Heeding the Still, Small Voice
A Note to the Reader
Ed and Brenna will be back next week with a new boat, all ready to get
on with their "Trip of a
Lifetime." This week, however, the news of a narrow escape in the
Adirondack High Peaks reminds Farwell of the importance of not depending
too much on the kindness of strangerswhatever the season of the
March 13, 2001
Last Sunday, as I was sitting down to write
Not Included," two young men were snowshoeing along the trail from the
parking lot at Adirondak Loj toward the ranger's cabin at Lake Colden.
They were strong and fit and confident. So confident, in fact, that they
got up at two in the morning, intending to slog four miles on snowshoes,
watch the sunrise from Algonquin (elevation 5,114 feet), drop down to Lake
Colden, and then slog another four miles to the top of Mt. Marcy, at 5,344
feet New York's highest peak. Once there, they planned to camp on top of
the mountain and hike out the next day. Total distance? Twenty miles, more
or less. Total elevation gain? Somewhere around 6,000 feet. Piece of cake,
Well, I suppose it might have been, but for the storm making its way up
the East Coast while the two young men were trudging toward Lake Colden.
As things turned out, however, three feet of new snow blanketed the
Adirondack High Peaks in the next 48 hours. The tracks left by earlier
hikers disappeared beneath the drifts, and the two young men found
themselves snow-bound just below the summit of Mt. Marcy. Worse yet, their
snowshoes, designed for packed tracks and steep slopes, proved all but
useless in deep powder. In the end, they spent three nights on the
mountain, not oneand three long days struggling to plow their way
back to Lake Colden. When they finally stumbled on a packed trail left by
a search party and followed it to the ranger's cabin on Wednesday, they
were exhausted, dehydrated and hungry. It had been a couple of days since
they'd last eaten a meal.
Still, they were alive. A happy ending? Yes. But it could easily have
been otherwise. The two young men were strong and fit. Since they were
planning to spend the night on the mountain, they'd brought a tent,
sleeping bags, and a stove. And they had snowshoes, even if these weren't
much help. But what if they'd been less fit, or less well-equipped? What
if they'd completely missed the trail left by the search party? Then they
might never have made it out.
The press coverage that followed their safe return ignored these
questions. The "incident commander" who directed the rescue summed things
up this way: "They were smart. They had shelter. They hunkered down and
they did the right thing. When things cleared, they were on the move."
Fair enough. They did the right thing once they got into
trouble. But that's not quite the same as avoiding trouble in the
first place, is it? And avoiding trouble, not surviving it, is the
hallmark of all really "smart" backcountry travelers.
where did the the two young men go wrong?
First and foremost, they relied too much on the kindness of strangers.
On Sunday afternoon, they stopped to visit with the ranger at Lake Colden.
By their account, the ranger told them that a "small storm" was in the
offing. They apparently accepted this without question, even though "it
started to get real snowy" shortly after they resumed climbing. They had
no barometer, and therefore no way to judge the intensity of the
approaching low. They had no understanding of the limits of forecasting,
particularly in mountainous areas. And, most importantly, they ignored the
evidence of their own senses. The ranger had reassured them that the storm
was nothing to worry about. He was the expert, after all. They relied on
his judgment. With what result? They continued on up the mountain in the
face of a deepening winter storm.
I call this the Blanche Du Bois syndrome, after the tragic heroine in
Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche, too,
depended on "the kindness of strangers." It didn't help her much in the
end, I'm sorry to say. And it's never been a good idea in the backcountry.
You can't delegate responsibility for your own safety, after all.
Expertseven experts in uniformcan be wrong. In fact, they
frequently are. Experts become experts by making mistakes. But a ranger
having a cup of coffee in his cabin won't be the one who pays the price
for your mistakes on a mountain or a river. However well-intentioned an
expert may be, therefore, and however well-informed he (or she) is, it's
always your ass on the line. So, if what you see doesn't jibe with
something that you've been told by an expert, believe what you see.
Moreover, heed the Scout motto: "Be prepared." It's not enough to have
good gear. You have to use it properly. And you have to know its
limitations. The young men on Marcy were dehydrated at the end of their
ordeal. Why? Because most water's frozen on winter peaks, and winter air
is very dry. Every breath sucks moisture away from your capillaries. Even
though Tamia and I aren't often plowing through drifts, we drink more
water in winter than we do in high summer. (How do we know? Because every
gallon we drink has to be hauled into our cabin.) But the two young men on
Marcy had a stove. They should have been able to melt ice and snow easily.
Why didn't they, then? I don't know. Maybe the stove wasn't working. Maybe
they ran out of fuel. Maybe they started to panic and simply didn't stop
for a mug-up. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that these young men
couldn't cope with one of the most common problems of winter backcountry
Nor did they have enough food. Tamia and I take several days' worth of
concentrated foodchocolate and hard candy, mostlywhenever we
go for a winter walk, even if we're only going into the woods behind our
cabin. Neither of us would think of heading up Marcy in winter without at
least three days' rations in our packs.
And what about the young mens' snowshoes? The little metal-frame
bearpaws used by climbers are almost useless in deep drifts. If you're
going out to bag a couple of winter peaks, and if you're smart, you'll
bring snowshoes suited to all conditions that you might encounter on (and
off) the trail. A nuisance? Certainly. But not as much of a nuisance as
three days spent floundering through hip-deep snow on the flanks of a
Be prepared. It's very good advice. But what if, despite your best
efforts, you're not prepared? What then? At the first sign of trouble,
heed the still, small voice in your ear, whispering caution. Turn round.
Come back another day.
Simple, isn't it? Yet it's one of the hardest things for most of us to
do. Pride is involved, of course. It's hard even for an over-the-hill hack
like me to heed that still, small voice. It's all but impossible for a fit
young man or woman. But it's important all the same. Nature doesn't care
what happens to you or me. She kills the unprepared every day, in all
seasons of the year, whatever their age or promise. She's neither
malevolent nor kindly. She just is. And she won't respond to
threats or flattery. You're either prepared or you're not. If you are,
you'll get where you're going and get out again, and probably have a good
time in the process. If you're not, though, you'll likely have an
"adventure"if you're lucky. And if you're not lucky? Then
That's a very high price to pay for stubborn pride or inattention.
Happily, though, it's easy to be smart. Winter or summer, whether on a
mountain or a river, simply heed the still, small voice. And always be
prepared. Take what you needor might needand know how to use
what you take. Don't depend on the kindness of strangers, either. Listen
to the experts, to be sure, but never forget whose ass is on the line.
Someday you'll be glad you remembered.
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights