The Kennebec River was raging. It was the middle of April, and the ice clung to its banks while the current swept past. As I stripped naked and waded into the frigid current, the risks and potential consequences of what I was doing didn’t even cross my mind.
I was 25 years old and in the middle of a winter Appalachian Trail thru-hike, and this river was the most pressing obstacle between me and the finish line. I had alternatives to swimming across a barely-melted Maine river, but I was out of food and shivering, so I decided to ignore them. The river was deep, and the crossing required swimming; on the other side, I had to quickly bundle up in all my dry layers to warm up.
There was a lot of pressure behind my decision to swim a dangerous river. Besides hunger, I knew that I had to move quickly if I wanted to meet my goal of completing the calendar year Triple Crown. Beyond that, I was feeling the same drive to move forward that pushes fatigued mountaineers into danger or convinces dayhikers to keep climbing even when their gear clearly isn’t up to the task.
I successfully forded the river, but the decision still haunts me. It was a risk I shouldn’t have taken and has become an experience I measure other decisions against. In the years since, I’ve come to realize just how unforgiving and dangerous the backcountry can be. Needless to say, my risk tolerance has changed dramatically throughout the years due to experience. Turning back is still difficult, but in the seven years since crossing the Kennebec River, I have worked to find a healthy balance that allows me to take chances without gambling my safety or future away.
Learn from Experience
Reaching the summit is the obvious goal when you leave the parking lot. But your hike isn’t over until you make it back home, and while the difficulty doesn’t end at the summit, the ego pushing you to the top often does. Once that fades, it can be sobering to honestly confront your situation.
Last summer, I was in the middle of a 37-mile route in the Bridger Mountains in Montana. I took off early in the morning and enjoyed a brilliant sunrise and in the crisp morning air. The crux of the route was water, and as the temperature slowly rose throughout the day, I began to ration the little I had brought.
Too little, it turned out: . After a few hours, my body began shutting down. There were only six miles to go, and the final rise of the ridgeline loomed just ahead. But the muscles in my hands began to cramp. It was the first obvious sign of oncoming dehydration.
As desperately as I wanted to continue, the choice was simple. I had been dehydrated enough times to know exactly where this day was heading should I push forward. Two years previously, I had been faced with the same problem, chosen to continue, and almost needed my partner to call an ambulance.
So, 31 miles into a 37-mile route, I dropped off the ridge and found the nearest creek to rehydrate and lower my body temperature. I might have made a mistake once, but I had learned from it, and confidently made the decision to cut this adventure short.
Know Your Alternatives
Before an adventure, I try to assess the likelihood of a bad outcome and understand just what the consequences of it might be. Considering the risks and understanding when taking a detour or just turning back may be necessary has increased my confidence in venturing into the backcountry both alone and with all levels of backcountry partners. It builds a mental decision tree that I can consider throughout an adventure rather than trying to make rational choices when emotions are running high.
Last year I decided to try a 50-mile route that crosses the Snake River through Hells Canyon. The adventure involved swimming the river twice without any prior scouting, a risky proposition from the get-go. I packed and set out to do the entire route, but I also accepted there was a high possibility that I would turn around at the river if the crossing did not feel safe.
By the time I left, my plan already included the possibility that I would have to turn back; when I finally ended up having to do just that, having that contingency in place made the decision that much easier. Upon seeing the raging river, a solo crossing felt irresponsible, so I simply called it and retraced my steps.
Improvement and learning don’t occur during an adventure for me. Instead, that processing usually happens before and afterward. Before I set out, I try to consider what I’ve learned in the past; when it’s all done, I take some time to reflect on the new lessons I brought home with me. Take the time to make an honest assessment of everything from how your gear performed, how realistic your mileage goals were (and what happened if you failed to meet them), how the elevation and climate affected you, and how your body held up throughout it all.
There is a push and pull to finding an acceptable risk tolerance that lets you get out of your comfort zone without assuming too much danger, and there are few things more helpful in doing so than your lived experience. Take it seriously.