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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Preparedness Tales from the Trails

Preparedness Tales from the Trails
Proper gear and a plan reduce the chance of tragic outcomes.
I am a massive pain in the posterior to hike with.
Anybody who's familiar with the way I operate knows that I'm extremely detail oriented. When
planning a hike, I like to know where I'm going, how to get there, the trail stats and what I'll need for gear and supplies. I assemble maps, GPS track, driving directions and Plan B alternatives in case of weather, road or trail closures. I have very limited free time, so it's annoying to me when unnecessary delays and foibles rob from trail time. My pace is moderate because I'm constantly stopping for photos, taking notes and I often pause on the trail to watch wildlife. Squirrels, birds, sunrises, running water, random shiny stuff---I stop for all these things.
In addition to my over-planning proclivities, I'm a hardcore advocate of safe hiking practices and believe that we should approach nature with humility and respect, not arrogance.
For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of hiking is introducing beginners to Arizona trails. Smart novice hikers embrace the fact that they don’t know what they don’t know and are open to learning new skills and responsible trail habits.  Of course, nobody is immune from accidents or the occasional judgment flub, including expert, well-prepared hikers. Accounts of hiker tragedies are replete the phrase; “and the victims were experienced hikers.”  But, basic safeguards can reduce the chance of unfortunate outcomes. So, as we enter full-blown hiking season in the Valley of the Sun, I thought I’d share a selection of comical preparedness blunders and near miss tragedies on hikes I have lead over the years so that we may laugh and learn together.
But, You Said; “Be Prepared”.
One guy showed up at a hike meet place and asked to hitch a ride with me. He then proceeded to load a giant duffle bag, 12-quart cooler, 2 pairs of boots, sandals, a fanny pack and backpack worthy of an Everest expedition. We were just going on a 6-mile hike a few miles north of Phoenix, but I felt confident we could have bivouacked for days if needed. Totally my kind of guy!
Snakes? What Snakes?
Buzz worm
While hiking a trail in early May, my group encountered seven rattlesnakes before reaching our turn around point. Now, if you've hiked in Arizona for more than five minutes, the first rule you learn about snakes is to never put your hands or feet in places you cannot see. At the turnaround point, we took a lunch break in a lovely cove surrounded by vertical sandstone ledges. Wouldn't you know it, some Bozo saw this as the perfect opportunity to do some blind, hand-over-foot bouldering. Many of us advised him not to do it, given our earlier reptile encounters and--ya know--death by falling. Three tiers up the cliff, the first rattler coiled and hissed just as the climbing hiker was about to hoist himself onto the ledge where it was sunning itself. Another slithered out from a crack near his leg. For a minute there, I was thinking, "Where is that duffle bag guy when you need him?" as I was sure a few people would need a change of underwear after witnessing Bozo barely escape a venous bite seven miles from a trailhead. Arizona Game & Fish Department has a great brochure with information about living with venemous reptiles:
Watch your step!
Ersatz Expert.
A woman with a bad case of over confidence once hitched a ride with me and others to a hike. She had never been on the destination trail yet during the ride, she spewed all kinds of advise about gear, what the trail was going to be like, the weather forecast, places to eat afterwards and contradicted the maps I had provided showing the trail and its stats. She billed herself as an expert hiker, citing "the internet" as her source for all sorts of misinformation she unleashed upon a rapt audience of novice hikers. Had a visitor from outer space been observing this dialogue, the creature surely would have concluded that this "hiking thing" was something done online in a virtual space called "Instagram". The nonstop chatter made this trip one of the most painful in my memory and then, halfway to Flagstaff, the expert announced that she needed to be back in Phoenix by 2 p.m.. I reminded her that the hike description said "all day event with a stop for dinner after" and that we would be on the trail until at least 2 or 3 p.m. "What-ever. The hike won't take that long." she snarled back. At the trailhead she ignored my instructions to stick together and recruited a couple other hikers to join her in speed hiking the route so she could get back to town per her agenda. (Hello. I have the car keys.) Predictably, she led her flock into the wilderness and it was 6 p.m. ( 3 minutes before we planned to call search and rescue) before she and her lost minions stumbled back into the parking lot, bloodied, tired and hungry. We did not go to dinner. This was all my fault. Hiking safety tips from the U.S. Forest Service:
Lollipop Canyon.
When planning a group hike, it's important for the event description to include the trail's length, difficulty level, location and terrain. Leaders agonize over how to be complete yet brief so that hikers can decide if the trek would be a good fit for them. We spell check, double check stats and have friends review for clarity. And guess what; few people read them beyond the trail name headline. I've had participants show up with no idea about the destination or critical details. One person demanded that I change the destination to the place she thought we were going. And my personal favorite: a woman arrived for a hike all excited about going to Lollipop Canyon because she had never heard of it and could not wait to explore a new trail. Actually, the hike write up was for a "lollipop loop" (a short linear access trail toggled to a loop trail) circuit on old familiar routes.
Understand your route before heading out.
Formula for Disaster.
