Even the Experts do Dumb Things

December 26, 2012 by | Be the first to comment »

Over the recent Christmas holiday, we visited my in-laws, who live in the desert surrounded by mountains. Ever since my first visit a few years ago, I had wanted to climb them (the mountains, of course, not my in-laws) but no one knew which roads would lead to a good starting point, and I never got around to investing the time to find out for myself. This lead to exactly zero trips to these mountains after repeated visits.

A few days into our visit this year, I decided it was time for a workout. It wasn’t going to be extreme; roughly 45 minutes of calisthenics followed by a four mile run; a typical light day.

It didn’t quite turn out that way, though. As I stepped off for my run, I couldn’t help but see the mountains practically daring me to come climb them. Within just a few seconds, I thought “sure, why not?” and began running in their direction.

This was dumb on so many levels, but I chose to proceed anyway. After all, I’m a veteran Marine, a survival expert, and even as a middle-aged man, I’m still in better shape than most 19 year-olds fresh from boot camp.

Then why was this so dumb?

Well, for starters, since I wasn’t originally planning on leaving the safety of the sidewalks and venturing into the desert, I hadn’t checked any maps, so I had no idea how far away the mountains actually were. I would soon be reminded how challenging visual range estimation is in a desert environment. After running more than four miles just to get to the edge of the city, I ran another hour through the desert and I still didn’t seem any closer to the mountains. This prompted me to finally consult the map on my iPhone, which informed me that I still had at least another hour of running just to get to the base of the mountain. Even if I only ran to the base and returned without ascending, which wasn’t likely, I would have run for a total of 24 miles, which meant remaining in the desert after nightfall.

Second, I had a small breakfast and left before lunch. That’s not a problem when you’re planning a 90 minute workout, but it is when you take on a marathon level workout.

Third, I was wearing nothing but a pair of running shoes, long running pants, and a long-sleeved compression shirt. Before leaving, I had chosen to leave the gloves and beanie cap at the house despite the fact that it had snowed a few hours earlier, mainly because I was just planning a quick road run. While my attire was adequate for that, it is not how you would dress for even a short a wintertime excursion into a desert, and sure as hell not for climbing a mountain.

It’s worse than it sounds though; while I was already underdressed for the weather, as the day went on, the temperature continued to drop and the wind continued to increase. In addition, from the moment I began, I had been uncomfortably watching a large rain storm rapidly approaching me.

Fourth, because my plan was just to go for a quick road run, I was carrying only two things; an iPod and an iPhone. Going into a desert, or any wilderness environment for that matter, without certain equipment is a recipe for disaster. At a bare minimum, you need:

  • Water, as well as a means to acquire more
  • A method to start a fire
  • Shelter, like a tent or a Mylar blanket to make a lean-to
  • A knife
  • Enough clothes to stay warm, and a weather-resistant jacket to stay dry
  • A basic first aid kit

The fifth reason was technically only half dumb in my case. You should always tell at least one person your plans, intended route, and estimated time of return before entering the wilderness so that if something happens (you’re immobilized by an injury, you get lost, a storm pins you down, etc.), a search and rescue team will have a far better chance of finding and saving your unprepared rear. I did not do that, however, almost as soon as I decided to venture into the desert, I sent my wife a text message letting her know, and along the way, sent several images of my route. Any S&R team with more than a week’s worth of experience could have worked magic with that data.

At the end of the day, I returned safely, though a bit colder than I would have preferred, mainly because I slowed down and used my most valuable resource; my brain. When I realized the distance remaining would extend my trip past daylight hours and into freezing temperatures, I wisely chose to immediately begin my return. That, along with the tolerable daytime temperatures, constant physical activity, and pure luck that the approaching rain storm changed course had saved my ass. If any single thing went wrong though, such as getting caught in that storm, a snake bite, or even becoming dehydrated, my situation could have quickly turned from discomfort to death.

Take it from a guy who has made his share of dumb choices, never risk your life over a whim. If you want to take on a challenge, by all means, do so, but make sure you’re 100% prepared; this means experience, fitness, and equipment.

Melanie Swick (a.k.a. Survival Chick) grew up wanting to be a rocket scientist, but when she realized she that required way too much math, she took to her second dream—spending time in the wilderness. Today, when she's not hiking, camping, or hunting, she's blogging about it. You can connect with Melanie on Facebook.

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