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The wilderness calls for adventurers' utmost respect

  • Article by: John G. Morgan
  • April 11, 2014 - 6:58 PM

I read with sadness the heart-wrenching news that the search for the St. Louis Park father and son who are missing in Colorado has been called off (“Search ends without finding father and son,” April 10). I don’t mean to add to the family’s grief, but it bears repeating that one can never take any wilderness lightly.

Our wilderness areas here in Minnesota, while certainly demanding great respect, are as nothing compared to other areas. Yet too often stories, perhaps like that of Damian and Evan McManus, have the recurring theme of people underestimating the wilderness, of tackling serious challenges such as climbing a mountain with little regard to the logistics, season or conditions. People seem, too, to associate the word “park” with “safe” — all too often a deadly mistake.

Hot desert days turn ice-cold at night. Dry washes can be filled in an instant by a raging flash flood from invisible thunderstorms miles away. Warm, sunny days in the mountains can give way to thunderstorms or blizzards without warning, even in the middle of summer.

I speak from experience. In 1986, I was part of a group that, on a similar whim, lured by the highest paved road in North America, drove to the summit of the same Mount Evans on the 4th of July — a hot, sunny day in Denver — only to be engulfed in snow at the peak. We headed back down immediately, but it was dark by that time, and who knows what would have happened had we not been able to safely navigate the narrow, steep, no-guardrail switchbacks that overlooked thousand-foot drops?

Another danger of deserts and mountains is the illusion of distance. An enticing peak that looks a couple of miles away may actually be 20 miles distant or more. One of the biggest killers in these areas is a lack of water, as people fail to realize how fast they are dehydrated by the desert sun or by dry, thin mountain air.

Always have a way to purify and melt snow for water. Eating snow may seem logical, but it lowers your core body temperature at a time when you need every degree you can get. Always have a reliable way to start a fire. Do not rely on a cellphone for rescue. There are inexpensive GPS distress signal devices available.

Beyond these survival keys are some even more basic tenets of wilderness travel: Always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back, even on what you think will be a routine hike or climb. Be prepared for any type of weather and dress accordingly in layers. Cotton T-shirts are deadly if they become wet with sweat or precipitation when it’s cold out. Always bring rain gear even on the sunniest of days. Always check with rangers and other sources regarding the area you plan to explore, including its weather and other dangers.

I was part of another group that was snowmobiling in the mountains around West Yellowstone, Mont. At the end of the day we decided to take one last run before we returned our rented snowmobiles. Our gas tanks were only half full, but we decided not to top off since we were returning the sleds after this quick, 15-mile “out and back.” Everything went great until we got to where we planned on turning around. Consulting our trail maps, we saw that there was a 5-mile loop that brought us right back to where we were, so we decided to extend our ride.

We missed a turn and ended up way off course, low on gas, in what was becoming heavy snow, with daylight giving way to twilight. We were lucky that we were by a highway, and even luckier in that the small, seasonal hamlet we were in had a pay-at-the-pump gas station and that I happened to bring a credit card. We were able to fill our tanks, retrace our tracks and make it just as darkness set in.

We were never in real danger, because we happened to end up in an inhabited area. But the whole ride back, all I was thinking about was how lucky we were, how badly it could have turned out had we strayed into a remote area instead.

As fun, romantic and exciting as spur-of-the-moment exploration can be, wilderness is deadly. Plan, prepare and educate yourself. No adventure is worth your life.

 

John G. Morgan, of Burnsville, is an electrician.

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