Death is part of the backcountry contract, even near L.A. |

Death is part of the backcountry contract, even near L.A.

Search and rescue teams have been busy the past few weeks in the mountains of Southern California, looking for lost hikers, and instead finding corpses.

At least six times since Jan. 1, men described by friends and family as “experienced” outdoor travelers have slipped from icy trails and suffered injuries that, if not fatal outright, proved to be so in the frigid overnight temperatures. Six other lost or injured hikers have been rescued.

The precipitous ranges of this famously balmy region often surprise people. It may be T-shirt-and-shorts weather at the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, but on the nearby slopes of 10,064-foot Mount Baldy there will be snow on the ground and a subfreezing chill in the air.

This contrast often catches novice backcountry travelers unprepared. Unlike the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, their distant geological cousins, the San Bernardino, San Gabriel and San Jacinto mountains do not advertise their altitude and meteorological impulsiveness with year-round snowfields, glacier-sculpted slopes and crystalline alpine streams. Most of the year, these mountains appear to be as dry and hot as the nearby desert.

Tourists in Palm Springs may, in fact, ride a tram directly from the sweltering outskirts of town to a lodge in the pines at 8,516 feet; it is common on summer days to find them shivering there in their skimpy resort wear, like tropical songbirds blown off course and deposited in the French Alps.

Public response to the recent series of misadventures in the local mountains has been of two varieties. The first is a repeated admonition by representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, which administers the most popular mountain recreation sites in Southern California, to “never hike alone” because it is foolish.

The other is a barely concealed public indignation over the “squandering” of money on efforts to find and rescue lost or injured hikers.

Hiking alone does increase the risk that an otherwise trivial problem – twisted ankle, a tumble into a stream – might become a deadly mistake. I’ve written three hiking guidebooks, and in each I have warned inexperienced travelers to avoid hiking alone in the backcountry.

I also disregard my own warning. Not only do I hike alone, I go on multi-day backpacking trips alone. I kayak alone in the ocean. I go mountain biking alone. I canoe alone on rivers and lakes. I go cross country skiing alone. I’ve traveled hundreds of backcountry miles in environments ranging from Death Valley to the Northern Rockies without a companion and without incident.

Some of that is due to luck. I am fortunate never to have run afoul of cosmic coincidence: standing beneath a tree limb at the precise moment when the accumulated stress of 300 winters finally sends it crashing to the ground; crossing a talus field below a cliff just as a 10-ton lump of granite succumbs to gravity.

But the fact that I have traveled alone in the wilderness for nearly three decades without trouble is due also to planning and prudence. Like most experienced backcountry travelers, I calculate risk and take steps to minimize it — not to eliminate it, which is impossible, but reduce it. I turn back from summits when thunderclouds gather. I bring maps and know how to use them.

I carry food, water and good clothing. I retreat from big, ill-tempered animals. I tell people where I am going and when I will return.

And I certainly do not need government nannies telling me what is safe or closing trails for my own protection. I travel alone because I enjoy solitude, and I go to places where screwing up can get me killed precisely because of that risk, which is what distinguishes nature from a theme park. Those who seek to eliminate danger from wilderness have no business managing it.

There are fools in the woods, but there are far more of them blundering down city sidewalks. So I don’t begrudge the costly rescue efforts mounted for missing hikers, any more than I begrudge sending paramedics to traffic accidents caused by lousy drivers, or stationing lifeguards at beaches frequented by poor swimmers.

Until society imposes a universal folly-based exemption from compassion, it owes the same consideration to off-road travelers as to their less adventurous fellow citizens. Life is risk, and the freedom to choose some dangers over others is precious.

John Krist is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a reporter and columnist for the Star in Ventura, Calif.

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