To Solo, or not to Solo?!! That is the Question.

The question of “To solo, or not to Solo?”, has been a heated debate amongst sports, adventure, and exploration enthusiasts across the globe, and especially as it relates to the female species.  I am, by no means, an authority in this matter, but I do have a very strong opinion on this topic, being a female, an introvert, and a person who absolutely needs to escape from the craziness of society in order to recuperate and rejuvenate.  For me and many others, it’s important to experience some of life’s adventures…Alone.

 

After my mother introduced me to the mountains and hiking, around the age of four, I fell in love with nature. She ignited the passion within me, and I have carried this flaming torch ever since.  Ever since I can remember, adventure and the love of nature have been a part of who I am. The mountains became my escape from the stress and demands of family, career, and sheer craziness of everyday life.  There are a great many hikers who share similar sentiments.  Some people need this escape as a time to be alone, whereas there are those who prefer sharing outside experiences with others.  There are merits to both, and neither one should be discounted nor discouraged.  I have met some wonderful people with whom I’ve shared the trail! We’ve had great laughs, companionship, shared memories/experiences, and I’ve gained invaluable knowledge from them as well. I enjoy the kinship, and love meeting new people.  For me personally, I must also have my personal space, my cave time if you will, and I fulfill that need by being alone on the trail.

Why do I enjoy hiking and backpacking solo?   I have pondered this question quite deeply while “sauntering” in the backcountry.  I value my alone time and cherish being able to enjoy the nuances of nature without having to worry about entertaining, looking after, or even getting along with another individual. I can be myself, go my own pace, and be in whatever mood suits my fancy.  The only person that I have to get along with is me.  I can be my worst enemy, or I can be my best friend.  Backpacking solo has taught me a great many things about myself and what I am capable of.  It has taught me to enjoy my alone time, to trust myself, and to be confident in my abilities.  Just as there are many positive reasons to explore nature alone, there are negative ones as well…like the safety issues, long nights, and lack of companionship.  After a week of being on the trail, it’d sure be nice to have someone to share the day and chit chat a little.  Is it possible to have the best of both worlds?!!  Have the cake and the eat it too? Haha!

IMG_7553

There are those staunch believers who are of the firm mindset that hikers should always have a buddy with them.  I appreciate their concerns, and do understand the reasoning behind their opinions, and here’s why: the dangers of being alone in the wilderness are both great and numerous.  They should not be minimized or dismissed.  It is important to understand what “could” happen and take measures to reduce the risk or peril that might occur.  Many people feel that individuals, especially females, shouldn’t engage in outside activities alone, because there would be no one to help in case of need, or in the event of an accident.  I have always espoused the belief that if a person is well-prepared, experienced, and has a means of communicating with others while in the wilderness, the benefits outweigh the dangers.  In my experience, it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female out in nature, accidents happen,  and they happen very quickly.  It’s the level of competency, awareness, and planning that is vitally important.  This fact really hit home a couple of weeks ago, when I was one of the first responders to a winter hiking accident (see blog post “A Learning Experience on San Bernardino Peak”), which made me reevaluate my views on adventuring alone anytime I feel the urge.

After this near tragic event, I have amended my die-hard solitary viewpoint.  I am now of the mindset that if there is a high degree of danger associated with a certain activity, and having a buddy along significantly increases the chance of survival or decreases the likelihood of an accident, then it is important to bring someone with you.  Winter mountaineering is one of those activities where I will routinely seek a buddy to go with me, instead of venturing out alone.  Some other examples of when to bring someone with you might be during a large snowpack year, when the snowfield and river crossings might be treacherous, on dangerous trails, or in unfamiliar countries where the customs/laws/etc. are new or unknown.  Most sports (climbing, skiing, river kayaking, etc.), have situations where a companion is necessary.  A couple of simple, but good questions, to always ask yourself are: “How much risk/danger is in this activity?” and “Would I reduce this risk/danger by having someone else along?”.  Thoughts to ponder before embarking on an adventure through nature…

Don’t get me wrong, I will never give up my alone time in the wilderness, but I will be more cognizant of when it is necessary for a buddy to accompany me on an adventure, and so should you.  If you love to be alone, and you trust your abilities and experience in the wilderness, then I fully recommend enjoying the beautiful backcountry by yourself.  Memorable experiences are created every step of the way! However, being mindful of what “could” happen is all a part of the planning and preparation process. In addition, taking navigation, wilderness first aid, survival, and/or a winter mountaineering courses will increase your knowledge and skill set, and enable you to be more prepared if something were to happen.  Above all, knowing when to enjoy your alone time, and when to share your enjoyment with another person is key. Live to hike another day!

