Warszawski: Hiker Gregg Hein's ordeal on Sierra peak can be a lesson to all

The Fresno BeeJuly 17, 2014 

Gregg Hein talks about his ordeal in the Sierra for six days with a badly broken leg, after a waist-sized boulder came loose during a hike, smashing into his lower leg, at Community Regional Medical Center's Rose Garden, on Tuesday afternoon July 15, 2014, during a news conference. He was rescued on Thursday and has since undergone some surgeries to repair the compound fracture on the leg.

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Like many readers, I've followed with keen interest the story of Gregg Hein, the 33-year-old Clovis man who for six days lay alone with a bloody, broken leg in a remote area of Kings Canyon National Park before being rescued.

Hein was descending Mount Goddard, a 13,600-foot peak that is visible from Fresno on clean-air days, when a boulder he dislodged shattered his right calf in three places. Dangling appendage and all, Hein managed to crawl to a nearby lake and was eventually spotted by rescuers who landed a helicopter 50 feet from his location.

Here are some thoughts based on my 25 years hiking, scrambling and climbing in the Sierra Nevada including two ascents of Mount Goddard:

Going solo is inherently more risky

There's a reason everyone from the National Park Service to the Boy Scouts strongly discourages hiking and backpacking alone in the remote wilderness. If something goes wrong, it could be days -- or weeks -- before a chance of rescue.

That said, the risk varies based on individual strength and experience. I'm certainly not recommending (or encouraging) solo adventures, but there are ways to minimize those risks that I'll get into later.

Hein either ignored or disregarded most of these measures. which is why he's extremely fortunate to be recovering at Community Regional Medical Center instead of perishing at Davis Lake.

Don't jump to judge

When news of Hein's ordeal broke last week, the first commenter on the story accused him of being a Mountain Dew-guzzling adrenaline junkie with no regard for human life, his or his rescuers.

That's irksome.

The vast majority of my own hiking and backpacking experiences have been done with a partner or as part of a group. Not only for safety reasons, but also because a shared wilderness experience can deepen relationships and create lifelong friendships.

That said, I occasionally venture out alone. And let me assure you it's the exact opposite of a Red Bull commercial.

Journey inside the mind

Being alone in the wilderness is as much an internal struggle as external. It's not just more awareness of your surroundings but total immersion. With no one to talk to, colors, aromas and textures seem more real and intense. Things that go bump in the night are louder and scarier.

After a couple days alone in the mountains, I've found myself conversing with trees, flowers and critters. I've whooped and hollered to thin air. I've even shed tears while perfectly happy.

I realize all this sounds kind of strange, especially in an age where our attachment to electronic devices hampers us from experiencing emotional highs and lows (as marvelously elucidated by comedian Louis C.K.), but it's the truth.

This is the kind of internal journey sought by solo hikers. It has nothing to do with being an adrenaline junkie.

A few simple measures

Hein made a few mistakes that everyone can learn from.

For one, Hein did not obtain a wilderness permit, a big no-no. Permits aren't just for trail quotas; their primary purpose is informing authorities where you're going and when you intend to return.

Hein also didn't leave a detailed itinerary of his proposed route. Giving vague plans and a projected return date to family members isn't enough.

Whenever setting out on a hike that goes off established trails, always leave an itinerary on the dashboard of your vehicle. The key then is to stick to that itinerary as closely as possible.

To be sure, many backpacking trips don't go as planned. People get tired and sick. When you're part of a group, switching intended routes isn't a huge deal. When you're alone, it can be the difference between life and death.

Technology can be a lifesaver

One of the main reasons I go backpacking is to get away from cell phones and computers. It's my escape from emails, voice mails and Twitter. A lot of times, I don't even bring a camera. (Yeah, shoot me.)

That said, technology can be a lifesaver. There are a multitude of satellite-linked devices and personal locator beacons that can be used to alert authorities of your location. These devices also let family members know of your progress and safety.

They don't weigh very much, and prices seem to decrease every year.

Hein indicated he plans to carry one in the future. That's a good lesson for all of us. He also mentioned a wonderful low-tech device called a mirror that can be used for signaling purposes. Carry one of those, too, plus a whistle.

Also, never go anywhere in the wilderness without a map and compass. For my money, a simple map and compass beats a GPS tracker any day -- provided you know how to use them.

Remember the rescuers

The search for Hein involved 80 search-and-rescue personnel and three helicopters.

Some of the rescuers are employed by the park service. Others are volunteer members of Fresno County Sheriff's Search and Rescue.

I know a couple of these folks, and let me tell you there isn't a more dedicated group. Would they rather be home with their families than combing the Sierra for lost hikers? Of course. But when the call comes, they answer.

Find out more at www.fresnosar.org.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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