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Just Read "Things I learned from Falling" by Claire Nelson

I just read "Things I Learned from Falling" by Claire Nelson about her hiking accident at Joshua Tree.  Nelson was house sitting nearby and decided to go on a day hike.  She got off trail and fell, shattering her pelvis and had to survive basically immobilized for four days before rescuers found her.    Tales of outdoors accidents are  fascinating to read because I always wonder, could that happen to me?  In this case, I would have felt pretty comfortable hiking solo on a well-traveled National Park trail with the pack she took.  Her critical mistake was getting off-trail, even though she had two maps in her pack (she describes using them for sun shelter as she lies immobilized by her injury).   It's pretty clear in the story that she's not especially good at reading maps or navigating, but for the trail she was on that shouldn't have been an issue . Nelson  also had a cell phone, but no service.  She used it to record herself when she thought she might die (never trust your life to a battery, right?).  My takeaway is that she was adequately prepared but something went wrong anyway.   Her tale of survival shows real ingenuity and fortitude, and of course her takeaway is, you should be more appreciative of the people in your life.   The book is a good read.  Has anyone else read it?  What did you think?


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I have not read the book, but I have lots of experience with search and rescue operations, primarily in southern Arizona, 1958-1985.  Obviously, you increase the odds when you solo, but who doesn't, at least occasionally?  I certainly have!

Navigation is a critical skill, and even then, with lots of experience, you can become "confused" now and then -experience speaking...

There is nothing about National Park Service areas which makes them inherently more or less safe that any other wildlands.  Staff capability varies tremendously.  A good many parks rely upon outside groups when extensive SAR is required.  That is frequently a very satisfactory arrangement with good outcomes, but recovery is rarely rapid.  Self sufficiency is always a good idea, even on well travelled trails.

Sometimes, even that is not enough.  Consider the case of Paul Fugate, a NPS Naturalist who left the visitor center to check the nature trail in January, 1981, and hasn't been seen since, despite an extensive SAR that went full blown for two weeks, and continued with specialized operations for months afterward.  The case is still open and unresolved....

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I haven't read it but I will look for it. Thanks for pointing it out.

From what you say it is a good illustration of why it is worth carrying a satellite messenger, particularly if you hike alone in remote places or even not so remote places if you are not sticking to the popular route.  

In the book, Nelson writes that she expected her cell phone would be able to contact emergency help until she had to use it and found out there was no signal.  So she actually  thought she had a communication device to call for rescue.   Also, one problem with rescue beacons is that the expectation that help will come can lead to more risky behavior.


To be clear, my comment was not meant as a criticism of Nelson's misadventure.  Accidents happen to the most skilled and prepared, sometimes in the most benign of places. Such is life. I only meant that it illustrates the case for carrying satellite messenger.   We often forget that cell phones do not work everywhere.

The fact that some people might use them irresponsibly does not undermine the wisdom of carrying a Satellite Messenger (SM) ones self.  Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) are a slightly different animal but my point still applies.  Carrying one won't turn you into an irresponsible lout.  Just make sure you understand what is a life threatening emergency and what is not. As an aside, PLBs, specifically, use a public communication network and the devices must be registered with the appropriate authority by law.  Not registering your device is highly irresponsible.  SM's use private networks and require an active paid subscription so registration is implicit with use.

Anecdotally, at least, many people own these devices because a spouse or family insisted they carry one and, often, gave it to them. Why I have mine. Why I gave one to my daughter. Why a friend of mine has one and the reason given for just about every case of people buying one that I have come across.

Personally I am unconvinced that Martin showed anything interesting about sm/plb's, at least without close examination of his methodology. Correlation is not causation. Causation can only be inferred with a well designed control and surveys are not very reliable.  It is reasonable to assume that people carry sm/plbs into the back country because that is what it takes to be well equipped these days.  It is not even remotely surprising that adventurous people are often well equipped.  So, if a survey shows carrying a sm/plb makes people more confident to go to remote places, it is an obvious and meaningless result. You might just as well ask if wearing shoes makes them more confident...or less facetiously, water filters...or hiking poles...etc. 


I am resistant to the idea that dependence on electronics is "what it takes to be well equipped" in the outdoors.  Nelson's story actually kind of drives home that point since the electronics she had are not what saved her life.   The fact that she carried extra water and was able to rig some shelter from the weather actually did save her life.  

In my opinion, to say,  "never go on a dayhike without your rescue beacon" is not only safety overkill, it's actually  wrongheaded because it  prioritizes the beacon (and expectation of rescue) as the priority action over the generally more useful safety precautions of  taking water, weather protection layers, a map, a basic first aid kit and a little food.   

In any case, if people self-report that carrying a beacon makes them feel more confident to try risky things, that's probably true.    When I think about my own behavior, if we have a beacon with us it's because we are all well aware that we are doing something where someone might get hurt.   The beacon doesn't actually reduce the risk of injury, but it does seem to make it more acceptable.


I haven't read it, but it looks good. I just added it to my list. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.