I have to admit I am really intrigued by the concept of a vision quest. Not in the strictest terms of how Native Americans practiced it, but more of the basic idea of taking a solo trip into the wilderness to battle the elements, be in nature and clear my head. It simply bleeds outdoors romanticism.
This is something I’ve wanted to do for some time. Camping alone in Charon’s Garden down in the Wichitas. Spending a few nights at Horseshoe Lake in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness area. Or even a deeper foray into the remote San Juan Range of southwestern Colorado. But I’ve never done it, mostly because I like the idea of enjoying the outdoors with my friends.
The recent cold snap and freezing rains brought back to memory a reason to give me pause when it comes to solo treks. There’s a little bit of reading here, but these are great local examples of the risks associated with soloing. This is from the Jan. 23, 2007 edition of The Oklahoman:
WICHITA MOUNTAINS WILDLIFE REFUGE — A Texas man’s condition continued to improve Monday at an Oklahoma City hospital after surviving four nights and four days on the icy slopes of Mount Scott with a compound break in his right leg. The 50-year-old survivor, whose name is not being released, was discovered Friday after sunset by two local hikers, Deputy Refuge Manager Ralph Bryant said. Kevin Whitney, of Lawton, and his 9-yearold son Hunter discovered the injured Texan while walking down the paved roadway that spirals to the top of the mountain. Rescuers learned the man had slipped on the icy boulders while descending the west side of the mountain Jan. 15, plummeting about 20 feet before landing and breaking his leg above his right ankle. He crawled back to the road, and then dragged himself another mile and half before being found.As fate would have it, Mount Scott’s steep roadway had already been closed for several days because of slick and hazardous conditions. The road remained closed Monday.The sun had already set when the man’s fortunes changed.Whitney, 38, and his son were hiking down Mt. Scott’s spiraling paved roadway when they discovered the Texan sitting against a guardrail. Several layers of clothes were piled on him.“He was remarkably calm for someone in his situation, which I think speaks to his strong convictions,” Kevin Whitney said. “He said he prayed relentlessly to the Lord, and he believed the Lord was moving him in a direction where he would be found. We had no doubts he was going to live.”Whitney called 911 on his cell phone, and gave the man a bottle of water and all the food in his backpack.
“This really was divine intervention. We went down a route that evening — on the road — that we never go. We never go on roads,” Whitney said.
“It really is a remarkable survival story, one that could have very easily ended much worse than it did,” said Jeff Rupert, refuge manager. “That’s why we constantly emphasize to hikers to hike with partners and how they should always let someone know where they are going.
Victim was hiking alone
“We had no idea anyone was even missing.” The survivor’s family didn’t even know where he was, Bryant said. His vehicle also failed to draw attention because he parked at the nearby town of Medicine Park before leaving on foot to the west toward the refuge. His plan was to hike to the Holy City, a popular attraction for many of the 1.7 million tourists who visit the refuge annually.
Bryant said the man summited the east side of Mount Scott — a treacherous slope of granite boulders covered in snow and ice — before beginning his descent to the west. That’s where he slipped.
Hikers are regularly injured while trekking through the wilds of the 59,020-acre refuge.
“We probably conduct between 25 and 35 survival and rescue missions a year,” Bryant said. “Injuries are common, but most of the time, people are hiking with a buddy who is able to go for help.
“This man was all alone.”
In 1992, another man was all alone and his story did not have a happy ending.
Phil Mitchell, a 26-year-old physician intern and experienced climber, fell 40 feet down a crevice while hiking alone at Elk Mountain.
Mitchell broke bones in several places. Hundreds of rescuers searched the refuge for Mitchell, who was eventually found dead from exposure and hypothermia.
“He was an experienced climber,” Bryant said of Mitchell. “He just made one deadly mistake — he hiked alone.”
So as you can see, you don’t have to be in the Alaskan bush or the slot canyons of Moab, Utah, to get into trouble. I’ve done some hiking and bouldering in the refuge. When you’re off trail, this is rugged, challenging terrain in ideal conditions. Bushwhacking and boulder-hopping is quite tiring. Route finding is a challenge, as trees, rocks and underbrush block obvious paths. I’ve cliffed out a few times, thinking I was safely descending only to be turned back by 30-foot dropoffs. That’s what makes wild places fun — the challenge of navigating the untamed.
But when you’re alone, all the pressure is on you to be prepared and to make the right decisions. Even the savviest hiker can have an accident, become injured and be unable to extricate themselves from the grips of the wild. A sprained ankle maginifies the inherent challenges greatly; a broken leg can make the margin between life and death razor thin.
And then there’s the weather. In the story above, an icy rime covered the rocks and boulders of Mount Scott. The smooth nature of the rock in that area makes any kind of moisture — frozen or not — a dangerous element indeed. The heights of the Wichitas are also greatly exposed to lightning strikes.
The Texan mentioned here was profoundly lucky. Locally, no one knew he was there, and his family wasn’t given any sort of itinerary concerning the trip. The fact that he survived four days in ice storm conditions completely exposed to the elements and badly injured can be ascribed to inner toughness and divine intervention, in my opinion.
If you’re going to solo, someone needs to know when you’re going, where you’re going and what time you expect to return. That’s a bare minimum. Have a cell phone. Your pack should have appropriate clothing, shelter, food and tools (compass, knife, camp stove, matches, first-aid kit, etc.) to get you through any unexpected delays. Since it’s not really possible to haul in all the water you need, be sure to have a water filter with you and know the terrain you’re heading into so you can find natural water sources. If you do these things and something goes wrong, you should be able to hold out long enough while your friends and the authorities attempt a rescue. If not, you may find yourself in the same position as our wayward Texan, whose story would be much different had two hikers not stumbled across him.