Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Can we still experience wilderness?

A recent op-ed in the New York Times described the proliferation of PLBs – personal locator beacons that send a distress signal along with GPS coordinates so the user can be rescued – and how they have led to an increasing number of unnecessary "rescues." Some of the examples were stunning: in 2009, a group of backpackers in Grand Canyon National Park used their PLB three times in four days. Each time they were met by a rescue team in a helicopter.

At Half Dome, hikers routinely ignore warning signs and/or storm clouds, then use their cell phones to call for help when they find themselves atop a slick granite dome in a lightning storm – and are shocked to learn that helicopters can't fly in that weather.

My first response to the article was that people who abuse PLBs, or otherwise waste the time and money of emergency services, should be billed for the cost of those services – or prosecuted for calling in a false alarm. But the more I think about how that would work in real life, the more complicated it becomes. For those of us who have spent our lives hiking and backpacking, it's easy to say some people are just too stupid to venture off the sidewalk – but of course that won't stop them.

I'm really curious about those guys at Grand Canyon. Had they never backpacked before? Did they not understand the concept of wilderness, the purpose of a PLB, or the definition of an emergency? Were they prone to panic attacks? Did they grow up in extremely wealthy families where calling for a helicopter – and then changing your mind about needing it – was considered normal?

But the Grand Canyon guys are outliers, or at least I hope they are. What about the cases that aren't so clear-cut? Who gets to decide what's a real emergency? When someone calls 911 and says, "I'm having a heart attack," the paramedics respond immediately. If, after a bunch of tests at the ER, the doctor says it was only indigestion or a panic attack, does that mean the 911 call was unnecessary? What kinds of mistakes are forgivable, and which ones should be punished?

I've been hiking since I could walk, and I know how to take care of myself on the trail. But I can think of plenty of times when I've made careless mistakes that could have ended in tragedy.

Twenty years ago at Point Reyes, I climbed down a steep cliff to photograph harbor seals on the rocks below. Halfway back up, I got stuck. Each time I moved a hand or a foot, I felt myself slipping as the cliff started to crumble out from under me. How long did I stay in that position? Five minutes? Half an hour? I really don't know. Eventually, somehow, I found my footing and was able to continue. If I'd had a PLB, or even a cell phone – if they had existed then – at what point would I have used it?

One afternoon in Lundy Canyon I parked at the trailhead and took what I intended to be a short walk, a look around to see if I wanted to take a longer hike the next morning. Before I knew it, I was a couple miles up the mountain, with no water or food, not even a long-sleeved shirt – and I could see storm clouds gathering. I headed back to the car. If I had twisted an ankle, or been struck by lightning, I could have been in serious trouble to say the least.

Last year I hiked to Thimble Peak, in the Grapevine Mountains, for the first time. It was a perfect day for hiking – temperature in the low 70s, a light breeze, blue sky, puffy white clouds, a view of Death Valley that goes on forever – one of those glorious desert spring days when nothing could possibly go wrong. And, in fact, nothing did. But as I was scrambling over loose shale, up the last couple hundred feet to the peak, I did have a few thoughts about the consequences of a careless mistake. How long would I have lain at the bottom of that canyon before someone discovered my body?

If any of those situations had turned out differently, I can easily imagine what people would have said about me. How could such an experienced hiker do something so stupid?

Well, the truth is we do it all the time.

Raise your hand if you read Into the Wild and thought, "That could have been me."

A recent blog post by Jill Homer sums it up: as we gain experience with potentially dangerous situations, we become more confident. As we become more confident, we take more chances. Nothing bad happened last time, so everything should be fine this time. If we want to continue to enjoy the wilderness, and survive for our next adventure, we need to be vigilant against overconfidence and the carelessness it produces.

Back to the question of all those electronic gadgets that keep us connected 24/7. What really bothers me is not that they get abused, but that they have led to a generational shift in the definition of wilderness, and how we relate to it. Inappropriate use of PLBs, 911 calls from Half Dome, or just checking email on the trail – they're all part of a world in which we're never really alone.

Hiking has always been a kind of meditation for me. I seek out wild places because of the isolation, the solitude, the distance from the everyday stresses of modern life. I know a lot of people share my perspective, while for others the wilderness is a place to test their limits, whether by climbing, kayaking, or simply surviving in a difficult situation.

Can you really experience that sense of isolation or challenge when you know you're carrying a device that will instantly put you in touch with a rescue team, standing by with a helicopter and all the medical supplies you might need? Or, for that matter, a device that puts you in touch with your boss, your family, and a Nigerian prince who wants to give you $43 million?

John Muir wrote, "Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness."

 Is that journey even possible anymore?