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Trail Tales

When Things Go Wrong in the Backcountry

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When I start a backpacking trip, optimism prevails. I imagine, as I hit the trail, that the weather will be great; the scenery will be fantastic; the sunrises and sunsets will leave us breathless; and no one will suffer an injury or equipment failure.



And if something doesn’t go as expected, some combination of knowledge, experience, and creative problem solving will resolve the problem. Because, in addition to beautiful scenery, backpacking includes a kind of enjoyment in finding out how competent, flexible, and self-sufficient you really are.



But even in the backcountry, there can be a sort of safety net that may serve as a helpful compliment to one’s own competence and preparedness. On my last two trips, I encountered two very different, unexpected challenges, respectively, a wildfire and a potentially trip-ending leg injury. And today, I am feeling particularly grateful for two pillars of the backcountry safety net: firefighters and park rangers.



The Pacific Crest Trail, Carson Pass to Ebbetts Pass, June 19-21



1 PCT Day One Hiking with Wildflowers June 19
Blue skies, wildflowers, and mountains. What could possibly go wrong? All photos: Karin Schwartz

This was to be a relatively relaxed, three day/2 night, 26-mile hike through a geologically fascinating section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). On the first day, Friday, we hiked through fields of wildflowers and past volcanic knobs and peaks, before camping at Tamarack Lake. Unbeknownst to us, a wildfire was starting a maybe 20 miles southeast of us. This was the “Washington” Fire, which ultimately grew to almost 18,000 acres, see http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/4317/.



2 PCT Day Two Tamarak Lake Our First Campsite June 20
Tamarack Lake, first night on the trail.

Still blissfully unaware, on Saturday we continued south, hiking past dramatic, twisted hoodoos, plugs, and mesas that are vestiges of ancient times when volcanoes were active in the area. (According to Google: a hoodoo is a “a column or pinnacle of weathered rock.”) Just as it was time to start looking for campsites, we saw a large plume of smoke billowing from a valley south of us in what appeared to be the path of our trail. Lacking cell phone service to obtain more information, we backtracked a few miles and set up camp. We figured that if the fire was still burning the next day, we’d continue to retrace our steps back north.

rsz 4 pct day three sasha takes refuge in my tent
Wonder dog Sasha takes refuge in the tent to nurse her trail-worn paws.



By this point, Sasha, my hardy trail-ready dog, was showing significant signs of paw damage. The extra mileage on metamorphic rock took its toll. (It turns out that metamorphic rock holds heat more efficiently than the granite on which we normally hike). She took refuge in my tent (and in my sleeping bag) while I continued to assess the fire from a viewpoint. As I write this, two weeks later, her paw pads are still raw and recovering.



Fortunately, our backtracking and excess mileage was kept to a minimum due to the trail’s unofficial communication system. On Sunday morning, we ran into some northbound Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hikers, who confirmed that, despite appearances, the trail circumvented the fire with miles to spare. We continued south, completing our thru hike.



The fire raged and few for over a week beyond our trip, fueled by very high winds. Due to the hard work of the 1,000+ firefighters and other personnel who came from all over California and several neighboring states, the fire was finally brought under control and the city of Markleeville was saved. And also due to their efforts, state highway 89, which bisects the burn zone, was reopened just in time for me to use it to drive to the Eastern Sierra for the next adventure, with its unexpected challenges.



Pioneer Basin (July 2-4)



5 Pioneer Basin Day 1 Hiking Over Mono Pass
Pioneer Basin, hiking over Mono Pass.

Spectacular Pioneer Basin, with its granite peaks and seven sparkling lakes, is set in the John Muir Wilderness just south of the town of Mammoth Lakes. One can access Pioneer Basin from the east, via 11,800’ Mono Pass, as we did, or from the west, via the JMT.



The forecast for our trip was … mixed. Partly sunny with possibility of lightning and thunderstorms. We planned our trip in order to get up and over any high points well before 11 a.m. (Sierra storms typically roll in at 1 p.m. or later, but they can be unpredictable.)


6 Pioneer Basin Mud Lake Campsite
Camping at Mud Lake.

The unsettled weather made for constantly changing light and therefore dramatic photographs. We watched from the relative safety of our campsite at Mud Lake as the clouds rolled in the first evening. Thunder, lightning, and hail didn’t actually arrive until after it got dark and we were snug in our tents.



The next day, we explored the lakes of Pioneer Basin under sunny skies. There is a network of use trails, but cross-country navigation was relatively straightforward, so with occasional consults of topographic maps, we went where the spirit moved us.



rsz 7 lakes of pioneer basin
Lakes of Pioneer Basin.

That evening, I tripped and fell hard as I was securing my bear canister. Within seconds, a hematoma the size of a lemon grew out of my leg (think shades of Sigourney Weaver in Alien I). As I considered my wilderness first aid training (see http://www.nols.edu/wmi/) and pondered the implications of a possible leg facture, a friendly National Park Service ranger happened by. He took one look at the alien trying to pop out of my leg, and offered to carry my pack out the next day or to radio for help if the situation worsened. Any stress I might have had instantly disappeared.



rsz 8 fourth recess alpinglow
All's well that ends well.

Happily, no rescue was necessary. I applied RICE (Relaxation, Ice, Compression, Elevation), meaning that I plunged my leg into a snow-fed stream for 20 minutes; wrapped it with an ACE bandage; and then elevated it for a few hours on my bear canister. By evening, the swelling was down considerably. I took my leg on a test drive to see the alpenglow at Fourth Recess, and was able to hike out on my own power the next day.



Two firefighters, working on a Sunday in hot yellow rubber suits, waved and smiled as I drove home through the burn zone on highway 89 at Monitor Pass.

As I responded with a thumbs up, I had a sudden, powerful sense of gratitude for the many people – including park rangers, firefighters, trailbuilders, and first responders -- who make possible the wilderness experience for weekend warriors like myself.
I don’t see them as a substitute for self-sufficiency, competence, and preparedness, which I view as critical components of a responsible wilderness experience. But I am glad they are there when we need them and even when we don’t.



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