Tuesday, 11 January 2011

How to survive in the wilderness

Hank and I just saw "127 Hours", a Danny Boyle movie about a guy who insists on going canyoning on his own, falls into a deep hole, gets his hand trapped under an unfriendly boulder and decides to hack it off (the hand) after 127 hours of being trapped without any sign of rescue.  You may think that synopsis was what Americans call a "spoiler" but the joy of the film (if you can call it joy) resides in the suspense created when you know what's coming and are just waiting for it ... wait for it ... wait for it... Hack! You get the idea. 

There are some great bits of the movie, like when the trapped hero Aron reflects ironically on the opportunities he had to tell people where he was going canyoning and stubbornly refused; how he almost packed his Swiss Army knife but couldn't quite reach it on the top shelf at home, so left it behind; and, as his water supplies deplete, he contemplates the solitary litre of Gatorade he left in his car, oh about a hundred miles that-a-way.  The movie is good but not for the faint-hearted: if you are the kind of person who wouldn't trust the ship's barber to hack any of your limbs off at sea then perhaps take a strong swig of rum before you go into the cinema.

The idea of emergency preparedness reminded me of a recent trip to Glacier National Park (USA) with Hank.  It was June but there was still an iciness in the air and the mountains looked less than welcoming.  Hank suggested a day hike to a tarn named "Avalanche Lake", reassuringly sited at the end of "Avalanche Gorge".  Darkness was already falling as we set out.  The trailhead was roped off with a sign which stated that a recent storm had forced its closure.  Hank pressed on.  I was nervous.  

Avalanche Lake - a lovely place for a lone walk at dusk
As per usual I had packed a careful day sack, containing 1.5 litres of water, a survival bag, snack bars, warm, brightly-coloured clothing, waterproofs and a wind-up light (I never trust batteries in an emergency).  As we raced along under the forest canopy, slipping on wet rocks and icy, part-frozen mud, the light dwindled and I asked Hank what we would do in an emergency.  He said he was well prepared.  I felt relieved at first.  Then I realised he was "pretending" (pretending is our word for "lying").  I grabbed his bag and, relieved, found it reassuringly heavy.  I unzipped the front pocket and discovered the following potentially life-saving contents:

1.  Hank's Invisalign retainer
2.  His London apartment's front door keys (quite a heavy bunch) 
3.  His London office swipe passes (on bulky chains)

Hank stops to photograph the scenery along Avalanche Gorge Trail.  Fear not! He has his office swipe pass!
Ok he did have some useful kit but those were the first three things I found, so I freaked out.  At that point Hank gave me permission to leave him behind if he got into trouble.  I knew I would, in all seriousness, never be able to do that, so it was fortunate that we both made it to the tarn and back in one piece - and before nightfall.  As we returned to the road, Hank laughed at my European fear of Mother Nature. Until we saw a sign by the trailhead.

Barely a year earlier, a 27-year old man named Yi Jien Hwa had gone missing hiking in the mountains around the tarn we had just visited.  The sign requested hikers keep an eye out for his body, his clothes, his backpack, his shoes.  My scepticism of American notions of outdoors "rugged individualism" probably only sank in for Hank at that point.  We were devastated.

I have today googled Yo Jien Hwa and found no indication that any trace of him was ever recovered.  His wife had apparently been due to accompany him hiking but had been called away to a family emergency. Unable or perhaps just unwilling to postpone the trip of a lifetime, Yi Jien Hwa had gone ahead, on his own.

With the recent shootings in Arizona, I have been contemplating the New World belief that a true hero can rely on their own resourcefulness to survive any situation.  This confers the right to bear arms (you may need to protect yourself against a crazed gunman) and seems to originate in a profound belief that Government cannot solve all of society's problems, and that society cannot solve individuals' problems.  The Europeans reading this will probably take a different view: where Governments control firearms and ammunition effectively, crazed gunmen (and accidental discharges) pose less of a threat to society; when well-socialised individuals tell our peers where we're going, we're less likely to be alone relying on ourselves to survive in a canyon for very long.  So, Hank I hope you will forgive me but there will be no solitary Utah man-cave for you.  I can't protect you against a lunatic with a gun in Safeway, but I can legislate so that you won't be leaving your hand in a canyon.  Will you do me a wee favour? Please take a friend and a GPS trackable device when you square off against Mother Nature - and come back to your fiancee in one piece.  That's my American Dream xx 

The Presidents say: Your mom was right!  Don't lose your head!
Tell someone where you're going when exploring the great outdoors.  Thank you, good people of the USA!

1 comment:

  1. aug 1 2011 US park service glacier park posted (see archives of news releases) hiker at Avalanche lake found clothing below headwall of lake - rangers have returned and found more gear, clothing and human bones below floral park. DNA not confirmed but they are pretty sure its Yi-Jien Hwa.


Search This Blog