Lessons Learnt: Panic & Blame

There’s this concept in some sports and activities that 10,000 hours of practice or experience makes you an expert. By this definition I am not an expert in hiking, climbing, kayaking, or even snowboarding. But, frankly – I could be at 50,000 hours for each of those and still know I am not an expert. I will always be learning, improving, and making mistakes.

I often find that I try to portray this image of myself being this knowledgeable outdoors woman. It’s not intentional, but the fact is most people rather get their information from an expert or at least someone who exudes confidence and know how. I get it. I feel the same. But, for a moment (or at least this post), I’m going to ignore my ambitions.

Yesterday reminded just how much I am not an expert. I’m ashamed to even admit that here as it goes against the image I’d like you to all see of me. At my worst yesterday, I was short of breath, nauseous, and about ready to cry while doubled over on my hiking poles in the middle of the woods. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I’m thankful that only my husband, close friend, and dogs saw me like this.

So, let’s back track. What the heck happened?

In short, my group (3 people, 2 dogs) set out to do a popular 4000 footer. We were prepared for the weather and for most situations. What we weren’t ready for was accidentally taking the wrong trail. We had already summited the 4000 footer in great spirits and we’re excited to head back down the AMC hut to hopefully see some views now that the clouds had begin to part at lower elevations. We got a little careless, thought we read the trail sign right, and followed each other assuming that everyone else knew where we were. Soon enough, we found ourselves not really sure. For a trail that was meant to be a constant descent, it sure had a lot of ascent. Evidently we had jumped on a trail that was going to throw three more peaks our way, all of them above 3600′ with well over 2000′ in vertical gain and loss, in addition to the rest of the descent we were familiar with. And – it was just a couple of hours til the sun would set.

Somehow that knowledge, combined with dark forests making nightfall seem far too close, exhaustion, and some worry over my canine companions threw me right into one of those ugly panic modes. You know the type where you feel your heart race and then move to a sluggish beat? The one that leaves you out of breath and sick? Yeah. I was feeling that in the middle of the woods well before I was supposed to buckle down and get up the next peak. I don’t remember the last time I felt that close to hopeless.

So, instead of dwelling on a day hike gone ugly I’d like to share some insanely important mistakes I won’t make again. Let my mistakes be your lessons. If I can’t be an expert outdoors woman, let me at least tell you what not to do.

Don’t point fingers.

In my frustration and exhaustion, I was super quick to point a finger at the rest of my group, as they were in the lead. Fact is, all three of us should have taken the individual responsibility to ensure we were taking the correct path home. And pointing fingers didn’t make me feel any better, improve anyone’s morale, or make the peaks any smaller. In reality, we were never lost. My finger pointing only made my companions doubt their abilities for a moment. Not cool.

Ironically, my fortune cookie tonight with dinner told me “If you aren’t occasionally at fault, start looking for your mistakes.” It couldn’t be more right.

Understand the worst. Prepare for the likely. Expect the best.

When you set out on a day hike, you need to understand the worst case scenario could be anything from getting lost, to injury, or having to spend a night in the woods (while lost and injured?). It’s impossible to prepare for every injury, and it’s impractical to carry all the gear needed to spend a night. So, you need to prepare for what is most likely to happen. For most day hikes, this means that you may be out longer than expected. You may sustain some light injuries (cuts, bruises, blisters). You may end up taking the wrong trail and being confused. But – and this is a big “but” – constantly focusing on the worst to happen is a real happiness and confidence sucker. It’s important to stay positive and focused on reality, or else it’s all downhill from there.

Whatever you do, don’t panic.

I feel like I’ve told complete strangers this before and I’ve even written about it before. Panic is evil. It clouds your judgement, makes situations harder to control, and is probably the most dangerous thing of all.

While it’s possible to become an expert in things like knots, fire starting, and navigation, teaching yourself to not panic is so much harder. Honestly, I don’t think I will master it in this lifetime. Instead, I will focus my efforts on being able to identify why I’m panicking, seeing my way through it, and not dragging others into the slippery slope of freaking out (it’s rather contagious).

