By Daryl R. Miller
Alaska has long been regarded as the last frontier, offering some of the most remote and rugged mountains in the world. The quest for solitude and adventure lures thousands of climbers from around the world into the backcountry each year to test their skills and wilderness experience. Unfortunately, every year numerous accidents and some fatalities result from poor judgment. One hundred years ago wilderness survival skills were a way of life in the Alaska. The rules were simple and harsh: survival was your responsibility, no one else’s. We have grown socially and culturally unwilling to accept that primitive education which dictated that people simply learned or died.
Today, because most people—including most Alaskans—live in urban environments and grow up in an urban culture, wilderness skills are never learned. The result is that the wilderness-bound end up depending more and more on equipment and less and less on their own competence to deal with dangerous situations in wilderness settings. Each year in this state, the National Park Service and other agencies conduct backcountry rescues that should have never been needed. Many of these incidents are a result of people forgetting that the most important trip objective and priority is a safe journey out and back.
Some incidents stem from a lack of judgment, and some from a lack of training. Outdoor proficiency should come from a long, mentored apprenticeship that presents the opportunities to deal safely with increasingly precarious situations. But there are few opportunities for such wilderness exposure today. Many factors have conspired to change that. Technology has made it possible to call for rescue from almost anywhere at the same time that it has made backcountry travel easier and faster. Technology has served to blunt respect for the tests Mother Nature can still throw at humans. Taking communication on a trip is being responsible, but basing how much risk you take because of that communication is negligent at best.
Many times I have tried to warn climbers and backpackers of nature’s cold and harsh realities; the Alaska environment can be extremely unfriendly to humans. It’s indifferent and unforgiving. On top of that, the scale of Alaska is easily underestimated. Most people set unrealistic expectations. Ten miles cross-country in Alaska is not like 10 miles on trail systems in the lower 48, but more like 30 or 40 trail miles.
Arrogance about the outdoors blinds people to these things. Unfamiliarity with Alaska’s arctic and sub-arctic conditions, as well as a sometimes total disregard for elementary principles of safety simply compound the problems.
I have seen this firsthand too many times. It’s a sad and painful task to tell family and friends when someone is lost or dead in the mountains. Yes, accidents do happen. There are medical emergencies and acts of nature for which no one can plan. But these are rare. Most accidents are caused by bad judgment compounded by Alaska’s severe weather and remoteness. Many accidents are a result of people making bad decisions because of a lack of knowledge or complacency.
An examination of climbing accidents in Alaska shows a great number of rescues involve people who have misjudged the consequences of their decisions and were under prepared for Alaska weather. The remoteness of the Alaskan backcountry makes everyone susceptible to a catastrophic accident or medical emergency. Hazard evaluation in the backcountry is, in part, linked to the time you spend there, but there appears to be a refusal on the part of some to let experience teach them.
Some consider their success in the backcountry a reflection of superior outdoor skills, although most have never been tested in crisis. They forget that some crisis is necessary to hone skill. “Near misses,” those brief encounters with the reality of mortality, are great learning tools if properly approached.
Errors in judgment are educational if they send the right message—that turning around at the right time or opting not to go on are decisions that will save your life time and time again. Unfortunately, our virtual reality society presents some problems in defining risk. To some degree, we have come to see it as a quest instead of a warning.
The “no fear” philosophy pushes people to navigate in the backcountry regardless of the elements, but it operates on the faulty premise that liabilities and possible injuries are a low priority, and that rescue is just a call away. This is dangerous for the people seeking recreation and for the people called upon to rescue them. People fail to make the right choices based on their capabilities. They forget that prevention is the rule because treatment is often impractical or impossible.
My first climb on Denali in 1981 was one of the most traumatic and best learning experiences in my life because of the severe storms we encountered at 17,000 feet. As a mountaineering ranger for the past 13 years, I have witnessed many worst-case scenarios regarding accidents, along with some of the most determined wills to survive. Conducting many varied and difficult backcountry patrols in Denali National Park, I have retained these thoughts on surviving in the wilderness of Alaska:
- Everyone has a personal responsibility to maintain self-sufficiency in the wilderness, and should always base decisions on getting back on their own.
- Your best resource is the ability to think in a controlled manner when a life-threatening crisis is happening.
- Prevention, not treatment, is what ultimately will save your life in the wilderness. There is a notable difference between a gamble and a calculated risk. A calculated risk considers all the odds, justifies the risk, and then makes an intelligent decision based on conservative judgment. A gamble is something over which you have no control and the outcome is just a roll of the dice.
- You cannot make intelligent decisions in the wilderness if you do not understand the risks.
- Never give up; the will to live is a valuable asset. Sometimes people perish simply because they fall short on perseverance.
- As a rule, if you die in the wilderness you made a mistake. Careless judgment has a sharp learning curve.
- Wilderness rescues in Alaska are often dangerous to the rescuers and always weather-contingent.
- People DO NOT realize the devastating impact their accidents have on friends and loved ones.
- The prerequisite to misadventure is the belief that you are invincible or that the wilderness cares about you.
Denali National Park staff is committed to helping make your expedition a successful and unforgettable experience. I hope you will partner with us in maintaining Denali National Park and Preserve as the pristine natural environment that it is. Allow others to take away with them the same unmatched experience that you will no doubt take with you.
Miller, Daryl. “Survival Is Your Own Responsibility.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/survival.htm.