Hike Wisely!

Even if you are heading to the mountaintops for the day, you need to carry some essential gear and have the right skills and attitude. (Marilyn Donnelly photo)

The primary purpose of this on-line magazine is to encourage you, the readers, to get outdoors, get active, have fun and get better as you get older. That’s true if you are young, old, or in between. Our writers  range in age from 21 to 77, and if they can be active and have fun outdoors, you can, too. Let’s face it, none of us are getting younger and doing something healthy and fun with your free time should be a no-brainer.

Another recurring theme on here is safety. Bad things can happen if you aren’t careful. Every story on EasternSlopes.com will always encourage you to use proper safety gear, to tackle anything new in increments, and to understand your own limits and be willing to quit if it appears that going forward will put you at undue risk. We want you around for a long, long time . . .

Unfortunately, there are some no-brainers around this subject, too, but they aren’t quite so positive. I’m always amazed at the people who don’t seem to realize that they can get into serious trouble if they aren’t properly prepared, don’t use their heads, don’t work within their own limitations, and don’t  pay attention to conditions around them.

After all, if something bad happens you can always call for help on your cell phone, right? Ask the Search and Rescue folks who have to put their lives on the line to save idiots from themselves what they think about this plan….

Hiking in a group is safer than hiking alone, especially for beginning hikers. There’s value to collective wisdom and experienced leaders. (Tim Jones photo)

I’ve said it before: The greatest single hazard you are likely to encounter as you get outdoors is yourself and your own capacity to make bad decisions. Usually (not always), it takes a couple of bad choices to get you into real trouble. We all make little mistakes all the time. Usually, no harm comes of it. But we sometimes set ourselves up with a series of bad choices, each escalating the risk. Eventually, you reach a point where even a tiny mistake can be catastrophic.

Read the recent story A Death On The Big Mountain. At first glance, Christopher Baillie, the 24-year-old hiker who died in July on Mount Washington in New Hampshire seems to have made only one mistake, a misstep which plunged him into a flowing stream that washed him over a cliff. But if you break it down a little more, you can see how the tragedy unfolded in increments of increasing risk.

Baillie decided to climb Mount Washington with friends. He was apparently fit, experienced, well equipped, and the weather was good. So far, so good. No unacceptable risk there. But then:

If you got into trouble in this alpine landscape, would you know how to get yourself out? People have died within steps of this very spot. (Tim Jones photo)

1) He decided to leave the trail to peek over the top of the waterfall. Not necessarily a bad decision in an of itself, but it increased the risk factor and set the stage for the everything that followed.

2) Got too close to the top of a cliff where a fall was possible. This was the key bad decision that bumped the risk up exponentially. Experienced rock climbers (the ones who have lived a long time) are usually roped up if they are anywhere near a precipice. But to Baillie, it probably looked like “no big deal.” Young males, especially, are prone to putting themselves at extreme risk without even realizing they are doing it.

3) Somehow misjudged his footing, misstepped, got distracted, got dizzy or just fell. Strike three, you’re out. If he’d fallen anywhere other than into a brook at the top of a cliff, he might well have gotten hurt, wouldn’t likely have died.

Once again, dear reader, I’ll remind you that in any situation, be it backcountry hiking, paddling, biking or whatever, you are entirely responsible for your own safety and comfort. Approach new experiences with appropriate caution. Carry the gear you need for safety in emergencies and know how to use it.  I find that just carrying proper clothing and emergency gear makes me more aware that things can go wrong. Finally, always be mentally prepared to stop and assess your situation objectively, reformulate you plans,  and retreat if necessary.

Life isn’t a spectator sport. Be smart, be safe, get out and enjoy!

Getting Smart

Do these folks have the right gear and skills to be safe in the place they are hiking? Let's hope so!(Tim Jones photo)

I recently traded a series of emails with a reader who was planning to hike Mount Washington, had seen my column on Baillie’s death and wanted advice.

She made me nervous when she said she was “hoping to be able to follow other hikers because ‘I have no sense of direction. I have NO clue how to use a compass.  Should I still get one?’”

I got even more concerned when she told me “My mind is set on Mount Washington. My older sister has hiked it five times.  If she can do it, I can.  :)  (Stubborn).”

I felt that my correspondent had made three bad decisions:

1) tackling a hike obviously far beyond her level of experience.

2) deciding to do this hike without the knowledge, preparation, and equipment necessary to avoid trouble.

3) letting sibling competition affect her decision making even before the hike began.

Turns out my correspondent wasn’t as clueless as she first sounded (except about map and compass skills). She is in good shape and was physically capable of the hike. Asking for advice was a good decision, and she researched and chose good trails, carried the right clothing, plenty of food and water.  She and her companion had good weather and a great hike, which is what happens most of the time for most people.

Where To Learn Map And Compass Skills

In this age of GPS-enabled phones, map and compass skills are still essential. Batteries can die, signals can fade….

The AMC offers classes through its local chapters and at their Highland Center.

Orienteering clubs hold meets around the northeast. These folks love using a map and compass and love teaching others.

New England Orienteering Club,

Western Connecticut Orienteering Club,

Up North Orienteering,

Empire Orienteering,

Green Mountain Orienteering Club.


About Tim Jones

Tim Jones, Founder and Executive Editor, started skiing at age 4 and hasn't stopped since. He took up Telemark a few years ago and is still terrible at it. In the summer, he hikes, bikes, paddles and fly fishes. In addition to his work at EasternSlopes.com, Tim also writes a pair of syndicated weekly newspaper columns.