Over the years I have certainly been the recipient of plenty of concern regarding the sometimes dangerous recreation I pursue, yet I’m always confident because I have a plan. Now there is always risk–a tree could fall and kill me or a poisonous snake could catch me at a bad time–but risk is only dangerous is poorly managed. Far too often I read stories about terrible things happening to good people, so I feel compelled to say a few words about safety while adventuring. If this has a 1:1,ooo,ooo chance of helping someone avoid a terrible fate then it is time well spent.
Step one: The Summit is only Half Way
Anyone who has spent some quality time in a mountainous area has probably heard this oft-quoted expression, but it is just as true on a weekend long run in the suburbs as it is when summiting Everest. No matter what your plan may have been, if you push yourself past this halfway point you are doubling down on the hope that nothing goes wrong. Always be willing to compromise the plan for the sake of progress since you never hear the story about the hikers who turned around too soon.
To illustrate this point let me share with you my latest experience in California. My good friend Matt and I were attempting to summit the highest peak in the lower 48, Mt Whitney, but being flat-landers who’ve spent most of our lives at sea level we knew we couldn’t be cocky about the altitude we’d be facing. Before setting out to summit, we made a plan regarding which factors would lead us to turn around versus simply pressing on. Our rules included that if we didn’t summit by noon we would turn around regardless, if either of us felt faint we would turn around after 15 minutes if resting did remedy the issue, and if ice were and major issue going up we would have to turn around early since ice becomes slush and slush is deadly.
None of these rules should seem too dramatic because they’re not. Usually all it takes to stay safe is a couple levelheaded rules, and they need to be made BEFORE the adventure. By the time you realize that need them while up on the mountain or in the middle of the desert, you are already behind the 8 ball. Your judgment is the first to go, so you it well you can!
Plan A is not any good without a plan B, C…
As any inspirational speaker will tell you–all you need is a plan to succeed, I would argue that a plan is not quite enough. What you really need are plans. It is far too easy for one small hiccup to derail a well thought and well-executed plan, instead I would focus on having several possible plans that you can switch between as conditions change.
Here’s an example where being flexible in your plans will keep you safe and the adventure going. I was out in the Mojave Desert and it was hot (+110˚F), but I’ve never let that stop me from exploring. So I decided to go for a run and to see what this desert had to offer.
Since this was a new area for me, I couldn’t trust my innate sense of direction 100% and instead had to leave a margin for error. Given the relative location and position of the couple landmarks I knew I could count on, like a road, my plan for the run consisted of heading north-east from the campground before circling west and back. By setting up my run in such a way, the chance of getting lost became virtually nil. I set off in the afternoon and could count on the sun being westwardly throughout my run, and I could count on myself to not miss the road if I came upon it. By also knowing that the campground should be south of me most of the time, my run was always constrained to within a specific region. To be in danger of getting lost you first need to lose a safe direction (i.e. start second-guessing which way to travel), so as long as you are boxed in then you are safe.
The worst-case scenario here would be to over exert myself and lose track of where I am so that I am forced to walk to the road and then along it all the way back to the campground. While it wouldn’t be pleasant, I was always confident that I had the ability to do that if necessary.
Most importantly of all: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The simpler the plan, the less chance for catastrophe to strike. Any plan that is needlessly complicated is bound to cause problems and make for a less enjoyable trip and adventure overall. By making sure you know which trail connects to what others, or that there is a road cutting north on the west that you can bail out to, then you make the trip more fun and certainly more safe. Along with this comes the idea that you should bring what you need and only stuff that you will actually need. Don’t be wasteful with your energy and time, those two are invaluable at times.
- It is hard to miss a paved road, but a dirt road in a bad enough condition…