The phenomenon of judging others is not uncommon in the hiking world, or outdoors community at large. For example, in an opinion piece in the Denver Post, Gail Schoettler criticizes those who enter wilderness areas unprepared, saying, “taking the proper equipment is just common sense — and a lifesaver in case of emergency.” Schoettler’s use of the phrase ‘common sense’ here seems to assume that all hikers have the same backcountry knowledge and experience levels, and therefore, have a common understanding of what gear is considered ‘proper’ in the first place. Throughout the piece, Schoettler employs a tone that I recognize as one I have heard used before by others, and that I have used myself. While reading, I picture her shaking her head incredulously at the hikers she has seen, who “start out to climb a peak in the afternoon, wearing only T-shirts and shorts, with no food or water.”
“Eva, I feel really scared.” My voice strained and my eyes started to prickle at the corners with tears.
We were standing ankle deep in snow on a sunny afternoon in the Smoky Mountains, about three miles away from the Mount LeConte shelter where we had planned to camp that evening. My sister, Eva, and I were leading a backpacking trip for our college’s outdoor recreation club in Smoky Mountain National Park over our spring break, and had five other women along with us in the backcountry.
Despite the warm ambient temperature of the afternoon, roughly two inches of surprise snow fell on our camp the previous night. Our planned route led us up to the top of Mount LeConte, one of the highest elevation points in the Smoky Mountain National Park. When we began the hike up to the shelter that day, the trails were clear, but as we climbed, we walked through increasing snow accumulation.
A man we passed earlier that morning who wore a Smoky Mountain National Park Volunteer’s vest told us that reports predicted temperatures in the 60’s for that day and the following days, so we had reasoned that any snow we encountered would quickly start to melt. Thus, we decided to continue the day’s mileage up to the top of Mount LeConte.
“We’re too far in to turn around now; it makes sense to get to the shelter while it’s still light out and warm,” Eva said, “We have to keep going.”
We climbed on, breaking trail through what had increased to about eight inches of snow underfoot. Relief came when we passed by the Mount LeConte Lodge just as the sun started to set, and minutes later we arrived at the shelter building. We unrolled our sleeping bags on the shelter’s top bunk, quickly changing into dry clothes before climbing in. The shelter was large, with an open front covered only by a tarp, and cold air moved all around us. After an hour of trying to warm ourselves in the sleeping bags, one member of our group said that she felt as if she couldn’t stop shivering, which made Eva and me worried.
The Mount LeConte Lodge had just opened for the season, and, after a group member’s suggestion, Eva and I decided that we would swallow our pride, and go ask the manager if there was any possibility of our sleeping on the floor that night in order to avoid hypothermia. I was scared, and my hands shook as we approached the lodge. After blubbering out our request for help, the manager, Brian, stunned us by saying that he had been worried about us up at the shelter, and that there would probably be a place that we could sleep on the floor of the main room. When he then said he thought we might come down because we had looked unprepared for the weather as we walked by the lodge earlier, the back of my neck flushed with shame. We had made what we thought were rational choices, but really we could have turned back earlier, or stopped to camp before the snow accumulation, both of which would have allowed us to avoid this difficult situation entirely. I felt like an idiot – a very relieved and thankful and embarrassed idiot. We thanked him, and ran back to retrieve our group and gear. Eva and I stopped in the middle of the trail connecting the shelter to the lodge, and hugged each other, crying under the clear light of the stars. Despite a lot of backpacking, hiking, and skiing experience, neither of us had felt so close to harm in the backcountry, and were in a state of slight shock.
The Mount LeConte staff was generous and kind, helping us to get warm, cooking the dinner that we had brought ourselves on their stove, and bringing us hot cocoa. Our entire group was overwhelmed with gratitude for their help, despite our deep embarrassment in needing to ask in the first place.
As I closed my eyes that night, warm in front of the stove, I felt a mix of relief, gratitude, embarrassment, fear, and shame. While I felt deep down that we would have made it through that night sleeping in the shelter (although it would have been miserable), our proximity to hypothermia horrified me, and the fact that I had put my friends in potential danger intensely disappointed me. Eva and I had hoped that our all-female trip would complete the planned 60 mile point-to-point route through the Smokies with no major issues, but now it seemed to me that we had somehow let down our gender by falling into the stereotype of helpless, silly, girls. Reflecting on this moment now, I find it interesting that asking for help, which was the right choice to make that night, had made me feel like a failure.
Working at the Granite Park Chalet in Glacier National Park last summer, I thought often about the surprise snow that we encountered in the Smokies and our night at the Mount LeConte Lodge. Granite Park Chalet is a backcountry hotel with no running water or electricity, operated by four staff members who live at the Chalet for the full summer season (roughly three months). To access the Chalet, hikers can take a seven mile route on the famous Highline Trail that has very little elevation gain, or a four mile route that climbs the entire way to the Chalet.
