In the movie Forrest Gump, there is a point where Forrest finds that he is smack dab in the middle of a particular unpleasantness, to which he tells a bystander, who he hands the shirt that he has wiped his face off with, that “it happens.” The bystander clarifies as to whether Forrest means what he thinks, and Forrest indeed agrees that, yeah, “it happens.”
And that’s the thing about having a hiking accident. It happens. We can plan and be careful. We can be here now. We can take breaks or stop when we’re getting tired. We can buy the best fitting clothing and all the coolest high-tech equipment or stock up all of our first aid gear and carry a heavy bag that contains all of it to make sure that we have everything possible for every possible contingency that we or someone else could encounter, and we can still find that “it happens.”
Rain happens. Bear maulings happen. Bee stings happen. Rattlesnake bites happen. Avalanches happen. Unexpected flash floods and blizzards happen. Hurricane strength winds happen. Unruly hikers and their angry yipping and barking dogs happen. Thievery at group shelters happens. Feet plunging through snowy drifts on river banks happen. Swift rivers blocking progress happens. Hot weather that leads to dehydration happens. Faulty equipment happens. The inability to climb mountain walls happens. Sasquatch, chupacabra, extra-terrestrial, and pukwudgie encounters happen. Changes since the map and guidebook were written happen. Getting lost happens. Blisters developing and toenails falling off happen.
And of course, slips and falls happen.
Everything that Edward Abbey informed us that it was our right and privilege to have is something that can happen in the harsh forbidding desert, the huge rock-strewn mountains, the deep, wet swamps, and the gentle country parks.
And guess what? It can happen anytime, anywhere. In dry or wet conditions… on flat or sloped ground… with or without the assistance of rocks… in the presence of a jinx hiking partner or alone… every now and again, we all take a nice trip and have a good fall. I’ve bashed my shin up but good. I’ve landed on my arms forcefully while thrusting forward, out of control, and like every other victim of calamity, I’ve screamed out in profanity. Fortunately, I’ve always made it out OK or OK enough in that I’ve only ever limped out with a bloody bruise, which led to a good infection.
In short, I’ve had problems, but I’ve never really been down in it; however, I a lot of other people have, and this is the story of one of those people, who to her resume credit, now has a mega-accident to her credit.
Nevertheless, in the 7 years that we have been hiking together, we’ve seen and heard about our fair share of things that happened to others, and we’ve experienced some minor setbacks ourselves. Nevertheless, when “it happens,” the individual finds out whether he or she is ready for it or not.
Somewhere out there on the Internet is a list of all kinds of statistics that tell us how often and how likely it is that “it happens,” but truth be told, as we outdoor adventurers are entering into a potentially chaotic system, not too dissimilar from buckling up in a plane seat or behind the wheel of our automobiles, we run the risk of death or injury in everything that we do. It’s not quite the same odds that the guys who they made the movie The Right Stuff about endured, but it’s a significant number. Laurence Gonzales gets a lot of good mileage in his books regarding this scenario, and let me say that I heartily recommend all of his books since it’s important to think ahead about what we would do in these scenarios.
His books aren’t about what fancy survival knives that you should carry to be like Rambo, and for this, he does leave some people shaking their heads about what they’re reading. Instead, he talk about the mind as the most important tool available. This is echoed in the book Hatchet, where the main character Brian remembers how his English teacher once stated that, “You are your most valuable asset.” Being of sound mind allows the body to be controlled a lot better than to just have a strong out of control body acting against the interests of the self. Sure, a strong body helps us get over hurdles better, but in the end, the mind rules all. It can control some scenarios, but it can’t control everything.
Regarding survival, Gonzales knows as well as all of us know, for that matter, just the fact that other people enter into these risky activities puts the rest of us at risk by at least a small percentage. Planes could crash out of the sky and land on our house. A car could drive through our front doors. It happens. Nevertheless, the likelihood that we end up as a statistic somewhere should decrease with knowledge and preparedness; however, as Aron Ralston will attest to, the “it” of being a statistic can happen to anyone. Somewhere in the Venn diagram between hubris / adventure / chaotic systems is a bull’s eye that says, “Hey, guess what? You’re officially meat!”
That’s what happened to Aron Ralston in the canyon at Blue John. That’s what happened to Joe Simpson in the Peruvian Andes. That’s what happened to all of Jon Krakauer’s “characters” on Everest in 1996, and that’s what happened to the Sherpas on Everest last year. Outdoor magazines and newspaper articles blast headlines of missing / injured / dead hikers all of the time. We celebrate the successes, and we gasp at the failure because that could be us.
Let’s be honest; in the hiking community, we all make mistakes. We regroup and learn our lesson. We take our punishments when necessary, and we avoid repeating the same actions that led to mistakes again… theoretically. We grow and change to stop being what it was that led us to these places where the mistake occurred.
Nevertheless, sometimes, our mistake is the chaotic system. Other times, it’s our faults. In still other scenarios, we rely on others to help us when we shouldn’t necessarily be so trusting of our situation with them. In other scenarios, it’s our fear that seems to bring us to our demise.
There are many ways to get into a predicament that we can’t get out of. All we have to do is enter into the system. In other cases, we find that after the initial fear, there is something stronger and more powerful that is located deep within ourselves, and even if it takes being awoken by something powerful or assisted with a rescue from outside, there is a sense of transition that is going to occur, which will outweigh the situation that brought it on.
And that moment of becoming is what happened to my wife Heather in April 2015, when she and I went hiking at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada.