A companion is the most important hiking essential

Yakima Herald-RepublicJuly 12, 2014 

During the past couple of weeks, since one of Washington's best-known hikers died alone on the flanks of Mount Rainier, I've done a lot of thinking about all of the solitary backpacks I used to make into remote areas where I was unlikely to encounter other humans for days at a time.

I can't count the number of times I slipped on a slick stone while crossing a high-mountain stream, lost my balance along a narrow ledge, or face-planted after catching my toe on an exposed tree root. Any one of those incidents could have resulted in an injury that might have left me unable to hike out.

And -- most of those forays having come before the ready availability of handheld GPS units -- what about all the times I headed off-trail in search of wildlife, wildflowers or waterfalls? What if I had gotten disoriented?

Injured, lost, out of water or just plain out of gas. And alone. What would I have done then?

Maybe somebody would have come along in time to help me. Or, perhaps, in time to find my remains.

Consider the "10 essentials" hikers and other backcountry trekkers are encouraged to have on hand: map and compass (and GPS if you've got one); extra food and water; sun protection; flashlight (or headlamp); knife (preferably multifunctional); matches; extra clothing; first-aid kit; emergency shelter; and signaling devices.

Sometimes you'll see this list having more than 10 "essentials," but they're all basically the same. The Cascadians' "13 essentials," for example, counts extra food and water separately, as well as map and compass, and lists not just matches but also, as a separate essential, a fire starter, such as a candle or two.)

Well, as an inveterate overpacker, I'm sure I probably hit most of those mosts of the time.

But are the 10 essentials enough?

No, says Jim Dodge, a retired Yakima physician who spent six decades on the National Ski Patrol. According to Dodge, the most important essential is missing from the list:

A companion.

Better yet, two or three companions -- the second (and third) to go for help in case the first must stay behind to tend to you and your broken body.

"We just keep seeing people in the backcountry alone, reported missing," says Dodge, who has been instructing outdoor emergency care, first aid or some other aspect of safety preparedness since starting medical school more than a half-century ago. "Then there's a search, which is risky for the searchers.

"The 10 essentials are all equipment-related. But what happens when a person has all that stuff but is injured and can't get at his pack or whatever? What if they suffer dysrhythmia or some other kind of cardiac event?"

Or what if Mother Nature creates her own event? A skiier skiing with companions can end up in a tree well and still be pulled out before suffocating. So can a snowmobiler in an avalanche. Alone? Recent experiments have found that nine of 10 people immersed in snow could not rescue themselves.

Likewise, anybody trekking in the backcountry -- on foot, mountain bike, horseback, snowshoes or anything else -- can be injured or otherwise incapacitated. A companion, in that case, becomes a lifeline. If you're injured and alone, well, you are on your own. In every sense of the phrase.

"One interesting paradox I've discovered in the course of being a Green Trails person is that most hikers are introverts and like hiking alone," says Green Trails, Inc., owner Alan Coburn, whose line of trail maps should be on the "essentials" list of every Washington hiker. "That's maybe not the smart thing to do."

I didn't know Karen Sykes, whose wonderful hiking columns in the Seattle Times introduced countless people to the joys of the great outdoors. I don't know how or why she ended up alone on what became her final hike, nor am I questioning any of the decisions that went into that.

That isn't my place, and it certainly isn't my right, my having been a serial ignorer of the very "essential" I am hereby espousing.

I only know her tragic loss is a reminder to us all that, regardless of our own experience and preparedness, venturing alone into the backcountry can end up giving us far more solitude than we'd like.

w Scott Sandsberry can be reached at 509-577-7689.

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