An Argument for Caution in the Wild


Taking a hard look at the soft line between acceptable risks and ‘what-were-they-thinking’ risks.

Six: That is the number of times I’ve frantically dashed out of a slot canyon because it started to rain. Once that happened when I was leading a well-advertised Sierra Club hike to promote wilderness with a capital W. We had hiked in four miles to the start of the narrows and set up camp when it started to rain. “Change of plans,” I announced, and hiked everyone back out. Did I get a modicum of flak? Just a bit.

I also have turned around a half-hour from a summit if there was lightning in the distance. This earns me great disdain from those who soldier on, only to return to share selfies showing their hair standing on end and sparks dancing along their pack frames. Called “chicken” much? Oh, yeah. You get used to it.

The intrepid ones get away with it. Usually. They go in — and out — of a narrow slot canyon in the rain. They climb in the lightning. They complete their 20-mile hike with one liter of water when the temperature tops 120. It works. Except when it doesn’t.

Sometimes the flood does come. Sometimes the lightning does strike. Sometimes there is a crevasse that is precariously covered until the weight of one hiker uncovers it, and that hiker tumbles down. Then it is often said, “Well, at least they died doing what they loved.” I am not sure that the last thing going through my mind would be: “Well, it was fun until now.”

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