Monday, August 29, 2005

Interview with a New York Times journalist on lost day hikers

I received a call today from a New York Times journalist who's writing a story on mountain searches. He found Brian's site on Google, of course.

I believe he told me he is currently at the site of a search in the Bitterroot mountains. That search for a day hiker is now in its eigth day, and the anguish must be great. I know the feeling. I tried to learn more, but my Google Search: solo hiker mountain search">Google news search failed.

He tells me that in his research he'd found a single epidemiologic study of mountain searches. Like many hikers he'd assumed those lost in the wilderness were typically naive or intoxicated, but he learned that almost all are day hikers of at least moderate experience, always alone, often off trail, often in their 30s. Men just like my brother Brian.

I wish I'd asked how often the bodies are not found.

He asked me what advice I'd give families of lost men. I mentioned I'd summarized everything I knew into an online essay.

I talked quite a bit, but I don't know how much will be useful to him. He hadn't thought about the spectrum of search intensity, declining from lost child to lost woman to lost adult male hiker.

He asked what lesson I would pass on to solo hikers -- he didn't seem that thrilled with my pearl of wisdom, which was "try to leave a body". Practically that means let people know where you're going, and try to carry a radio or a cell phone (even though that violates many people's wilderness ethos). It also is a pithy way to remind hikers that solo off-trail hiking in rugged wilderness is dangerous. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, but you ought to realize that skill and caution are no guarantee of survival. Solo humans are frail creatures. Even an unmarried, childless, adult carries a heavy burden of love and obligation -- things that ought to favor leaving a body whenever possible.

If Brian had really made it to a trailhead (and not disappeared enroute), he would have learned that in British Columbia they don't do trail logs. He wouldn't have given up then (neither would I), so most of my advice would have been useless. I do wish I'd bought him a cell phone, however.

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