I had an interesting "teachable moment" on my last patrol. Experiences that can be used as teaching tools are always valuable but I wish this one hadn't involved me shouldering a pack that weighed over a hundred pounds.
Before my last patrol we received a report from a visitor that had lost his backpack on the scree slopes of the Goat Trail. The report found its way onto my desk and I gave the visitor a call. The visitor indicated that they had slipped crossing one of the scree slopes. They struggled to regain their footing and decided they would need to remove their backpack in order to stand up. The visitor took off the pack and as soon as they let it go it rocketed down the slope. The visitor described the experience as either "me or the pack." They were not able to recover the dropped pack.
I have hiked this section of the route once before and I had a pretty good idea of where this incident had probably occurred. Hiking from Skolai to Wolverine or Glacier Creek, the last scree slope encountered is the steepest and where people typically have trouble. It is easy to get off route through this section and there are some scary drops if a hiker gets away from the main trail.
When my patrol reached this section we crossed along the trail and stopped on the ridge just beyond the scree. From this perch I took a few minutes to look around for the backpack. The scree slope funnels down into a fairly narrow chute and near the top of this chute was a strange looking rock. I pulled out my binoculars; definitely a backpack down there! I pointed out the backpack to my hiking partner and suggested that I would go down and retrieve the pack. The pack was about 500 ft below us. She looked less than convinced. I assured her that I was very comfortable in the steep terrain and if it became unsafe I would turn around.
500 vertical feet and eight minutes later I reached the pack. The descent was actually a lot of fun cruising down soft scree. The pack was wet from the rain in the last few days and probably weighed about 35 pounds which seemed light. I picked up the pack, put it on and began the climb out. I soon discovered why the pack was light. I started finding other items in the fall line of the pack; a tent, Croc, water bottle and a few other items. As I followed these items upward I realized that the incident had not taken place in the super-sketchy off route terrain, but had actually happened on the normal trail. Hmm.
I picked up these other items and strapped them to the pack. At some point I began coughing and sneezing. I realized that the pepper spray attached to the pack had gone off when the pack tumbled and the pack still had residue on it. Coughing and sneezing I made my way back to the trail and then back to my hiking partner.
We divided up the gear and I strapped the extra backpack onto the outside of my pack. The pack that I carry on a patrol normally weighs between 60 and 70 pounds add to that the extra weight of a second loaded pack and my new weight easily tipped the scales at over 100lbs. I carried both packs 14 miles out to Skolai.
Ranger Olson with both backpacks.
Ranger Olson with both backpacks.
As we hiked I had lots of time to think about how I ended up with this monstrous pack. The visitor ended up in a situation where they were in way over their head. Anytime a hiker has to make a decision between their life and their backpack its fair to say they’re in too deep. This particular incident struck a chord with me because of the location. I had assumed the visitor got off route and into very sketchy terrain, but they had actually been on the correct route.
It is important to consider a few of the possible consequences if we had left the pack where it was. The pack probably would have stayed where it was through the winter and next year it almost certainly would have been discovered by various rodents and possibly a curious bear. Nylon is no match for rodents or bears and the pack and its contents would be strewn about the hillside. It is also possible that another visitor would have spotted the pack or some of the other gear on the hillside and assumed someone fell down the slope. Park management would need to make some difficult decisions about putting staff members into dangerous technical terrain to search for a missing hiker that doesn’t actually exist.
The park has some of the biggest and most remote terrain anywhere in the world. Trip planning needs to be very conservative and the fact that other people have done a certain trip does not make it an appropriate trip for everyone. It is very important to understand one’s personal limits while planning a backpacking trip. The visitor involved in the pack incident is lucky that nothing worse happened; however, the whole incident could have been avoided by choosing a route more suited to their abilities.
Simply completing a route is a poor standard for success. A successful trip includes leaving as little trace as possible from your passing and doing so safely. The park has incredible and endless possibilities for climbing, rafting, backpacking and many other forms of recreation. Enjoy the park, but do so without getting in over your head.
The ultimate teaching point to take away from this is one of personal responsibility. As a steward for Wrangell-St Elias National Park I want visitors to appreciate the quality and scale of the experiences that can be found here. I want them to come to the park and enjoy it safely. I also want them to respect this place. Choose routes carefully and within your abilities. The learning curve can be very steep here. If you find yourself clinging to the side of a mountain, contemplating dropping your backpack you can be sure that you are on the wrong side of the curve.