In the end…

After 10 hours (instead of the expected 7-8) of hiking, we made it back to the car all safe and sound minus some sore muscles, bruises, and scrapes (all of which we sustained earlier in the day). We were well prepared with headlamps (and spare batteries), and had brought enough food, water, and extra layers to make it through the night had it been necessary. All is well that ends well. On to the next hike!

4 thoughts on “Lessons Learnt: Panic & Blame

  1. Good points all. I’ve been lost on two “real” hikes — one wound up with me obtaining a broken toe — irksome, painful, but not really a big deal. The other was somewhat worse, and taught me two lessons — one that I’d already known, and one, in hindsight, that I should have known. My group was hiking to Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Our hike had started out at the base in the mid-80’s and sunny; we let ourselves be persuaded by the weather to break into a fast group (older teens and adults), and “my” group — younger teens, and me of about 22 or so. By the time we broke treeline, it had dropped to the mid-50’s, gotten windy, and overcast. Then the fog kicked in, at which time we broke out raingear… except for the one kid who hadn’t brought any. I gave him my top, and we went on.

    And, really, this is where, in hindsight, I realized how stupid I was: the weather was rapidly worsening, light rain had started in, and the wind was kicking up non-trivially. So, the rules: don’t split up, and turn back if your party isn’t suitably attired. The winds ratcheted up to about 60 MPH sustained, and the fog got so thick we couldn’t see from the beginning of the group to the end — maybe 30′. The first edifice we saw showed us how badly we’d gone astray: we were on the summit, and had completely missed the hut, perhaps by tens of feet. And I was so cold I couldn’t hold the soup spoon up to my mouth in the cafe. Additionally, one of the older teens in the fast group having to be taken off-mountain when he took his palms off after getting hit by a particularly bad gust and falling. These were reminders that the list of dead people on the top of Mount Washington grows almost annually. And a solid chunk got there by not being prepared, or being caught unawares (or both).

    Hiking is one of my favorite activities, but I’ve been bitten by not paying enough attention to the rules. 4,000-footers are awesome, and we’re a lucky state to have ’em, but it requires forethought and caution. Kudos to you guys for pushing through, and, even more importantly, having what you needed if things went south. Hope your next hike goes more smoothly!

    1. Thanks, Ken. It was a very enlightening experience. While I don’t think we were actually in any danger this time and I was just have a pure freak out due to being WAY out of my comfort zone – I think it’s safe to say we are all going to be significantly more prepared and cautious next time. I’ve already picked up a few new pieces of safety gear I hope I never have to use.

      The irony was that we started out our morning in the parking lot people watching. There were folks with non-functional shoes, all cotton (and it was totally overcast with rain in the forecast), and nowhere near enough supplies (coffee cups and single water bottles). It’s absolutely no wonder at all that folks have to be rescued every year! If we were shaken even with how prepared we were, what is everyone else thinking?

      1. In a far more controlled manner, when I was a bit older, my mid-sized group broke into two groups of four. The other group was hiking along — I believe it was the Ammonoosuc Trail — and bumped into this lady running down the trail looking for help. (This was when cell phones were pricey, but just about to become common.) Her boyfriend had been wearing *COWBOY BOOTS*, and tried to climb a waterfall. Fell down, on his feet, doing some serious bone shattering. He took one of the boots off — against my friend’s advice — only to pour blood out of it. Fortunately, my friend *was* one of those who had a cell phone, and called 911. Had he not had his cell, I harbor no doubts that Mr. Cowboy Boot would have had his name added to the fatality list.

        It’s nothing shy of amazing what some people do.

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About Jillian Bejtlich

Hey! I'm Jillian Bejtlich. I’m a lifelong New Englander with a serious love of the outdoors, adventure, and a pretty serious inability to sit still. I’m plagued by the travel bug, and it seems I’ll try any relatively sane and safe thing once. My big goal in life: Get people outside!