Happy Trails! ~SoloYolo

IMG_4131

A Learning Experience on San Bernardino Peak (10,649’/4650′ elev gain/16 mi)

What started as a beautiful weekend of hiking and climbing, almost turned into a deadly event.  I am being a little over-dramatic, but with good reason as you will soon see.

San Bernardino Peak is a yearly trek which I take to complete the Six Pack of Peaks Challenge for SoCal Hikers, and to get into shape for my summer excursions.  I was a little hesitant to go this time of year because I wasn’t sure what the trail conditions were like near the summit.  I had put some “feelers” out in various Facebook groups, did my research as best I could, and decided to go ahead and go.  I told myself that if the conditions were too dangerous or the snow too arduous to hike through (endless post-holing), I would suck up my pride, submit to Mother Nature and turn around.

I knew a woman from Facebook,  hiking the mountain on the same day as I was.  We actually arrived at the trailhead the same time, around 8:30am on Saturday, March 24th.  Great timing, and so I was able to meet her at the trailhead. I do enjoy my alone time, so I opted not to hike with her group of 10, but knew I’d see them at Limber Pines Bench Camp, and could chat with them then.

It was a cool brisk morning, and not as much snow as I expected to encounter at the lower elevations.  The endless switchbacks, until Manzanita Flats, had me ripping off my layers, chugging down the water, and sucking up the air around me.  At around 8,000 ft, the trail turned to hard pack snow and continued as such until about 100 feet below Limber Pines Bench, where it turned to windswept ice from the freeze/thaw conditions and high winds.  I did not put on my crampons, but dug my boots deep into the snow with every step near camp.  I would later reflect back upon this decision, and how foolhardy it was not to stop, just take a brief moment, and put on my crampons.

IMG_1336

I made it into Limber around 12:30 pm and proceeded to set up camp and wrestle with erecting my four-season tent. It’s an awesome tent, but a pain to set up.  The winds started to increase and the fog soon moved in.  At this saddle, the winds and weather can be quite ferocious because it’s so exposed.  We were expecting 45+ mph winds, single digit windchill temps, and 10% chance of moderate snow.  A couple of hikers asked me if I wanted to climb with them to the summit that afternoon, but I declined because of the winds and incoming clouds.  I hoped that the following day would be a better day to summit.  I battened down the hatches and took a light nap.  Right before sunset, I got ready for a long night in the tent, and snapped a couple of pictures of the sunset.  It was a long and chilly night, but alas…Daybreak came soon enough.

I still wasn’t sure I wanted to head up to the summit, but I spoke to the trio who summited the day before, and they said the conditions were good for climbing with crampons.  Three hikers ended up joining me from the group.  Hindsight, I was very thankful to have the company.  We left camp at around 8am, and made our way straight up the main chute. The crampons dug in well in most spots, and the other harder areas, you had to really make a concerted effort to dig in to gain purchase.  The main chute wasn’t overly steep, just a constant ascent.  We decided to take a smaller chute to the left for a direct path to the summit.  This chute was steeper and the ice was harder because it was a little more exposed to wind.  The weather was beautiful: sunny, light wind, and warm on the ascent.  We soon made it to the summit, snapped a couple of pics, congratulated each other, and headed back down before our finger tips fell off from frostbite.  Okay, I’m exaggerating again. =) It was damn nippy!

On the way down, I was chatting happily with my partner when I tripped over my other crampon, and immediately starting sliding down the main chute.  I didn’t slide far before I flipped over and self-arrested.  It was a little disconcerting, but good practice. Murphy’s law is always present in my life, as I was just talking about self-arresting techniques with my buddy previous to my slide. Haha! We made it back to camp, taking about 3 hrs round trip. I took off my crampons and began to pack up for the descent back down to the trailhead.

