Sometimes, It’s Better to Stay Home

Through the 1940s and ‘50s, Eddie Bauer of Seattle was America’s premier expedition outfitter. Jay Mellon, hunting sheep in the high Himalayas, wore Eddie Bauer’s finest. He also had the best guides. And he’s still alive.

by David E. Petzal

In my October 2nd post, titled “How Not to Get Killed While Big Game Hunting,” I gave you a set of rules that, if followed, might keep you from saying the Big Adios. This is a postscript. 

On January 17, a man named Christopher Roma died while hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The cause of death was hypothermia caused by single-digit temperatures, waist-deep snow, and sustained high winds with gusts to 80 mph. You might think Roma was a beginner who got in over his head. The opposite is the case.

He was a professional long-distance hiking guide, 37 years old. He had climbed all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot mountains in only 10 days. He had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. He was tough as a boiled owl, and experienced to the nth degree. The trail near Mount Guyot, near which he perished, was one he had hiked many times, and which he knew well.

Roma was able to call 911 on his cell after he realized he was in trouble, and the New Hampshire Fish & Game officers were able to get a fix on him, but neither they, nor a New Hampshire National Guard helicopter rescue team, was able to get anywhere near him. Conditions were horrific. By the time they did reach him, it was too late. 

I believe people who take risks like this go through a certain mental process that’s similar to what young folks do when they join the military. They can’t believe they can be killed. “It may happen to the other guy, but it won’t happen to me…” Without this process of denial, you couldn’t have a decent war because no one would show up. 

Eddie Bauer, in the days before it morphed into a yuppie sports-clothes mall outlet, set the standard for extreme-weather clothing. In the end, though, the most essential piece of survival gear is good sense.

Inexperienced outdoorsmen come to grief because they’re ignorant and have no idea what they’re getting into. Experienced outdoorsmen who perish go through something more complex. They think:

* I’m too experienced to get into trouble. I’ll know when it’s time to back off.

* I’m too tough for the wilderness to kill me; I’ll last it out no matter what happens.

* I’ll be saved by my survival gear.

* I’ll be saved by my smartphone, my GPS, my Emergency Positioning Indicator, and by the rescuers who’ll get me out of whatever mess I get into.

* I won’t die because I am beloved, by God, family, etc.

This process of denial can sometimes infect whole groups of people. Commencing in the mid-17th century, it became a British pastime to perish on Arctic or Antarctic explorations. There were, I think, five of them no one survived. This went on into the 20th century when Sir Ernest Shackleton’s journey to the South Pole met with disaster and, but for a series of miracles and some breathtaking heroics, everyone would have died.

The really odd thing about the five expeditions is that they were carefully planned, elaborately outfitted and provisioned, led by men of proven ability with previous experience in extreme cold weather, and staffed by volunteers who were carefully screened for their abilities and temperaments. The seeds of disaster were sown because all of them ignored how the Inuit, who were the real experts in surviving polar weather, managed to do it. 

Serene in their belief in British superiority in all things, they regarded the Inuit as savages from whom they could learn nothing. A few were hired as guides, but they were not listened to at the outset. There was no one to say to Captain Sir John Franklin of the Royal Navy, “You must be joking.” And if there had been, would Franklin have listened? In 1845, he led two reinforced-hulled ships into the Arctic to find the Northwest Passage. His ships were trapped and crushed in the ice, and his crew of 128 men died of scurvy, exhaustion, and exposure. 

What every Inuit knew was that, sometimes, even if you know what you’re doing, the cold will kill you. 

Dave Petzal, in the mid-1970s, spent a couple of days hunting in Montana when it was -40 degrees. He kept everything but his eyes covered, and was outside for only a few hours. It was just too damn cold.