Last week I unwittingly worried a friend of mine in Facebook chat.
I'd mentioned that Mark was out in Colorado on a climbing trip. The last exchange of the chat went like this:
FRIEND: Prayers 'till Mark gets home!
ME: Thanks! If he doesn't call by 11 pm I have to call search and rescue.
Would love to chat longer but have to teach history now. Take care!
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On Sunday at coffee and donuts she mildly chastised me for joking about the search and rescue. "I wasn't sure whether to be worried about you or not!" she said.
Of course, I hadn't been joking, but I also hadn't thought that it would have been the kind of thing that would worry a friend. Why did I throw the offhand comment out?
I suppose it's one of those things you do in the Twitter age. We are now masters of the Short Enticing Comment Intended To Give The Appearance Of Having A Much Longer Story Behind It.
The idea is, of course, that in your interlocutor's imagination, the story you merely hinted at will grow to hilarious proportion, and your interlocutor will project their own imaginings onto you, and you will be lauded for your sparkling wit. When in fact all you wrote was something like "OMG NO NOT THE MOLASSES #twoyearolds #bathtime #gin"
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Anyway, the truth is that I was not, in fact, joking about the search and rescue -- well, I did abbreviate a bit, as one is wont to do. My actual instructions were to wait until 11 p.m. for contact from Mark, and then start calling these numbers in order:
- Mark's cell
- His climbing buddy's cell
- The backcountry guide's cell
- His climbing buddy's wife back at home in Tennessee
- The mountain climbing school and guiding service
- A climbing gym that serves as the after-hours contact number for said service
- The county search and rescue (SAR) dispatch
If you're wondering whether it isn't the job of the mountain climbing school and guiding service to decide whether it's time to call SAR, you're right -- the service has a protocol for keeping tabs on their guides in the field. If one doesn't check in after a trip, they are supposed to follow up. (That's why I'm supposed to call the guiding service before going straight to SAR myself.)
But redundancy is a good thing, and nobody's more interested in having Mark come home safely than I am, so nobody's better suited for the task of checking up on him should he go missing. Besides, he was planning to climb a different mountain two days later with his buddy and no guide, and in that case there wasn't going to be a mountain school looking over his shoulder.
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"I'd be so worried if my husband gave me a set of instructions like that," a different friend said to me on a differnet occasion.
I said, "I'd be more worried if he didn't."
One of the first rules of safe backcountry travel is to let someone else know exactly where you intend to go and when you intend to get back. You'll find this advice everywhere; here it is in a well-written .pdf about backcountry safety:
One important rule too often forgotten is to let others know exactly where you are going, with whom and when you can be expected back. I hate to sound maternal, but search and rescue teams often spend hours driving around on back roads looking for a subject's vehicle before they know where to enter the field to begin a search.
By letting someone know EXACTLY where you intend to go, when you expect to return and where your vehicle will be parked, you can eliminate the possibility of searchers having no idea of where to look. Should your plans change in route to your destination, stop and notify that person of your new itinerary. In addition, if you leave pertinent information on the dash of your car (e.g. name
and phone number of your contact in town, location of travel/campsite and so on) search teams will have a very timely idea of your plans. Otherwise, search teams can be of little assistance when all that is known is that you "went camping somewhere in the Gore Range."
And then, it's nice to have specific instructions. That's one of the things I insist on, whenever Mark heads off to go backcountry skiing or climbing -- guided or not: a specific set of "deadlines" and directions for what to do if he misses each one.
If he were to tell me, "I'm parking at the such-and-such trailhead and planning to summit such-and-such a peak; we're going to turn back by 11 a.m. at the latest and I expect to be back in cell phone range by 5 p.m.," that would be ... a good start. But that doesn't answer the actionable question, which is... so what do you want me to do if you haven't called me by 5 p.m.?
I can't read his mind (too bad, that would come in handy for backcountry travel), and I'm hundreds of miles away and not familiar with the area he's in. Furthermore, it's his job to set up the safety procedures for his trip, not mine -- even if I have a role to play in those procedures.