Over the summer we encountered thousands of people who were either day hiking or staying at the Chalet that evening. Sometimes those (including my coworkers and me) who worked in the park during the summer season would laugh about, roll our eyes at, or judge hikers for their lack of preparation. Not bringing proper rain gear, water, food, or insulation, or beginning their hike too late in the evening, etc. were all things that we would see hikers doing almost every day.
While I think that some of this judgment on the part of those who work within the park is valid – by not preparing oneself, a hiker could actually put others at risk in possibly needing to be rescued from a dangerous situation – it felt wrong to me to make these comments about hikers, and I couldn’t help but think of my experience in the Smokies that spring. In judging others, who might have been new to hiking or have simply made a mistake, it seemed that we were forgetting that many people did not have the opportunity to learn about hiking safety growing up, may not have had parents with hiking experience or the ability to take off work in order to take them hiking/camping as I did, may not have the money to purchase expensive gear, or are simply at the beginning of their outdoor learning process in general. This criticism of others only seemed to evidence how privileged we all were to have had the opportunities and financial means to gain backcountry experience. Despite a lack of preparation on the part of thousands of hikers, not one hiker (that I know of) died hiking to or from the Granite Park Chalet the summer that I worked in Glacier.
I am by no means advocating for hikers to leave the trailhead in only shorts and a tank top without water or food; unpreparedness can be dangerous (even fatal). The advent of the internet means that new outdoors-people have access to vast stores of information on trails, gear, best practices, etc., and ideally could use those resources to prepare themselves before hitting the trail. However, I think that judging others for making these types of mistakes is unproductive, as it effectively denies unprepared hikers the occasion to learn from their mistakes. It also denies the critic an opportunity for introspection and learning, because when we judge others, we often separate ourselves from their actions and, thus, cannot use the experience for self reflection. It seems to me that kind suggestions made with good intentions are far more productive in terms of educating other hikers on safety and preparedness than is smirking and critiquing from afar.
And, honestly, having backcountry experience does not necessarily prevent a person from making a potentially dangerous decision. In the case of my Smoky Mountain debacle, my sister and I were experienced outdoors-women, who had each led numerous high-intensity backpacking trips and grew up hiking and backpacking in Colorado. Despite this experience and our ability to afford high-quality (read: expensive) gear, we had still managed to get our group into a “tight spot,” in the words of Ulysses from O Brother Where Art Thou.
Each year expert outdoors-people die in the wilderness, despite having skills, knowledge, preparedness, and experience. In an interview with Scott Simon about avalanche danger and backcountry skiing, Grayson Schaffer of Outside Magazine highlights how “the numbers [of skiers killed yearly by avalanches] stay about the same, but that the types of people who are killed are actually, you know, have avalanche experience, are expert skiers who have taken avalanche training.” In the winter of 2012, an avalanche killed three people described by a member of their group as “expert skiers trained in avalanche safety and equipped with the proper gear” who were skiing in the Tunnel Creek Drainage (Outside Magazine). One of the group wrote, “All of us had been trained to recognize these risk factors, yet we did not heed them… It’s true that we did a lot of things right, and some of our decisions saved people’s lives. But it only takes one poor choice.”
In the summer of 2014, expert hiker Karen Sykes died of hypothermia while hiking near Mount Rainier. The Los Angeles Times writes that “Sykes and her hiking partner and boyfriend, Bob Morthorst, were trekking the Owyhigh Lakes trail on June 18 when they encountered melting snow. Sykes decided to continue hiking while her boyfriend turned back, planning to meet him later that afternoon. The Seattle Times reported that, “while not certain of the circumstances of her death, those who knew Sykes said earlier that it could have happened to anyone, no matter how experienced in the outdoors.” Backpacker Magazine confirms that hypothermia is among the top three causes of fatalities among hikers, along with falling, heart attacks, and drowning.
When I find myself leaning towards making a judgmental comment now, I remind myself of my experience in the Smoky Mountains and a myriad of other silly mistakes that I made on my first backpacking trips (i.e. carrying three full jars of peanut butter on a five day backpacking trip in Zion – seven people do not consume three jars of PB in five days). In my opinion, humility is crucial in attempting to grow into a more understanding, inclusive member of the outdoors community, and while it hurts sometimes to reflect on my close call in the Smokies, the introspection is necessary. When I reflect on these experiences, I try to be patient with myself. I remind myself that I can still be a successful outdoors-person and make some mistakes as long as I learn from them and thank the people who helped me learn and/or saved my bacon.