With apologies to Einstein and Hawking, here's my contribution to cosmic theory:
Lost =The Weight of Technical Toys Hanging from Back Pack x Number of Toys / Hiker Wrong Turns.
For example: 3 lbs. of toys (such as GPS, radios, locator beacons, lightning sensors, bear spray, phone apps, etc.) x 2 individual toys / 2 wrong turns on the trail = 3
Score Card:
0 = experienced hiker
1-2= novice
3-5= future statistic
Want to test this theory? Take a group into the wilderness beyond cell phone range and ask everybody to find North.
Tour de Couture.
If you've ever conducted a hike where group policies require the leader to check for hiker
preparedness, the wrong way to go about it is to announce, "Does everybody have the minimum gear and supplies as outlined in the hike description?" Trust me, you will observe a sea of wide-eyed, nodding heads. That's why it's best to do a visual scan and diplomatically address questionable readiness issues directly and discreetly. Some hikers genuinely do not realize they are under prepared while others may be too intimidated to ask for assistance. When it comes to hike preparedness, I give people a lot of slack. As long as minimum requirements for water, gear and safety are met, I'm willing to ignore fashion faux pas and marginal readiness. After all, I pack extra supplies, just in case. Although most hikers usually arrive properly outfitted, there have been several stand out instances of craziness. Like this one. Nothing says amateur quite like showing up for a difficult 8-mile hike in strappy dress shoes, cotton short shorts, bikini top, beautiful chandelier earrings and a purse containing one 12-ounce bottle of water, a bag of carrot sticks, phone and the usual stash of handbag cosmetics. It's not a bad ensemble for a walk around the block, but on a backcountry trail it could cause a twisted ankle and scratched appendages.  I will spare you the details, but know that I ended up on somebody's "you-know-what list".  Great advise from the City of Phoenix Take A Hike. Do It Right campaign:
Wrong Way Willy.
Plan your route and use a map.
Sometimes things like maps, compasses, sign posts and previous experience on a trail are not enough to prevent a directionally-challenged yet verbally expressive hiker from inciting a "which way riot" at every junction. Assuming " Wrong Way Willy" actually finds a junction---never a guarantee---you can be sure whatever way you want to go will not be correct. One memorable incident happened on a high country trail where "Willy" stubbornly stood his ground at a junction sign near hike's end. With both GPS and phone app in hand, he vehemently argued for a left turn when our vehicles were clearly visible 50 yards down the trail to the right. Moral of the story: read user manuals. Some good 'ol fashion navigation advise:
When Leave No Trace Backfires.
Pack it out. Even "biodegradable" stuff like this.
On all my hikes, I reminded participants of the Leave No Trace principles. One of the most misunderstood (and controversial) principles is that it’s never okay to discard food scraps like orange peels and apple cores along trails. Some people are genuinely unaware of this, so I always remind them and carry extra trash bags in my pack. Once, after a Saturday LNT hike in which I was a designated driver, I had to go out of town on business the next day. When I returned after three days and entered my vehicle I nearly choked on a foul smell. Certain that some critter had crawled into the engine block and died, I stopped off at the repair shop for a quick inspection. The "dead critter" turned out to be a bag of half eaten food that had apparently been stuffed under a seat by a passenger. The plastic bag---which in no way could have gotten there by accident---was oozing a blackish slime generated by a rotting banana, sushi (yes, sushi), a congealed container of yogurt and a desiccated slab of what looked vaguely like a processed meat product.  At least it wasn’t tossed on the trail. Learn about responsible outdoor ethics here:
Mountain Dew, Mountain Don't.
Water. Bring some on your hikes.
Is it too much to ask that hikers show up for a hike with some water? It's astonishing to me how many do not. When a guy showed up for a hike with only a half empty bottle of Mountain Dew in hand for a 10-mile mountain hike, I asked nicely if he'd like to help himself to some of the extra bottled water from my trunk.
"I don't drink water." Trying to give this guy a way to save face, I said that the hike description calls for minimum 2 liters per person, so, just for the heck of it, would you mind carrying two bottles... "I'm FINE with THIS." After making a quick mental note that most of his "gear" looked like it came off the sale racks at Forever 21, I told him, no water, no hike. He stormed off, tossing the pop bottle into a jojoba bush. Good information about how to stay hydrated on the trail:
Just One More Stop, Please.
I'm still scratching my head over this incident. Once during a   hike carpool meetup, a late arrival tossed a sack of something in the back of my Jeep and jumped in the front seat. Breathless from having dashed from her car, she thanked me for waiting and then asked if we could make a quick stop at a convenience store along the way so she could get some breakfast. This request was the tip of the iceberg. She had gotten up late and ran out of her house accidentally leaving her gear behind. She then demanded that we stop at Target so she could purchase a backpack, boots, hat and food. Luckily, this revelation occurred within a few miles of the meet place, so I turned around and deposited her back at the parking lot. True to the day's theme, she forgot to retreive the mystery sack in my Jeep. It contained socks and a t-shirt.