Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Day Hike Gone Bad

What happens when you go out for a simple day hike but then, because something goes wrong, you end up spending the night, or maybe two? That's never a good thing and, depending on the weather, it can be downright tragic. And it results from what I call "day hike syndrome."

Day hike syndrome is the mistaken assumption that your little hike into the woods or the desert will just take a couple hours and then you'll get back to your car and drive home and everything will be fine. The unfortunate truth is that it doesn't always work out that way. What looked like a good plan on paper turns out to be totally wrong on the ground.

That's what happened to 66-year-old snowshoer Yong Chun Kim of Tacoma, Washington. An experienced snowshoer, Kim was leading a group of 16 other snowshoers on a hike through deep snow on Mount Rainier when he became separated from the rest of the group after sliding down a slope. That was the last time the group saw him.

Kim survived the fall down the slope and used his radio to let the rest of his party know that he was alright. Apparently he planned to meet up with the group at a parking lot later on, but he never showed up. When he failed to arrive as planned, a search was initiated. That was on Saturday afternoon.

Search teams consisting of park rangers with search dogs, and other volunteers scoured the snowy slopes of Mount Rainier on that Saturday, Sunday and Monday without any sign of Kim. The group Kim had been leading was unable to pinpoint the exact location where he had fallen, and it took until Sunday afternoon for them to find the spot.

Kim's sister-in-law told reporters that her brother-in-law was a strong hiker and had food in his backpack, and was well equipped for a day of snowshoeing but didn't have any overnight gear.

Uh-huh! That's exactly what happens with day hike syndrome. You put a few granola bars in your pocket then head out with a confident belief that you'll be back safely before the end of the day. Then something goes wrong. For Kim, it was a slip off the trail. Sometimes it's a turned ankle, inadvertently taking the wrong fork in the trail, sudden bad weather, a broken crosscountry ski binding…whatever. The causes for delay in your plans are numerous and varied.

My question for Mr. Kim is this: If you had a backpack, why didn't you carry overnight gear? I already can hear the answer he would give me — in fact, I've heard myself use the same excuse. It's because he had so much experience with snowshoeing and knew the area well, so he didn't think anything could go wrong.

I remember hiking miles out of steep mountains in waist-deep snow after one of my ski bindings failed. Actually, it wasn't the binding — it was the boot at the point where it connected with the binding. Since I couldn't ski in those conditions on one ski, it meant I had to remove the other one and wade for miles through the snow. That could very easily have turned into an unanticipated overnight in survival conditions. It happens. Someday it might happen to you.

So, what do we take away from this little discussion?
  • Expect the unexpected
  • Be prepared to stay longer than you planned
  • Have overnight shelter in your pack
  • Have redundant fire starting equipment in your pack and pockets
  • Carry signaling methods - radio, mirror, whistle, or best of all a PLB (personal locator beacon).
  • Pack extra clothing and food
  • Let someone know exactly where you're going and when you plan to return
Do those things and you'll improve your survival position greatly. 

End of the story? They found Mr. Kim on Monday. He was alive. Lucky man. And I'll bet the next time he goes out he'll be better prepared. It's the old story — that which does not kill us strengthens us (or makes us smarter). 

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