Last Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, I took a bad fall while running down the steep West Ridge of Bear Peak, the 8,461-ft summit of which sits 65 minutes and 3,100 feet above my house in Boulder. A foot must have tangled with a rock, root, or another foot, and I went skidding down a rock staircase head-first. I nearly passed out from the impact — or maybe I did — and after lying in the dirt for a few minutes to regain my composure I took inventory of the damage: abrasions on my palms, a deep gash and other abrasions on the backside of my right forearm, trail rash down my left leg, and a pissed-off Charley horse in my upper quad.
As customary when trail running in Boulder’s foothills, I was solo and I had no phone, water, food, spare clothing, or emergency supplies. None of these precautions would have made a difference in my case anyway — jogging, walking, and limping out on my own was the easiest and fastest way to help. Sixty minutes and 2,800 vertical feet later, I arrived at my closest friend’s condo, hoping she was there and could drive me home. The excitement continued after Amanda and Amanda’s mom (who was visiting for Thanksgiving) opened my front door: I passed out in the shower (I’m a prolific passer-outer.) and then began to uncontrollably shiver due to the trauma and to being calorically depleted. We all agreed that my arm could use some stitches, but cheapness prevailed: the next morning I sealed it closed with butterfly bandages.
Interestingly, I was not the only trail runner to have an accident on Bear Peak’s West Ridge last week: Peter Bakwin, a lifelong Boulder resident and ultra-runner, fell in almost the exact same spot and slid downhill head-first on his right side. His damage: much trail rash, a good laceration on his cheek (plus a black eye), and bruised ribs.
Why accidents happen
There are many stories of outdoor accidents that happened to ill-prepared people, sometimes because they had inadequate gear and supplies, but more often because they had inadequate skills for the situation: they were unable to make good decisions, recognize risks, understand their limits, and/or tame their ego. I’m reminded of a book I read when I was a teenager, Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire, which essentially chronicles one act of stupidity after another. Accident reports from the Colorado Avalanche Center are often laced with similar themes, and of course you are probably familiar with the story of Christopher McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp).
But accidents happen to The Best among us too, even though these individuals have proven through past accomplishments that they do have the skills to safely navigate dangerous situations. Peter’s fall last week is a case in point; others have suffered much worse, like when Steve House fell 80 feet on Mt. Temple in 2010 and when Alex Lowe died in an avalanche in Tibet in 1999.
I believe that such accidents can be attributed to two factors:
Some situations have inherent, unavoidable, uncontrollable risks, and if you spend enough time in such situations, eventually this small degree of risk will translate into an accident. Peter cited this reason when discussing his accident to me: “There is always some chance of a mis-step and a fall, and of course if you run enough trails it will happen sooner or later.”
Regardless of how good you are, there is always uncontrollable risks when skiing in avalanche terrain, backpacking in grizzly bear habitat, hiking on glaciers, paddling across open ocean, boating down log-choked rivers, climbing on loose rock, among other activites. It’s the risk you take for the reward you want. This is no different than when driving a car — even if you have an excellent driving record, you can be hit by someone else, your accelerator can get stuck, a moose can step onto the road in front of you, etc.
2. Momentary lack of vigilance
The aforementioned skills — and to a lesser degree, the right gear and supplies — keep The Best safe. More precisely, I should say, vigilant application of these skills keep The Best safe, for if they let their guard down even momentarily, they are subject to the same errors as a less skilled person.
After my trail running fall the observation was made that I got hurt worse in my own backyard than I did during the Alaska-Yukon Expedition. This is actually not surprising — the perceived safety net of familiar trails and nearby help made me feel as if I could be less vigilant without consequence. I should have been being more careful, more deliberate, and more focused, rather than lost in thoughts about Thanksgiving preparations, my newborn nephew, and the To Do list on my computer. The Arctic was nearly the exact opposite situation: I knew that I was entirely self-dependent and that wearing my “game face” full-time was the only safe way through.
I hope this gentle reminder about the need to be vigilant helps me as I make ambitious plans for 2013. And hopefully it’s a good reminder for someone else too — accidents may sometimes be due purely to chance, but