The sudden, deep cracking sound from a tall fir tree above our heads got our attention in a big way.
A fourteen inch diameter spruce tree had blown down recently and was blocking our vehicle from driving the final half mile up to the start of the Horsethief Trailhead. These sudden very powerful winds on that recent Sunday morning had suddenly raised the stakes for three hikers, of which I was one.
The resounding crack we had just heard had not felled another tree just yet, but we realized that it could happen again, and any minute.
Saying goodbye, my two friends dropped me off for a planned seventeen mile, one-way solo run over the Bridge of Heaven and beyond. They quickly backed their vehicle into a turnaround, and headed to their own planned trailhead a mile downhill at Dexter Creek, while I went the other direction.
Earlier that morning I had been concerned about the prospect of being exposed above timberline in the “possible high winds” which had been forecast. As I began my run uphill, I now wanted to get above timberline as soon as possible, because traveling alone in tall trees in these winds seemed more risky than being high up and exposed fully.
For the first sixteen and a half miles, I encountered not a single person, nearby or distant. Only in the final half mile down the end of the trail to the highway did I come upon one hiker, and then two others.
During all of that time running alone, I considered the difference between a party of one traveling in the wilderness versus a party of two or more. Obviously, one person’s injury mishap could present a day’s hassle for their other buddy, but not be life-threatening.
But the exact same mishap (broken ankle, or brief loss of consciousness from a head injury from a falling tree) would be immensely more life-threatening for a lone hiker or runner. Therefore, much more conservative decision making is the price that must be paid for experiencing many hours of the three hundred sixty degree unbroken vistas of mountain passes and extremes of weather and geography.
These days, carrying a “bike” bottle in each hand, a five to seven hour hike or run at high altitude can be done while carrying no more supplies and gear than can fit in a beltpack that has no more volume than the interior of a football. But selecting the contents of that beltpack becomes especially critical due to its low weight and small size.
Carefully chosen, a survival bundle of gear can roll up to the volume of the closed fist of a large man. This includes the usual items of compass, matches, and others of the “ten essentials”, which lists are widely detailed elsewhere. Very important are a water purification system and an emergency locator system via satellite. One simple version is sold as the Spot, while a more advanced two-way version is called the InReach.
Cellular phone service is absent in much of the backcountry, necessitating such a satellite phone, which can be as small as the interior volume of a deck of playing cards. In the accompanying photo, one version of that satellite phone with two-way communication function is the little red device laying on the belt pack.
Such a device not only can send an S.O.S. with a few pushes of the buttons, but also can allow back-and-forth texting with rescue personnel. But what if the solo outdoors person is unconscious from their mishap? By activating the tracking system at their journey’s start, periodic waypoints (each five minutes or longer) are automatically transmitted and sent to any willing friend or family member.
The sage advice to “tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be back” is supported by the use of such a digital device. A hiker unconscious with a head injury would then be identifiable as motionless (and possibly injured) by the lack of movement in the waypoints being transmitted to the cellphone of their townie friend. Better to be conscious and purposefully activating an S.O.S., of course.
Several recent regional tragedies have occurred with outdoor sports enthusiasts becoming injured, and not being found for several days, until it was too late.
So why bother with soloing in such big country?
As noted in the media coverage of the recent celebration of “True Grit Days” in Ridgway, Hollywood moviemakers have repeatedly sought out stunning, roadless vistas in these San Juan Mountains as the settings for many important movies. The opportunity to experience such areas firsthand (and to come out the other side intact and energized) is worth some preparation, judgment, and focused choices.
John T. Unger is a Diplomate of the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians, with over twenty-five years of practice in Montrose. He cherishes the chance to spend hours putting one foot in front of the other on our surrounding mountain passes. Ideas for future columns are welcomed at sportsdocunger.com.