Technology, gear and decision making

Mt. Washington summit. Feb 1999


Remember that nature and the elements are neither your friend or your enemy;
they are actually disinterested.
– Department of the Army Field Manual FM 21-76 “Survival” Oct. 1970

As I sit here, there is fifteen inches of snow outside. More snow is currently falling.

I have a cup of hot tea and I seated at my kitchen table.  I am warm and dry. The heat is set at a conservative level.

Technology and modern conveniences are making me comfortable on this cold and snowy Colorado night.

At an earlier time, the amenities I have currently would not exist. The wood stove would need to be stoked. If I was lucky, there may be a kerosene lamp or two as I write (not type) my thoughts and I would be under my heavy blankets very early in the evening. The citrus fruit I plan on having, from my refrigerator, for a nightly snack would be an unheard of luxury in February.

And I do love my cuppa Joe!

I recreate with less technical wonders.  But at the end, my employment, my life and the hot shower I look forward to after every trip are products of modern technology.

Modern technology is good.

Even in the backcountry, technology keeps me warm, dry and fed. Some machine stamped metal parts make up my stove and some refined petrol delivered via a complex transportation system fuel it.  I use a nylon fabric shelter made from petrochemicals to keep the snow off me as I sleep. And all it is all paid for with a job that is directly working in technology.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Skurka

But, in the backcountry, it is not wise to depend on technology and gear. Or even outdoor specific skills at times.

Making the rounds on social media, is the recent tragedy in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  A young woman set out to hike an ambitious itinerary.  The Whites are infamous for severe weather ,despite their low elevation, compared to other places in the world. On the day the person perished, the temps dropped to -30 F  in temperature and the winds reached up to 100 MPH.

From the Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue (AVSAR)

Through a combination of poor decision making, bad luck and technological failures, a person perished.

Some of the factors include:

  • Not bringing snow shoes
  • Going above treeline
  • Summiting a mountain despite the weather
  • Making the decision to turn around after the weather worsens and after she is presumably exhausted
  • The PLB not being accurate in the extreme cold and making an accurate rescue attempt difficult
  •  A delay in the rescue itself due to the weather

I am not going to re-hash the ongoing debate about technology in the backcountry.

However, when these tragedies do come up, it does make a person pause.

Even with the right gear and technological safety equipment, tragedy can happen.

Ultimately the best gear is the gray matter between the ears. Namely knowing when to turn around, when to check a person’s ambition and knowing when to call it a day.

The mountains don’t care how driven a person is or what tools they brought with them.

With every tragedy such as this one, it is good to reflect.

Technology and gear only go so far. Even having athletic ability and outdoors experience can be dangerous if it gives a person  too much confidence.

Be careful.

Be safe.

Know when to call a trip and live to come back another day.

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9 years ago

You hit the nail right on the head. Sometimes I feel like our society believes that nature has been subdued, that we have the power to do whatever we want despite weather conditions. For example, every time I visit my beloved Capitol Reef NP during monsoon season, there are inevitably days where many of the washes and gorges are closed due to possible flash flooding yet there are still people going in, laughing at the signs. Maybe it is because we live so separated from the elements on a daily basis as you discussed, but we need to remember that… Read more »

9 years ago

Great post!
By the way, how does that GoLite Shangri-La hold up in the snow?

9 years ago

Thanks for these thoughts. This topic has been on mind the last couple months since I came pretty close to staying out overnight in Big Bend NP in December with only dayhiking gear. My girlfriend and I set out for a about 14 (or 16, depending which sign you looked at) mile loop with a light and fast load (water, food and sweatshirts, essentially). We’re both trail runners, so the idea was to walk/trot the loop and get back to the car well before dark. Wellll, I had not realized how technical parts of the hike were, nor how nervous… Read more »

9 years ago

It’s like it the movie Top Gun. You have to know when to turn around and come back and fight another day.

9 years ago

It’s like the quote from the movie Top Gun, you have to know when to turn around and come back and fight another day.