an hour. Around 7 a.m., I found Ausable Club Security Chief Bill O'Connor, who called the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. At 9 a.m., Ranger Charles Platt found my mother in good condition, up and moving around. When the rest of the search party arrived, they put my mother in on a stretcher and took turns carrying her down the slippery, snow-covered trail."


That all made for an exciting story, but an unidentified blogger responded I believe accurately:


"The real gist of the story is that these two spent a lifetime hiking and camping in all seasons and learned nothing from it until this near tragedy occurred.


"Thankfully they were willing to tell their story and suffer the public humiliation arising from their failure to gain knowledge through their lifetime of hiking and camping experiences so that others could read of their plight and hopefully learn from their mistakes."


This gave the blogger an opportunity to point out some essentials for hikers missed by them, including: inform others of your plans and take appropriate clothing and shelter. I add that they should have taken a cell phone, matches and a flashlight.


Hikers need to hear this kind of story often to remind us of our occasional failings. These two were lucky, others have not been so fortunate.-- Gerry Rising