Why I never hike alone


The boulder was the tallest in a field of tabletop-size stones, seemingly undisturbed by the passage of centuries. It had the stature to have borne witness to a solstice ceremony at Stonehenge, a human sacrifice at Teotihuacan.

I must have brushed it with my right elbow when I looked back to check on my friend, Drew. We had just climbed some unnamed peak in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, and he was making his way down -- in running shoes -- testing the trustworthiness of each step, or so I hoped. It wouldn’t take much to launch a missile attack that would sweep him off the cliff below.

One second the boulder stood upright; the next second, it toppled, pinning my right leg. The shock of the blow threw me on my back, and the weight of the boulder registered instantly in a tsunami of pain. My right leg was caught below the knee in a tightening vice.

Stifling a scream, I sat up and pushed. The boulder did not budge. I pushed again, encouraged by a tremor that suggested a lessening of resistance, a possibility of release. Wishful thinking. I leaned back, pressed my buttocks into the boulder underneath to maximize my leverage and rammed the rock on top with a hip and shoulder butt. The rebound knocked me flat and the boulder bore down, crushing more calf muscle.

I’d heard Drew’s shouts two hours ago when I scrambled up the chimney to the summit ridge. He’d had to duck to avoid some flying pebbles. Could he hear my shrieks now? Another friend had long since disappeared over the next rise, no doubt racing for the truck. Would my screams reach her? I probably hadn’t shrieked this loud or this long since my mother gave birth to me.

Barb arrived first and knelt by my side, watching helplessly as I flopped on my back, exhausted by the pain. The slightest movement on my part increased the pressure on my leg. Barb barely weighed 100 pounds -- no contest -- with a ton of quartzite.

I heard the click-click-click of advancing hiking poles as Drew approached, panting. He dropped the poles, knelt beside me and shoved with all his might. The boulder tilted towards me. I cursed in three languages and wailed from the pain, the fear. We were three and a half miles from the car, 2,700 vertical feet up. It would be dusk by the time my friends hit the road, hours after sunrise before the arrival of a search and rescue team. The steep, rocky terrain ruled out a helicopter landing.

Drew studied the position of the boulder from every conceivable angle. Then he squatted as if he were competing again in a collegiate wrestling match. Relying on the laws of physics rather than blunt force, he braced himself with his muscular thighs, hugged the boulder tight and pushed with his arms and chest. The boulder gave slightly, shifting in the right direction, until finally, at last, there was just enough space to drag my leg out. I rolled up my shredded, bloody pants leg, expecting to see exposed fibula. I was numb below the knee. The skin was torn in several places, the calf double its normal size, but no bone protruded.

I swallowed a pill from Barb’s supply of Percocet and another from Drew’s, and they got me up on my left leg, one on each side of me. Using their shoulders as crutches, I hobbled 100 feet down the talus, to a snowfield. They packed some snow in my rain jacket and wrapped the jacket around my calf, now the size of a watermelon. Three hours later, they bundled me into the back seat of Drew’s pickup for the one-hour drive to the only medical clinic within 50 miles, in Lake City, Colo.

Next morning, the orthopedist in Gunnison examined the X-rays. “You’re lucky. No broken bones. One inch higher and I’d be scheduling a knee replacement. One inch lower and I’d be reconstructing your ankle joint with plates, screws and a bone graft.”

“How long could my leg have withstood that much weight?” I asked.

“An hour maybe. Then we’d be amputating -- not that there’d be much to amputate at that point.”

He showed me how to check for impaired circulation, a dangerous side effect of massive swelling. I followed his instructions religiously. Two weeks’ confinement in a wheelchair with my raised leg frequently wrapped in ice, followed by another two weeks on a walker seemed inconsequential, a mere inconvenience to be borne with a sense of humor.

Two years later, whenever I hike in shorts, strangers on the trail sometimes ask about the crater in my calf. If they’re from Texas, I tell them I was kicked by a moose. If they’re hiking alone, I recount the real story as a cautionary tale. Do not hike off-trail by yourself.