Some people might think that the right thing to do is call the authorities the minute someone is overdue. But this would be premature. SAR is expensive, and part of backcountry ethics is being prepared to deal with delays and unexpected events. You're not supposed to have SAR be your first line of defense if anything goes wrong; you're expected to do what you can to aid in your own shelter and rescue. So, for example, if there's a signficant chance that a delay could force you to spend the night on the mountain (rather than trying to follow a difficult trail down in the dark), you bring bivy gear and extra food, and you instruct your contact person that your arrival time could be delayed by twelve hours or whatever with no cause for alarm. It would be silly to send out the dogs for someone who's comfortably ensconced in warm waterproof layers, seated on an insulated pad, munching energy bars, and waiting for nothing more dramatic than daylight.
In this case, even though he expected to be back in cell phone range by 5 pm, he definitely didn't want me calling SAR at 5:01 . He figured on giving himself several hours of leeway time -- time to accidentally go down the wrong trail, figure it out, and backtrack if necessary; time to sustain an ankle injury and slowly crawl back to the vehicle, should that happen; time to arrive at the climb, find it occupied by another party, and wait for them to finish before starting. None of those delays, not even an injury, are an emergency that requires calling out the authorities; they're all the kind of things that you're supposed to be prepared to deal with yourself. And if you wind up dealing with something like that, you'll be delayed. And that's okay.
It's not terribly fun to have to wait the few hours between "overdue time" and "call out the dogs time," but it's much better than sitting there wondering, "Should I call out the dogs, or is it too soon? I wonder how long I should wait? If I make the wrong decision SOMEBODY COULD DIE."
I told Mark, he has to own the when-should-I-call-search-and-rescue decision. And he owns it by giving me specific instructions about when to call, and whom to call. And also by telling me everything pertinent: where he's starting, what he plans to do, and even what he's carrying (I like to know, for example, if he's prepared to spend the night outdoors and what weather he's prepared for, and for him to confirm that he has a GPS, map, and compass).
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Every once in a while I run into the opinion that it's irresponsible for anyone, but especially a parent of young children, to engage in common adventure sports at all. Backcountry hiking, black-diamond skiing, rock climbing, etc.
(Occasionally this extends to activities as banal-sounding as bicycle commuting. There's a lot of victim-blaming in the comments to news stories about cyclists who get struck by cars. It's very depressing. I have a theory that a large number of people simply don't believe that bad things can happen to good people.)
I think it's irresponsible to think you can remove all risk from life. Every day we're surrounded by common risky activities: from the acutely risky, like riding in cars or taking showers in slippery bathtubs, to the chronically risky, like occupational exposure to low-frequency noise or sitting around getting no exercise. And many culturally-not-considered-extreme hobbies carry a surprisingly high risk; for example, recreational boating is well accepted here in Minnesota, but it's also relatively risky (one estimate from Ohio: about 1 fatality per million operator-hours; another estimate has 1 canoeing fatality per 720,000 outings.)
Rock climbing is riskier than boating, but not the OMG IT MUST BE MANY TIMES RISKIER HOW COULD YOU EVEN THINK ABOUT DOING THAT WHEN YOU HAVE SMALL CHILDREN AT HOME!!! that you might expect from all the teeth-gnashing about it. Do you ever hear anyone say, "Gosh, I'd never have elective surgery under general anesthesia while I still had young children at home?" Well, that's more likely to kill you than a rock climbing trip.
All this is to say: Hobbies are important. It's good to have them. And it's okay to have hobbies that carry some risk. The important thing is to diligently take reasonable precautions and follow well-accepted safety protocols; to keep your head and know your limits; and to talk about safety and comfort with the people who depend on you, to make sure that no one is forced into a situation where they're uncomfortable with the level of "adventure." Mark and I have worked pretty hard over the past few years to create an atmosphere in which I'm always on board with what he's up to, and if I'm not, we work together to figure out what needs to change until I am.
Hypothetically, this works the other way round as well, even though these days I'm rarely mounting any expeditions further than the grocery store. But hey, I expect my time will come.