Staying out of the deep end

One of the side effects of having a fairly visible web presence is that people sometimes assume that your Google ranking is some sort of proxy for expertise. For myself, I rather enjoy offering up my 10 cents when people email me asking for advice on hikes I’ve done or wilderness areas I’ve visited. I drew the line, however, when a journalist wanted to interview me about how to see bears safely in Alaska. Photographing bears in Alaska has been one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had, but as a theoretical astrophysicist hailing from the “wilds” of Kent in the UK I’m singularly ill qualified to offer advice about potentially dangerous megafauna. Like most hikers and photographers, I suspect, I consider myself to be a cautious and safety-oriented lover of wilderness. But if we’re honest it’s hard to prove that – even to ourselves – objectively. I’ve crossed glacial creeks in the Yukon without incident, but would I have known to turn back if it had been unsafe to cross? I’ve followed advice to get an early start in Colorado to avoid thunderstorms, but is my awareness of dangerous weather sufficiently perceptive? How risky, really, is hiking?

I was reminded of these thoughts reading a great blog post by one of the rangers in Wrangell-St Elias national park. Wrangell-St Elias – in Alaska – is one of the true wildernesses of North America, and a place I’ve long wanted to visit. The ranger’s story is of a visitor who, through inexperience or poor judgement, abandoned his pack on the notorious scree slope that has to be traversed on the park’s most famous backpacking route, the Goat Trail. Ranger Olson’s conclusion, “Anytime a hiker has to make a decision between their life and their backpack it’s fair to say they’re in too deep”, is as unassailable a truth as they come. (A close second from a guy who hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim, “Man cannot live by energy bars alone”, is sadly now lost from the internet.)

I’ve never had to abandon my pack, or otherwise face a situation that I’ve felt was close to being genuinely dangerous. But the ranger’s deeper point rings true; even if we’ve returned from all of our adventures without incident we can gauge where we stand by asking – honestly – how much margin of safety remained. One can’t hike for very long in remote locations without sometimes losing the trail, running into bad weather, or encountering wildlife. But any time you’re only “one more error”, or “one more piece of bad luck”, from running into trouble… that’s a sign you’re potentially in too deep. How do I fare by that standard?

Losing the trail…

Columbia Creek Kluane

The correct route up Observation Mountain. It’s wild country.

I’ve never, to the best of my recollection, gotten lost while out hiking. But I’ve certainly followed the wrong trail, or temporarily lost the trail entirely, on several occasions. Most notably my brother and I somehow managed to start climbing the wrong ridge while hiking the Slims West route to Observation Mountain in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park. We realized our error and retreated, though the time lost meant we failed to attain the summit and the view of the Kaskawulsh glacier we’d hoped for. This was probably the worst mistake we’ve made in nearly two decades of hiking trips. As it happens, the navigational error took us up a steep but still hike-able ridge. But we were highly motivated that day to reach the plateau on Observation Mountain, and I wonder if we’d have turned back at the right time if the ridge had not been so benign. 15 miles from the trail head, even a sprained ankle might have meant a rescue.

Who knows the mind of a moose?

Neither of these stories involves a moose, but my brother’s quip applies more generally. One can follow expert guidance on what to do while hiking in country where there are bears or other large wildlife, but animals are intrinsically unpredictable. I know as a fact that the probability of a flight on a major US or European carrier ending in disaster is of the order of one in a few million, but is that more or less safe than visiting a bear viewing site in Alaska? No-one has ever been hurt at Pack Creek, where one is accompanied by armed rangers, but the number of visitors who have been there is a lot less than several million. Is it, statistically, safer than flying commercial (or safer than the float plane flight you need to take to get there)? There’s no way of knowing.

Grizzly bears on trail Glacier National Park

Bears descending the trail

My most nerve-wracking wildlife encounter though occurred not in Alaska, but rather in Montana’s Glacier national park, on just my second day hiking in grizzly country. Hiking toward Ptarmigan Lake, we first heard word that bears had been sighted foraging near the lake. The lake was still some way away and I don’t recall that this occasioned any great alarm (or consideration of retreat), though we thought it prudent to stick close to another pair of hikers as we continued up the trail. Just a few minutes later, however, we encountered a third pair of hikers, descending the trail in some haste with the news that bears were close behind them. We moved as far off the trail as possible (which given the steep terrain was not very far, maybe 20 yards), removed the safety catches from our bear spray, and waited. In no time at all a mother grizzly and two cubs came down the trail, the cubs sparring with each other and looking toward us with the curiosity of youth. Nothing happened. All three bears descended the trail a short distance further, before moving off into meadows further down the mountain.

Closest approach

Closest approach

That night we enjoyed a couple of beers in the bar as we recounted the story, but was this a close call? It’s hard to know. Meeting a mother grizzly with cubs on the trail is certainly not what you want to happen, but I think we handled the situation quite well. By the time the bears hove into view we were part of a large group (six people), standing away from where the bears were clearly going, and prepared with bear spray. I’ve never had a closer encounter that was truly in the wild (though we had bears run around us – standing next to a ranger – at even closer range at Pack Creek), perhaps because that early encounter prompted Dave and I to subsequently make a lot of noise while hiking in grizzly country!

Bison in winter, Yellowstone

Bison at Biscuit Basin, Yellowstone National Park

Moose, bison and elk are also potentially dangerous, though in summer at least it requires fairly willful stupidity to get too close to such large wild beasts on the trail. If you visit Yellowstone in winter it’s a bit trickier. Bison, in a search for food, congregate near the thermal areas in numbers unlike anything you see in summer. It’s an amazing thing to see, that I highly recommend, but there’s no getting around the fact that hiking in winter you’ll likely be closer to the pointy end of a bison than would be recommended in summer. Perhaps because of the cold, the bison in winter appear to be less volatile (for want of a better word) and more predictable than in summer, but still you want to be careful. I’d been photographing bison from the boardwalk at Biscuit Basin for half an hour when the fellow above came close enough that retreat seemed like a wise course of action…

Three rather uneventful stories is a meagre haul from 20 years of great hiking, so I’ve satisfied myself at least that I’m staying away from the deep end while out in the wilderness!

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