Most accidents happen with hikers. That’s right. Not climbers, not alpinists, not mountain bikers… The largest number of people that have serious accidents were simply walking. Of course this only happens to big city fools doing outrageously stupid things right? The truth is that if you go out often enough, you will sooner or later find yourself into some kind of trouble. Over commitment and tunnel vision then become a leading cause for more trouble.
I recently found myself in such trouble and I think it’s fair to say that I’m the kind of person this really shouldn’t be happening to. I make a living guiding people. Needless to say I felt quite angry with myself and my mind started to circle around the event like a pack of wolves, snapping and tugging at the memory to find out where I went wrong. What happened to me could easily have happened to others as well and it’s in my nature to want to understand, in depth, the chain of events that unfolded that day.
First of all, I wasn’t guiding. My girlfriend and I were on a road trip in France, just going where the wind would take us, trying to find some nice spots to go hiking and trail running with our dog. We’d been living separate and busy lives for the last couple of months so neither of us had put any real planning into this trip.
At one point we ended up in the Ardèche. A warm southern region where water has carved canyons lined with dense green brush. A paradise for anyone who likes paddling some floaty thing downstream while basking in the sun. Being end of September, the weather was still nice and warm, but the crowds had gone home. We pulled the van into a campsite that was still open this late in the season and I used the evening to draw up a nice loop in Garmin Basecamp. The plan was a hike/trail run with some river crossing and a lot of altitude difference. The map I used was a free summer topo I downloaded from frikart.no, a website that has given me good GPS maps in the past.
All started out really nice. Summer holiday nice. After a long breakfast we took a late start and we had a great time on the endless single tracks in the hills. The weather and the area were just amazingly beautiful! Around late noon we stumbled upon a roadside restaurant and took the opportunity to order some lunch while enjoying the view from the terrace. Heaven! We sat there for nearly two hours and continued on our merry way.
More single tracks, canyons, lush green woods… what a perfect day! Around what must have been mid afternoon, we arrived at our planned big river crossing. The map had shown a hiking trail moving across a place where the river is quite wide and indeed, upon arrival we see a marked trail and a sign pointing to the other side of the river. The water was quite a bit higher than it must be in summer, but besides needing to carry our dog, we crossed without too much difficulty.
Climbing up the hill on the other side, we go into a maze of woody tunnels that must have been the longest continuous stretch of dreamy single tracks I’ve seen anywhere. Pure trail running bliss! After some time, this is where we first started to realize we had lost a lot of time starting late, taking a big lunch and taking it slow to ford the river. We’re not mid-summer anymore and the sun sets around 7. Not only does the sun set around 7, when it sets, it becomes pitch pitch dark because we’re in the part of the cycle where there’s nearly no moon. In those canyons and woody tunnels this means barely being able to see a hand in front of your face. Looking at the GPS map, we feel confident we can complete our trail within daylight hours, but we have to keep moving.
After a full day, about 24km and 1000m of altitude gain, we reach the top of a valley (more like a canyon) where the map shows a hiking trail following a stream down to the river where we’ll find our campsite on the other side. We had been swimming in the river the day before and our plan was to finish with a refreshing swim. Our minds start to relax and look forward to a hot meal and a beer.
Going down this valley, we start to notice it turning more and more into a canyon. The top of the place is quite open and round, but the dry river bed becomes narrower and narrower. As we get deeper, the trail merges with the river bed and we find ourselves scrambling over some easy rocks. All is well and we’re having fun. This is a visually spectacular end to a nice day!
Unfortunately, things become more and more difficult. We start running into steeper and deeper steps and even though our Hungarian Vizsla is very good on technical rocky terrain, I have to lift her up and down several steps. My girlfriend is starting to move more slowly because she’s feeling the strain of the long day and the difficult terrain isn’t making things easier. She tells me several times that she’s worried about getting stuck here in the dark and tells me she’s starting to suspect this is a canyoning route.
