Monday Morning Quarterbacks
Have you ever noticed this? The minute a story comes out about someone who needs rescuing in the mountains, the internet message boards are filled with people who never, ever make that mistake, and here’s why. These posters are quick to point out all the things they do right, and how smart they really are about all this.
OK, fine. We’re not so sure. In our experience, most disasters in the mountains aren’t caused by a single bad decision, but a combination of decisions that slowly lead to a really bad situation. And if you read the accounts carefully, you can usually find about three or four points in every story where a different decision would have led to a different result. Of course, not always for the better—but still. There were options. There are almost always options.
We’ve been on lots of trips where we took stock of where we were and decided that it was time to back off, back out, or back down. No, we weren’t facing certain death. But we just decided that we had gone far enough, pushed our luck with the elements far enough, or simply didn’t like the way things looked. Or we’ve been slightly off trail, confused about the map, separated from our hiking partners, running out of water, getting cold, or worried about how late it was getting. None of those are very dangerous situations in and of themselves. We just didn't like the odds.
So we bailed. We turned around. That’s not very adventurous or determined, but it always seemed like the right decision at the time. You might read this and think that we are just like everyone else on the internet—that we’ve never made a mistake and we can’t imagine finding ourselves in a situation that requires rescue. You'd be wrong. In fact, we’d suggest just the opposite.
We CAN imagine ourselves in that situation, and that’s why we turn around (or chicken out.) We never like being in a situation where there is only one possible option to get out. The first option is always that you can turn around and go home. That’s a pretty good option in many cases, even if it doesn’t lead to epic or heroic adventures. Epic is over-rated.The single best piece of survival equipment is your brain. And the best way to use it is to avoid situations with few potentially good outcomes.
(You might explain that to the idiots who star in those outdoor survival shows on TV. They are clueless about this.)
The most famous example of all might be the Donner Party. They started a bit late, took an ill-advised cut-off, lost more time in the desert, and started up into the mountains when they were weak, low on food, low on energy and out of time. And that’s when the snows hit. Lots of people made similar mistakes, but not all on the same trip, and not in a year when the snows were massive. They left themselves with only one option, and it wasn't a good one.
Of course, if the Donner Party happened today, we would hear lots of explanations about how stupid they were, and how the various posters on the internet never find themselves in any trouble whatsoever when they travel, because they always make sure that …yadda yadda yadda.