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August 23, 2015

Spot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was October, 1999.  I had headed into the High Sierras to climb Mt. Haeckel.  I was alone.  Over the years, I had done many solo climbs, often on steep snow and fourth to easy fifth class rock---most climbers would want a rope.   Mt. Haeckel in October had a little of both---soft ice then solid fourth class rock climbing.  

I was on an exposed 4th class ridge on that climb when I looked around and realized that, if I fell, there’d be about a 50/50 shot that they’d find my body.  I wasn’t scared.  The rock was great and holds were everywhere.  I was enjoying the climb.  The 50/50 odds was just another observation.

I grew up as an outdoorsman on stories like “Touching the Void,” “Endurance,” and Reinhold Messner’s return from Nanga Parbat.  The attitude these stories instilled in me was, if you get your ass into something, you have to get your ass out.  A rescue meant you misjudged your ability and/or the conditions.  So did death.

Rescue being a non-option was certainly a key factor when I ended my effort to skijor the Iditarod Trail in 2014.  One of my two best dogs was ill and wasn’t going to continue.  Without Shoshone, I probably would have made it between Rohn and Nikolai with the dogfood I had, but I no longer had the margin for error that I like. 

Of course, I also knew that I’d be on snow for no more than half the mileage in front of me---somewhere between Kaltag and Unalakleet the snow vanished and the trail was ice and dirt until Nome.  The fact that I would be on skis for about half of the total mileage, far less than in a normal year, also influenced my decision. 

If Shoshone had been healthy I would have continued and I would have been miserable.  In a normal snow year, I would have sent Shone home and continued as well.  I can’t say which influenced my decision more, my inability to be on skis for the majority of the trip or the small margin for error I’d be operating under with Shoshone out.  I can say the thought that I could continue and, if I needed help, could get it never crossed my mind.  The reality was that if I had an accident or fell short of Nikolai, the trail crew for the Iditarod, then the racers themselves, would have been passing me.  It would be easy for me to get word out that I needed help.  My attitude was I’d only ask for a rescue once I knew I had no other choice to save my own life.  I wouldn’t die first, but I’d get really close.

Just prior to the expedition, I purchased a Spot tracking GPS and emergency beacon.  I had gotten it so family, friends, and sponsors could follow me along the trail.  It was a last minute purchase and I had mostly debugged how to use it.  Fully understanding how it worked would wait for a year----it ends up that the device gets around signal to noise issues by broadcasting many times over a long period and I didn’t realize until January of 2015 that I had to wait for a bit after I pushed the “I’m here” button before turning it off.  Still, the emergency button was available and I did understand how to work that.  Beyond that, once I left Finger Lake, friends were able to see where I was.

It was only after I became convinced that the tracking feature was easy and I concluded that it wouldn’t insert itself in my experience that I decided to buy the device.  I was particularly looking forward to long periods by myself as I skijored between Ophir and Ruby.  I had thought about a satellite phone, but decided against it largely because I really did want to be alone.  My guess was that the Spot wouldn’t interfere.  Happily, I was right.

This past winter I headed up Monture Creek on my way to the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  After two miles, not only was I alone, I was breaking trail that had seen no human traffic.  My pulk kept sliding off of my tracks and pulling my dogs off of the trail and down some pretty steep embankments.  With this, after far less mileage than I had hoped for, I cut the trip short.  What the trip lacked in distance it made up with aesthetics, it was just me and my dogs in the wilderness. 

My 1999 trip up Mt. Haeckel didn’t simply result in my climbing a great route.  For years, it was the longest continuous period I went without at least seeing another person off in the distance----48 hours.  This past winter, I didn’t get the mileage I wanted on my Monture Creek trip, but I did spend five days and four nights, about 96 hours, in a winter wilderness with only my dogs for company.  Just like on the Iditarod Trail in 2014, carrying the Spot didn’t interrupt my solitude. 

I recently read an article asking the question whether or not carrying a Spot takes the adventure out of a trip.  The answer is it doesn’t.  It’s how you use it that makes the difference. 

   
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