As I was deciding what I wanted to pack up first, two young women approached me and asked if I was leaving.  I thought it an odd question, and was wondering if they wanted my camp spot, but they did not have overnight gear.  The duo then told me that another woman, who they were talking to on the trail, had shifted her weight, and subsequently, slid several hundred feet down the steep icy slope. She (Michelle) stated that the woman was most likely in serious condition, because she had hit a few obstacles on the way down.  They could not attempt to rescue her because, like the victim, they only had micro spikes on.  I immediately requested that my two hiking buddies join me to help (power in numbers/knowledge/experience), put on my crampons, and assembled some of my measly first aid equipment.

I then hiked down to where the main trail makes it’s last ascent into Limber, approximately 100 feet downslope.  I could not see the victim, nor could I hear her from this vantage point. The two women, Michelle and Chelse, pointed to where the victim (Rachel) had stopped.  I hiked up the steep icy slope and found that she had come to rest behind a tree.

This woman had fallen more than 500 feet, hit a tree and a few rocks along the way down.  She flew over a natural rock ramp and head first into a tree, which finally broke her fall (slide).   She was in shock, but coherent, and was able to answer my questions with a some difficulty.  The victim had multiple injuries, including a two-inch gash in her head, a broken wrist, and was bleeding pretty badly from her elbow, along with other unknown injuries. Rachel, the victim, was also complaining of back pain, but thankfully, could move her extremities.  Michelle, miraculously a trauma nurse, was assisted up to the location by my hiking buddy, Julian.  As first responders, we administered first aid, cleaned her up, and Chelse called SAR from the trail below.

Photo Mar 25, 12 38 19 PM

The immediacy of the Search and Rescue Team is to be commended.  They, along with a sheriff’s helicopter, were at the accident site within the hour.  I was very impressed with not only the response, but also the professionalism and expertise of the SAR Team.  They airlifted the victim and took her to a nearby hospital.  She had remained conscious the entire time, stated that she was afraid, but was calm even though she was in excruciating pain.  We had called her boyfriend and told him where she’d be.  We knew Rachel was in good hands when we last saw her being drawn into the helicopter.

Photo Mar 25, 12 33 28 PM

The first responders were grateful to one another for helping a fellow human being, and remaining calm throughout the entire ordeal.  We helped save a life that day.  It’s what we do for each other.  Rachel could not be seen or heard from the main trail.  She was traveling alone, and had limited cell reception.  There was no way, without assistance, that she could’ve made the climb down to the main trail. It was forecasted for one degree windchill temps that night.  She had a cotton sweatshirt on, and most certainly could’ve died of exposure if SAR or others hadn’t come to her rescue. Although she was in serious condition, she was extremely blessed that day.

This was a learning experience for everyone involved, and could’ve happened to any of us, even with experience and proper gear. However, the chances of getting hurt are greatly increased from not having the right gear that fit the conditions, and not knowing how to use them.  The victim had micro spikes on a steep slope, and poles with rubber attachments still on the ends.  Micro spikes are ineffective on icy steep slopes.  The victim, as she was falling, was not able to self arrest.  She hit head first into a tree. Helmet, ice axe, and crampons were mandatory with the steepness and icy conditions of the terrain.

In reflecting upon this almost tragic incident, I came to the realization that gear, experience, and having buddies when winter mountaineering is vitally important, and could make the difference between life and death.  Personally, I did not bring my helmet.  My excuse: in order to reduce the weight I had to carry…Bad mistake #1.  I went solo…Bad mistake #2.  I had my InReach with me, but failed to leave an exact itinerary with my family.  They erroneously thought I was on San Gorgonio…Bad mistake #3. Although, I value my alone time on the trail, and will never give that up, I will make a concerted effort to have fellow hikers join me on my winter excursions from this point forward.

It is my hope that by telling this story that others will see through my eyes, and think twice about what is needed in the wilderness, and especially during the winter season.  Preparation, knowing your limits/comfort zone, and experience will enable you to hike yet another day.

IMG_0078

I would like to extend a very special thank you and my utmost gratitude to the victim (for being a strong and calm woman), Michelle (heaven sent nurse), Chelse (her friend who directed SAR to our location, Julian and Kirk (my hiking buddies), The Mountain Humpers (helping to flag down the air vac), and most of all the SAR Team (San Bernardino Sheriff’s Dept, Sheriff’s Air Rescue (AR306))  who risked their lives to save a fellow hiker! Everyone was amazing, and helped this accident come, not to a tragic ending, but a positive one. ❤

IMG_0082

Happy Trails and Stay Safe! ~SoloYolo