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Trail running fall on Bear Peak: Why do accidents happen?

Trail running injuries from my fall on Bear Peak in Boulder’s foothills.

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:

1. Chance

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.

Avalanche terrain in the Eastern Alaska Range

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

Posted in , on November 27, 2012
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11 Comments

  1. Josh C on November 27, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    I’m a prolific passer-outer too . . . almost never throw up, but plenty of blackouts over the years. Hope you heal up quickly!

  2. Nathan on November 27, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Glad you survived the accident and thanks for sharing your insight as a reminder to everyone else. Guess we tread a line between being able to relax and enjoy the outdoors and yet remaining vigilant for safety. It’s similar to the adage about most of the car accidents happening near home.

  3. Rodney Jones on November 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    2 people fall at the same spot. A tree must be punished 🙂

  4. Jake on November 27, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    Chicks dig scars Andrew!

    The lapse of concentration is common in a lot of sports. Many of my rock climbing friends (including myself) often trip, stumble, fall on easy trails going to and from rock climbs that use tiny hand/foot holds that require perfect balance and precision. I’ve also skied down from black diamond ski runs only to wipe out on flat trail on the way to the lift.

    As long as you don’t get too hurt a re-focusing may be good sometimes.

  5. Em on November 28, 2012 at 10:18 am

    Risk is not something I see talked about too often in the context of wilderness activity. Risk specific to certain activities and situations, sure, but not the meta-conversation of determining what is “acceptable risk” for an individual or group. The most I generally see is the somewhat vague “Make sure you have the right skills for the trip you’re planning.”

    Risk as its own topic is something scuba instruction talks about a lot, possibly because strapping a pressurized tank to your back and going swimming dozens of feet underwater is more transparently risky than strapping on a backpack and going for a walk. Nevertheless, it’s extremely helpful for students to learn to be aware of their physiological and psychological states and their interaction, because when something goes wrong underwater, often the intuitive reaction is exactly the wrong one. It’d be interesting to see the same sort of conversation about emotion, physical impairment, situational assessment, and decision-making happen around outdoor activities.

  6. Brian Robinson on November 29, 2012 at 12:24 am

    “the fact is, most serious free soloists die. And they die on easy pitches, not hard ones.” – Alex Honnold

  7. Howard Friedman on December 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    Just saw your post and while a bit late did want to add my thoughts.
    I agree avoiding mistakes includes vigilance and chance does play a role. But I submit that it is possible to actively manage risk. For example, I gave up down hill skiing a few years ago after a fall when I decided I was not prepared to break my ankle, or worse, skiing. Nonetheless I am not safe from risk. I sprained my ankle very badly a few months back on a trail run and required many weeks to recover. But, that level of risk I am prepared to manage.
    I have read inspirational articles about athletes how have survived serious injuries and fought their way back to persevere in their activity. Aron Ralston is one well known example – he returned to climbing with a prosthetic limb. But I imagine that for every injured adventurer who fights his way back, an even greater number can not. And I have read the sad interviews of spouses who lost a loved one to a fatal accident in the mountains.
    So how does one calculate the amount of risk they are willing to accept, or manage? Obviously it is an individual decision but probably takes in to account several factors: the inherent danger of the activity, the length of time you would be incapacitate/out of work from the most likely injury (ankle sprain, broken leg or more life altering injury) together with the number of people who depend on you.
    The real problem is, though, that human nature is such that we tend not to believe “it” will happen to us.

  8. Randy McDowell on December 3, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Ouch! I hope you have a quick recovery. Even the vigilant can make a misstep.

  9. Bob on December 10, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Andrew, hope all is well. You probably don’t want to hear but … you should’ve gotten the stitches (my view only!). Recall many years ago getting a gash on my palm at a rugby practice. It didn’t look that bad so I taped it up and let it go after cleaning because I didn’t want to visit the ER. It healed, but it’s a bit of a mess. Again just my 0.02.

  10. r2_ on January 10, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Reminds me of something Erik Hollnagel has said:

    We must strive to understand that accidents don’t happen because people gamble and lose.
    Accidents happen because the person believes that:
    …what is about to happen is not possible,
    …or what is about to happen has no connection to what they are doing,
    …or that the possibility of getting the intended outcome is well worth whatever risk there is.

  11. Eric on September 8, 2016 at 10:53 pm

    I like to ride technical terrain on a mountain bike and I think my falls while trail running are generally way worse than the bike wrecks.

    Glad you didn’t wack your head.

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