Jane Koerner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Fairplay, Colorado, and still hikes, though with greater humility.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Jun 29, 2012 05:11 PM
Recently I was at Many Glacier Lodge, a very busy place, and decided to hike back up the road to the campground maybe a mile away along what seemed to be a very busy road. I was walking along alone when a Grizzly Bear ran across the road about 100 feet in front of me. I looked back, no one, I looked forward, no one. There must've been 5000 cars in the parking lot at the Lodge but where I was, not a soul. I felt quite lonely. It seemed like a long long time, but was really only about a minute, before a car appeared and I flagged them down. They had been just around the corner and had stopped for the bear, which stopped and looked back at them so they took pictures. It was indeed a gigantic Grizzly Bear. The first thing the Rangers tell you is never hike alone, and from now on I never will...
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Jun 29, 2012 06:32 PM
It takes awhile to escape the narrow perimeters and rhythms of urban life and become part of the landscape and become deeply observant. There is no security in the natural world. No matter what, you're on your own. Pay attention. Open all your senses to acute perception. Smell the wind and read the waves. Listen to the birds. Note the phases and speed of the moon and stars. Then go cautiously but fearlessly alone. Carry essential first aid and be prepared to utilize immobilizing force. You deserve to live and no creature, unstable rock formation or weather event on earth can threaten the well-prepared. Get beyond fear to conscious awareness, and be intrepid, not foolhardy. The urban woods is no less a threat than the real thing. As a humble and respectful member of the community of the wild, you'll have an advantage over mere predators. You'd be surprised how smart these wild animals are and how, limited by self-obsession, we don't know how ignorant humans are. If nobody wants to go and nobody can keep up with you, go anyway. Just be careful, you're on your own. "He travels fastest who travels alone."
Doug Frink
Doug Frink Subscriber
Jul 03, 2012 02:15 PM
I recently wrote a song about this sort of thing, "Darwin Almost Got Me". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xONP58_1wvc
Robin Kinney
Robin Kinney
Jul 07, 2012 04:07 PM
Very scary! Glad that you are okay. I hike alone a lot but always text someone before I go in & let them know where I am & when I should be out. I text when I am out safely.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Jul 08, 2012 02:23 PM
I bought one of these http://youtu.be/fTUQOWhyYAs for my mid fall multi day backpacks off trail in the mountains. Now I tend to take it with me for day hikes and I can use it in other parts of the world too. Doubt I'll ever use it as I tend to be careful.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Jul 09, 2012 02:36 AM
I would never have seen half the places I've been if I waited for someone else to accompany me. One learns to avoid problems rather than to confront them or solve them. Freedom is inalienable. There are places I won't go, where conflict threatens with predators, human and otherwise, who have few or no options but me as a resource. Look formidable and watch where you put your hands and feet. Look up once in awhile-- employ all senses. And I generally have a plan for a safe return before going and limit my exposure to vulnerability. Fortune favors the prepared and rewards the adventurous. Look both ways before crossing anything. I've drunk from hidden springs with bees and butterflies in the Sierra Madre and canoed Boundary Waters, the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois and Chicago rivers, camped the Ice Age and Pacific Crest Trails, and so much more, alone. Maybe next time you'll come too. Explore earth before it's gone.
Larry Thornton
Larry Thornton Subscriber
Jul 09, 2012 03:56 PM
GPS, satellite tranceivers, cell phones and even maps are crutches that take a lot of people to places they are not prepared to be. In certain parts of the country you have to realize that you are part of the food chain, not just an observer. There is risk in all that you do, you have to learn to how manage the risk and be prepared.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jul 10, 2012 05:31 PM
I've hiked alone, even got lost way, way, inside Canyonlands. (In part, NPS' fault for not more clearly marking a trail turn, when a secondary trail/semitrail kept going straight.) And, I've even camped my myself, semi-alone (one other primitive campsite occupied) in grizz country, just south of Glacier (and in Banff). Yes, it can be scary. And, as I age more, I may measure my risks more. That said, I would do it all over.
Ron Sering
Ron Sering
Jul 11, 2012 08:05 AM
I enjoy hiking alone. Some of the happiest moments of my life have come when hiking alone. That said, so have some of the loneliest and most frightening.

Planning, planning, planning: Bring the essentials of extra food, firemaking supplies, and extra clothing. Be mentally prepared to spend the night with just the contents of your pack. Bring a signaling device, to make noise, light and/or to phone for help. Plan your route, tell it to someone else, and then execute the plan, especially, the descent, as planned. Then have fun knowing you'll be back to tell someone else about it.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Jul 12, 2012 03:11 AM
For an elevating and inspiring look at the wonders and delights of hiking and camping alone, read the books of John Muir.
Skye Schell
Skye Schell
Jul 18, 2012 01:52 PM
"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." I have found this to be very true.