Safety in the Wilderness

     It should come as no surprise to anyone who finds their way here that our National Parks and wild places are under a much increased pressure recently. Visitation is soaring, there is a huge backlog of maintenance and necessary projects at our parks, and these pressures only seem to be increasing. As the visitation has soared, especially at some places that were only lightly visited not that long ago, some of those visitors are making bad choices. These bad choices are damaging to their own safety, as well as to the safety of these wild places that they are visiting.

     On a local level, there have already been two SAR operations on Longs Peak this winter that have come up empty, two people who have not been found and have most likely lost their lives. One man, a visitor from New Jersey,  was last seen heading towards the Keyhole into the teeth of a developing winter storm. The search went on on the mountain for over two weeks before being suspended. The second visitor was last seen above treeline on the mountain in the midst of another blizzard, dressed in a sweatshirt, sweatpants, and tennis shoes. Despite being advised to turn back, he continued on into the storm and has not been seen again. After a week and a half, the search for him has also been suspended. My reaction to these incidents is predominantly sadness. The first visitor chose to continue up the mountain into the first major winter storm of the season. It has not been reported as exactly how prepared he might have been for the conditions, but any endeavor onto the upper mountain in a blizzard is unadvised at best. With the reports of the second visitors dress, during a late November blizzard, not only was he completely not prepared for the conditions but he chose to ignore advice to turn back and continued on. Both made poor decisions, and both it appears have paid the ultimate price for those choices. It's easy to feel like they are completely to blame for what has happened to them, and for the most part that's probably true. But as someone who has encouraged people to get out more, maybe push the envelope a bit, it's also hard not to look inward. Does sharing photos like the one above encourage people to take risks that they're not prepared for? The popularity of Longs Peak, as well as its accessibility, have made it one of the deadliest mountains in Colorado. The social media age has only brought more people to the mountain, and more trouble for some of those visitors. What can I do about that? I'll come back to that....

     Safety in the wilderness isn't just about safety for the visitors though, it's also about the safety of the places themselves that we visit. The pressures of increased visitation are affecting some of these places in detrimental ways. False Kiva in Canyonlands National Park had to be closed due to egregious incidents of vandalism, Hanging Lake here in Colorado is moving to a permit system for all visitors next year due to heavy visitation and damage, Arches National Park is so overwhelmed that they've proposed a reservation system just to get in to the park, on most summer days in Rocky Mountain National Park the Bear Lake & Wild Basin areas are restricted access due to all parking being full early in the day, I could go on and on. Most proposed solutions to these kinds of issues, like the peak season entrance fees for the most visited National Parks that were proposed last year, are shouted down by a public that wants their "freedom" to be unrestricted. Some areas are now requesting that you don't post exact locations of your photos on social media, it's even been added as a Leave No Trace principle. The responses by these locations have varied. Horseshoe Bend in Arizona is developing its location by expanding parking and putting up fencing on the cliffs at this newly iconic viewpoint. As mentioned, other spots are moving to restrict access and limit visitation by moving to permit requirements and closing off areas when they are fully occupied. Some locations, like False Kiva, are even being closed to the public entirely. What do you think is the right answer? We get up in arms about our public lands when we feel our access to them is being restricted in any way, yet we also want these places to be protected. It's becoming tough to have it both ways.

      What am I going to do? How can I contribute? First of all, I'll still keep going out there, and sometimes at those times when most people are staying home. I've pushed my limits out a lot since coming here to Colorado 5 years ago, learning to deal with conditions that are a lot more extreme than what I faced in Tennessee, especially in winter. That being said, early on I went with others who were more experienced than I. I've learned a lot about assessing the risks out there, and I'll keep learning. I would advise anyone to do the same. Go with others who know the challenges, educate yourself, and then remember at the end of the day that the most important thing on your adventures is to make it back home at the end of the day. If you're visiting an area you don't know well, all of that becomes even more important. Be prepared, the 10 essentials aren't called the 10 suggestions for a reason. Weather can change, conditions can go bad, especially in the mountains. That extra weight of some extra layers, a light source, or a first aid kit, that you might not think you need for this trip, could be what gets you back home when you're done. I've experienced this myself. I've also made another decision for my social media presence. I'm going to join the growing contingent and stop geotagging the locations of my photos. The main idea behind using that location tag is to expand your reach and help people find your images online. What is actually happening in large part is the opposite. People are seeing those photos, seeing that location, and then trying to get there themselves when some of them just don't belong there. If you want to know the exact spot I took a photo, ask me and maybe I'll share or maybe I'll take you there, but I'm going to stop putting it out there for everyone to see. I've come to this choice for myself, others can make their own decisions about how they want to approach this part of the social media experience.

     How do you feel about what's going on out there in the great outdoors? How do you feel about what I've shared? Tell me about it in the comments, or contact me directly to continue the conversation. And lets all strive to make better choices in the great outdoors.

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