Wednesday, November 02, 2011

We made mistakes...and got away lucky.

If you enjoy outdoor
pursuits, consider this book.
Just finished an excellent read by Laurence Gonzales - Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. It is probably a book that most folks who enjoy self-propelled activities, would enjoy and find deeply  meaningful. And it's not just for outdoor enthusiasts. It's a book that gives clear and helpful insights into emotional, as well as physical survival, in today's rough and tumble 21st century world. After reading it, I reflected on an outing several months ago, while we were on a work exchange in Scotland.

We enjoyed a marvellous day, hiking up to the top of two "Munros", the well known group of Scottish mountains over 3000 feet in elevation. I blogged about it - you can find the posting here. It was reasonably strenuous, it was a great time, and it was an "adventure" - somewhat enhanced, when a massive glacial erratic (the size of a Smart Car!) released its grip on the mountainous slope and tumbled towards us. (It missed us - but just.)

The day also featured occasional dense fog, a thunderstorm, confusing "trails" - the potential for trouble. Reflecting back, especially after reading the book, we know that we made mistakes...mistakes that we got away with. Things could, however, have easily gone "south", as they say. In the posting back in July, I said that we had "bagged" a couple of Munros - that was dumb hubris speaking. What we did, in fact, was simply grind our way up to the summit cairns of two peaks. We also made some questionable assumptions - and folks make those all the time.

Mistake number one was using an inadequate trail guide. Reluctant to spend the equivalent of twenty dollars, I pulled a map and trail "guide" off the internet. It was barely three paragraphs long and made route finding seem like, well, "a piece of cake". The route was not particularly clear and the narrative was vague and unclear - in retrospect.

Mistake number two was not listening carefully to the instructions of the Ranger at the trailhead. We duly signed in, gave an estimate of our hiking time (plus two hours), and thanked him for his information. BUT, we didn't pay sufficient attention to his advice with regards to the trail. How tough could this be, we thought, it'll be well-travelled, it was a Saturday. We were late starting and impatient to get going. Heck, if at any point we were uncertain about directions, we would just ask a fellow hiker on the trail. Thing is, the route wasn't well travelled on that particular Saturday. (Hmmm, I wonder if that might have had something to do with the forecasted weather?)

Mistake number three was not carrying sufficient food and water in the event that we were caught out overnight. (That wouldn't happen to us!) We had a litre of "Nuun-enriched" water each, some sandwiches and some power bars - adequate for a reasonably demanding six hour hike in the mountains but not for an overnight stay. And it wouldn't have been a matter of dehydration or hunger. The issue would have been insufficient calories for required energy and heat, after the sun had gone down, in the dark, windy, lonely, and chilly mountains.

The fourth, and biggest mistake we made, as we thought about it, was the assumption that this hike would be a "piece of cake". After all, the two Munro summits were amongst the most popular, therefore most accessible. Further, we minimized factors that could raise the ante - weather, route finding, "trails" that were not obvious, and the relatively few others who were out that day. Because of a late start, we were amongst the last to return to the trailhead that day. Something as simple as a wrong turn or a twisted ankle could have caused a lot of angst.

On the positive side, we wore rain gear, had an extra insulating layer in our packs, carried both a cell phone (there was occasional coverage) and a SPOT satellite messenger. So sure, in the event of accident or injury, we could have attracted attention.

Still, "stuff" happens. Even massive glacial erratics that haven't moved for 10,000 years can decide to suddenly break loose! Stuff happens - believe it.

At home here on the Island: Even with our "Mediterranean" climate, the sea water in November is getting cold. There are paddlers who launch in sweat pants and wind jackets, without a thought of the possibility of immersion. The assumption? "What can possibly happen to me?" Well, lots of yeah, dress for the water. Bottom line: prepare for the unlikely.

After reading Gonzales book, and reflecting on our innocent trek into the Highlands, we try not to make these same kinds of assumptions. Lessons learned.

Take good care out there.



  1. Impatience....I think that is what you would call it...getting the quick directions, not listening, not packing enough food, in your haste to get out there and reach the summit. Your enthusastic personality just probably took over. Glad you made it down safe and sound!

  2. My long time paddling buddy Rob always said to my wife my last words on this earth is gonna be "hey Rob...WATCH THIS!"

    Don't fear the stuff that happens accepted it!

  3. Linda, I think you nailed it. Impatience usually leads to inattention to detail - not a good "end state". Thanks for suggesting I was being enthusiastic and not just dumb. :)

    Understood, Lee. And if what you quoted are going to be your last words, at least we know you'll be having fun - and heck, that's gotta count for something in life. Haha.

    Thanks guys, always appreciate your feedback. D.

  4. I'm back. I sure missed checking in these past couple of months. Will try and keep up on your postings to avoid getting lonely down here.

  5. Hey J, great to hear from you. I just hope I don't make you homesick with all this talk about oceans and mountains! But I'm sure you're enjoying the sun, the desert, and the hot temps. :)

  6. This book is on my bedside table right now. Along with his second book Everyday Survival, and Bear attacks:their causes and avoidance. (stephen Herrera) When I teach map and compass I use lessons from this book. It's a truly great read.


  7. Thanks for that, PO. I'm sure "Bear Attacks" crossed your mind on your last expedition - I'm quite sure I wouldn't want to see one straddling my kayak! Duncan.