It seems to me that we as an outdoors community need to strive to not pass judgment on those we perceive as unprepared or foolish, and instead seek to help others learn from backcountry mistakes by offering constructive suggestions, having conversations about backcountry safety, and reflecting on the reasons why we might make poor decisions even while having a high level of knowledge and experience. Shaffer summarizes this latter point effectively in terms of the ski industry:
“Snow safety experts are now focusing more than ever on what are called human factors rather than trying to, you know, teach people how to analyze the snow to say whether the snow stability is good. So these are questions like, you know, are you being lured into a trap by groupthink? Do you want to impress your friends?”
In Outside Magazine’s article about the Tunnel Creek avalanche the author quotes the former pro-skier Rob Gaffney, who says, “’if you’re in a group, and you have this gut instinct that something isn’t quite right, the fact that you want to be part of the group means you’ll be less likely to speak up.'” Looking back on our trip in the Smoky Mountains, I wonder if some our group members may have had a sense that we should turn around that day, but felt pressured to keep hiking in the way that Gaffney describes above.
In helping us that night at the Mount LeConte Lodge, Brian provided a great example of someone who sought to teach rather than judge. Yes, Brian called us out for the poor choices that we had made and talked us through some of the places where we could have made different decisions, but he also conveyed this feedback without condescension. Brian relayed stories about his own close calls with freezing, rainy nights while hiking the Appalachian Trail, which not only helped us to learn from his experiences, but also eased some of the embarrassment that we felt. We talked with Brian about what we would have done in order to stay warm if we had to stay at the shelter that night, and Brian confirmed that our ideas would have been some of the right choices to make in order to stay warm overnight, while also suggesting others that he had used before. I appreciated that Brian didn’t let us off the hook for getting ourselves into the snowy situation, but also that he was kind and understanding.
For me, I think this quest for inclusivity and non-judgment starts with myself. I hope to continue to use memories of past mistakes and my beginnings as a skier and hiker in order to empathize with new members of the outdoor community, remembering that we all have to start somewhere and that we all make mistakes, and that our goal should be to help each other learn to pursue outdoor activities that we love as safely as possible. These activities will never be perfectly safe, but pushing ourselves to physical and emotional limits through outdoor sports is often what makes them worthwhile. As Karen Sykes, the hiker who passed away in 2014, wrote, “sometimes it just feels good to tussle with Mother Nature; it builds character.”
Acknowledgements and Sources Cited
Thank you to Brian and the entire Mount LeConte staff for their assistance in our time of need last spring (March 2016). Our group is so very grateful for your kindness. If you are interested in visiting the Mount Le Conte lodge, the web address is: http://www.lecontelodge.com/ and their blog address is: http://www.highonleconte.com/.
Thank you also to my summer 2016 Granite Park Chalet coworkers, and those from the National Park Service with whom we worked closely. You all taught me so much, and I feel that working at the Chalet was an experience that changed my life.
Bane, Colin. “Colorado’s Loveland Pass Avalanche: Lessons Learned.” Outside Magazine. April, 26, 2013. Accessed March 25, 2017. https://www.outsideonline.com/1915051/colorados-loveland-pass-avalanche-lessons-learned.
Branch, John. “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” The New York Times. Accessed March, 25, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/#/?part=tunnel-creek
Howe, Steve. “A Dozen Ways to Die.” Backpacker Magazine. March 12, 2008. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://www.backpacker.com/survival/a-dozen-ways-to-die.
Michelson, Meghan. “Tunnel Vision.” Outside Magazine. November, 14, 2012. Accessed March, 25, 2017. https://www.outsideonline.com/1910711/tunnel-vision.
Pearce, Matt. “Seattle Hiking Writer Karen Sykes, 70, Died Pursuing her Passion.” The Los Angeles Times. June 24, 2014. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-washington-hiker-20140624-story.html.
Schoettler, Gail. “Colorado’s Deadly Outdoors.” The Denver Post. June, 11, 2008. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://www.denverpost.com/2008/06/11/colorados-deadly-outdoors/ .
Staff Writer. “Outdoors Writer Karen Syke’s Death Traced to Hypothermia.”Seattle Times. June 23, 2014. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/outdoors-writer-karen-sykesrsquo-death-traced-to-hypothermia/.
Weekend Edition. Scott Simon interview with Grayson Schaffer:”Skiing the Backcountry is Intoxicating, and Dangerous.” National Public Radio. January 10, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2015/01/10/376300645/skiing-the-back-country-is-intoxicating-and-dangerous
***The photos used within this post were taken from our group’s Smoky Mountains 2016 trip album. While some of the photos are my own, many of the photos were taken by other members of the group (pictured above).