Ill-prepared Glacier Park Hikers Owe Their Lives to Rescue Workers

    Old Man Lake, center-right was the hikers' destination. After spending one planned night at Old Man Lake, the hikers decided to ascend back to the ridge where they later descended some 3,000 feet into Nyack, backside of the horizontal trending ridge center top of photo. Photo: Tony Bynum, tonybynum.com

    Editor’s note: Earlier this week we published a news article detailing the successful survival of two hikers who became stranded in Montana’s Glacier National Park, highlighting the Virginians’ preparation as a key to their survival. Earlier today, our friend Tony Bynum contacted us to share his very different take on the near-tragedy. Read on for his perspective on the issue.

    How in the world does the U.S. National Park Service and the media depict two guys, anyone, who gets lost outdoors and survives a difficult or even life-threatening situation, as heroes? Neal Peckens and Jason Hiser owe their lives to the rescue efforts of various teams from in and around Glacier National Park. The duo likely would be dead today if not for the bravery and heroism of those who put themselves in harm’s way to find them. The two men were recently rescued after spending five unexpected nights, four huddled together on the shoulder of a mountain at 6,000 feet, along the continental divide in Glacier National Park.

    Glacier National Park’s Chief Ranger Mark Fouts sain in an October 16, 2012 press release, “These hikers were prepared with appropriate equipment and they used their situational awareness skills to determine how to respond to the unexpected stay in the backcountry.”

    I usually discount Monday morning quarterbacking, but in this instance, I think there’s a more meaningful lesson to be learned than saying, “good job guys, you did the right thing by staying put.”

    Situational awareness starts well before you find yourself in a wreck, it includes making wise decisions long before you have no choice but to wait for rescue.

    A recent Christian Science Monitor article compared the adults’ situation to that of an 8-year-old child who ran too far along a trail and was lost for an hour. The child didn’t know the standard recommendation for anyone lost, which is to STOP: Stop, Think, Observe and Plan. Seemingly, that’s what Peckens and Hiser did, but knowledge is preparation and being unprepared and surviving is not heroic. It’s luck.

    So while people all across the country are praising the two for staying put when lost, I’m confounded. Why the lack of attention to their failures? And why the limited accounting of the real heroes, the brave men and women who were out there on foot and horseback, and in the air looking for the men?

    Let’s look at this from the perspective of a lifelong, experienced backcountry mountaineer and a person who’s been to the exact locations as these hikers many times. I understand what that environment is like, I’ve been there. I’ve lived in the Two Medicine Valley, just miles from the incident, for 11 years. As happy as I am that they are alive, they failed the first rule of backcountry travel, especially when weather issues are a concern. That first rule is preparation. The men weren’t prepared. Mistake number 1.

    It is obvious to me the men have some experience, after all they did survive five nights longer than they had planned. But is this really what we consider preparation and having, in the words of Mark Fouts of the National Park Service, “situational awareness”? The two were not as prepared as they should have been. Donning expensive, lightweight parkas, strapping on high-tech boots, and throwing some nature bars into a pack is not, in my view, being prepared–especially when you’re trekking to 7,500 feet along the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park in October!

    Reports indicate the two lost their map, that’s mistake number 2. Foul up number 3 was deciding to continue to travel terrain and conditions they weren’t prepared to handle. They attempted to ascend a part of the trail, that by their own account was snow-covered and as it turns out, much too dangerous for their skill level and or the gear they had with them. At that point, turning back is the proper decision. Being prepared is about knowing the risks, knowing personal limits, and basing decisions on those factors. The men stated they got lost when they lost the trail. With snow on the ground, what did they expect, route markers and signs along the way? These two men took a chance, in a place they clearly did not know enough about. Had it been a nice summer day with an open trail, I’d have said go for it. Not in October, at elevation, in the wilderness. Once the duo reached the section of the trail where snow began to hinder their efforts, again, they should have turned back! They were just a five- or six-mile hike down a flat glacial valley to the warmth and safety of their automobile and the road out. It seems their urge for adventure and lack of preparation got to them and made them decide to leave Old Man Lake area and a safe exit. Next they hiked through the steep snow-crusted rocks and that almost cost one of them them their life. In addition, their poor decisions and lack of preparation put over 50 searchers at risk.

    Being prepared means you know your limits. I think these guys would agree. Had they known where they were and yes, drawn mental maps of basic escape routes as they traveled (and in case they lost their map), they could have either turned back and walked out the Dry Fork from Old Man Lake, or after descending into the Nyack drainage to Nyack Lake, they could have continued down the valley and found the large maintained trail that leads to Highway 2. Granted, the latter is a longer hike, but they would have been safer. They would not have continued to put themselves in a life-threatening situation, nor caused a huge incident that required others to risk their lives and use up rescue resources.

    Instead, they went higher trying to find their way back to the Two Medicine Valley! They went up and further increased their risk of dying–this AFTER they knew they were lost, and after they had almost slid down the mountain though ice and snow. That’s not being prepared, that’s not “situational awareness,” that’s being unaware of the risks and foolish. It seems to me that they did not really stay put until they wound up in a place where they had no other options. They were ill-prepared, made poor life-and-death decisions, and did not have a severe weather emergency plan in place. They clearly had not set any basic ground rules for a bail plan. A bail plan is the emergency escape route and actions taken in used in worst-case scenarios. They apparently did not have a plan. They were not prepared.

    As to their heralded situational awareness, had they stayed at the lake, once they knew they were lost, they would have been found days sooner. They didn’t seem to be aware at all. They made four critical mistakes:

    1. They should have turned back as soon as things got sketchy,
    2. They were not prepared for winter travel in the backcountry,
    3. They did not have the skills necessary to be in the environment in the first place, and
    4. They did not have plans to address emergencies should something go wrong.

    Remember, we’re not talking about a summer hike up the Hidden Lake Trail. We’re talking about being out overnight 17 miles into Glacier National Park wilderness in October.

    To reiterate, I’m happy they are alive. I am grateful to the searchers who saved them. But please, let’s not glamorize folks who make huge mistakes and poor decisions as heroes. These two men put themselves in the position to get into serious trouble by not knowing their limits, taking on too much risk, and not having a back-up or bail plan. That is inexcusable. That’s called preparing to cause an incident. Let’s say what it really is, a lesson for all–about staying put when you’re lost, but more than that it’s about not going into as situation you can’t handle on your own.

    I hope, as we see these guys making their rounds on the morning talk shows to gloat about their harrowing experience one mid-October week in Glacier National Park, that we also see them swallow their pride and tell the world about the mistakes they made rather than taking credit for being prepared and staying put when lost. They’ve been given a second chance at life. I’d like to see them use it to ensure no one else makes the same stupid mistakes.

    Tony Bynum is a full-time professional outdoor photographer from East Glacier Park, Montana. He has more than 25 years of backcountry experience including alpine mountaineering and has, since his first major expedition at the age of 18 where he spent 25 days crisscrossing the North Cascades on foot, lived an outdoor adventure lifestyle. He’s trained in wilderness survival and backcountry first aid. He’s led myriad backcountry trips with people whose safety was his responsibly, and he’s climbed more than a dozen peaks in Glacier National Park, including all that surround the location where the lost hikers were found. He’s also a father and a compassionate friend who cares deeply about Glacier National Park and human safety. This article originally appeared on his website and is republished with permission.

    Image courtesy Tony Bynum

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