Still I’m not too worried. It looks easy on the map. We’re literally less than a kilometer away from the place where we plan to swim and it looks like we’ll make it before dark.
That’s where our luck turned. The river bed makes some big drops and the bowls where waterfalls dig out cauldrons become too much to handle. I push on, solving one small route finding problem after the other while hoping the technical difficulties are temporary and local. I am (over)committing to this one route. The nearness of the goal, the closeness of the terrain, the fatigue and the thought that this is “the route” are giving me tunnel vision.
All of the sudden I’m completely and utterly stuck. Just in front of me is a huge death fall and the only way to get down it is a 4th or 5th degree rock step protected with bolts. Terror strikes me. There’s no way we can get down there with our dog. Even without our dog there’s no way I’d try to down climb it without gear, because the consequence of a fall would be certain death or grave injury. The terrain ahead looks like more of the same and the alternative I first see is crawling back out of the canyon and using other trails to avoid this descent. This would mean being trapped in total darkness for many hours, feeling our way through first technical terrain and then dense woods. For what must have been only a minute – but felt like ages – I felt a ball of terror in the pit of my stomach and total paralysis in my thoughts. I had brought my dog and girlfriend to this place of horrors… guilt, shame and worry drowned out any rational thoughts.
Scanning my map I saw a hiking trail on the ridge above us. At some point this obscure little track must have split off to avoid the canyony part. If I had had a proper paper map, the distinction between the two should have been clear. Even though the undergrowth looks nearly impenetrable, there are small gaps between the thorny brushes and I decide our best option to get out of the technical terrain and to avoid getting stuck in darkness is to push straight uphill until we reach the other track. There’s no way we can miss it. We push up and besides some small scratches and thorns in our skin we manage to reach the trail. By now we’ve lost so much time that darkness has caught up with us. Luckily, this trail is easy enough and we feel our way down.
Once we reach the river I feel uncomfortable about having my girlfriend and my dog swim across in darkness, so I swim to the other side where I “borrow” an open top kayak from a local rental company to ferry them across the water. A good end to a beautiful and adventurous day.
It could have gone bad though. I’ve seen it time and time again in myself and in friends, especially at the start of our outdoor experience. You commit to a situation, you see only this route, this place and you feel the urge to push on, to push through. You somehow hope that if you can just solve this next problem, the heavens are going to open up and all of the sudden the difficulties will be gone and it will be easy cruising. This is how people end up digging a hole so deep, they need to be rescued. This is also how people die.
It takes coolheadedness and maturity to be able to say stop. To be able to say no. No matter how close something might be. Either a summit or a finish, dare to stop, dare to say no!
In guiding, through experience, I have learned and take to heart, that it is usually not about how hard or long something is. It is all about what the consequences are if things go wrong. Always ask yourself: “What will the result be if I fall here? What are the consequences of things going wrong?”
Stop, breathe, take some time to think and look around. Don’t just think about the route you have in your head or only the immediate surroundings. Take your map, zoom out mentally and take a good slow look at the larger surrounding area. If you can’t (or don’t want to) go here, where else can you go? How long will it take? Are there any other difficulties there? What about the weather? Daylight? Fatigue, food and water?
In the heat of the moment, over commitment and tunnel vision are your worst possible enemy!
Factors leading up to the bad situation:
• Preparation based on a limited map. I should have had better resources.
• Late start
• Long breaks
• Loss of time crossing a wide river
• Accumulated fatigue
• Over commitment
• Tunnel vision
We stopped, thought, took time to analyze the map of the larger surroundings and dared to change our plans in an unconventional way.
This type of situation occurs daily. Anyone can fall victim to it and if you go out often enough, you will find yourself in trouble frequently because not everything can be foreseen, not everything can be avoided and we are all human. The difference lies in how we learn from our own mistakes and those of others. This enables us to better prevent them, recognize them faster and deal with them more efficiently.
Be safe, but most of all: get out there and enjoy the great outdoors!