The wilderness is just that — wilderness.
It is not Disneyland.
It is not an excursion to Monterey.
It is not a trip to Walmart.
The death this week of a 70-year-old retired Indiana man on a remote road in south central Nevada got a lot of attention in the national press, both traditional and Internet-based.
That wasn’t the case of a 30-year-old surgeon who died while hiking in Wisconsin in a fairly remote area.
Both were missing for a number of days before they were found.
The man — who was with his 69-year-old wife who was rescued — apparently traveled a lot. He also had a health issue due to having a lung removed. The Wisconsin woman was an avid hiker.
The man died, after becoming stranded in the wilderness with his wife, as the result of two bad calls. First, they were in a 32-foot RV towing a Kia on a desert dirt road that got stuck in mud in a remote high desert area below the 4,259-foot Silver Peak. They then unhitched the Kia. But instead of going back to what passes as civilization in that section of Esmeralda County they kept going up the road. Then the Kia got stuck as well.
The surgeon was walking off trail along the edge of a clay embankment when it collapsed sending her to her death after being partially buried.
I’ve never been in Wisconsin but I’ve been in Esmeralda County. I’ve hiked cross-country in part of the high desert of the county that is within the boundaries of Death Valley National Park.
It was the same year I trekked into a canyon some five miles southeast of Scotty’s Castle that had been dubbed Gray Wall Canyon. If avid hikers who keep track of their wanderings in Death Valley are correct, no one had hiked in the canyon for decades until the 1990s.
By a day or so later, I struck up a conversation with a park ranger who asked where I had been hiking. The ranger told me he doubted if more than two people a year ventured there. He also said by chance that in the general vicinity there had been several sightings of mountain lions during the previous two weeks.
I do not consider myself a hardcore hiker. That said, whenever I venture into the wilderness for a serious day hike I do so with my eyes open knowing full well I can get into serious situations. That means carrying more weight on my back than what I’d ever need for an 8-hour hike.
While I’m not driven by fear, I do assess movements that wouldn’t give others who are more athletic — and sometimes younger who are still in the invincible mode — pause.
There are times I’ve called it quits when my anxiety level in steep scree reached a point I believed I was being borderline reckless based on my capabilities.
On two occasions, it was more than frustrating. One was when I was on a 14-mile hike where I had misjudged the terrain I was tackling to reach a glacier. The other was closer to home when I took the wrong route up the 11,233-foot Stanislaus Peak north of Sonora Pass and I ended up turning around 100 feet from the summit. Based on the time of day instead of trying another route I decided the mountain wasn’t going anywhere and I’d simply tackle it another day — which I did.
My caution extends to wilderness dirt roads as well.
For the most part, I start my hikes from the edge of paved roads. That’s even true in some parts of Death Valley where there are primitive dirt roads.
I do so for three reasons.
I do not have 4-wheel drive. I am far from being able to troubleshoot issues that could arise navigating terrain that makes the worst street in the Valley seem as smooth as a dragstrip, and if something goes wrong.
AAA tow doesn’t cover for getting stuck or broken down on remote, primitive roads in the wilderness. That happened to someone in Death Valley that I knew. Their tow charge was $1,400. And that was 25 years ago.
That said, I’ve always very careful and very slowly navigated some four-wheel drive roads when I had a high-clearance Ford Escape. I’ve done that multiple times to hike the remote Panamint Sand Dunes in Death Valley. But in doing so I was prepared each time if I had to hike back down the extensively rutted primitive nine-mile road and then walk five miles along Highway 190 to reach Panamint Springs Resort.
There are risks when you venture away from civilization.
It is common sense to reduce those risks and prepare for what might be likely to go wrong.
You can’t prepare for everything but you can certainly make your own “luck” by assessing what is before you — a hideously primitive road or sketchy hiking route, whether it is on a trail or cross country.
And then there is the bottom line. Something can go wrong and you could get into serious trouble or even die.
This is an awful long set-up to get to the point of this column.
The nephew of the man who died after heading down a primitive remote road with two vehicles not designed for it and getting stuck once and then unhitching the other vehicle to keep going and getting stuck again has been slamming the Esmeralda County Sheriff for dragging his feet in launching a search party.
Given the couple never gave anyone a clear day-to-day listing of their itinerary and did not arrange to check in every day at a certain time, it did not narrow the parameters.
Launching a serious search is a big undertaking in any jurisdiction. That is even more so in Esmeralda County. There are 969 residents in 3,589 square miles. The department lacked the resources. Besides most search and rescue efforts require extensive volunteer assistance.
It might sound morbid but one of the reasons I leave itineraries of my day hikes and stick to the route and not freelance is because you are a speck of dust on a needle in the proverbial haystack when you venture into the wilderness. If something goes horribly wrong, I want to reduce any potential peril to those looking for a body.
Had the sheriff known the couple was going to be somewhere on that road things could have ended up differently.
As for faulting the sheriff for the time lag in a search getting underway, Esmeralda County is not Disneyland. It is not the same as going up to security and reporting you can’t find your kid.
Your entrance fee pays for that service. There is a lot of personnel on the ground and tech to help in the search.
None of that exists in the wilderness, which is the entire point.
The couple as well as the hiker in Wisconsin may or may not have seen things that way.
But to fault someone else for not moving fast enough to rescue someone when they put themselves at risk repeatedly — not leaving a detailed itinerary with someone they checked in with every 24 hours, driving into a remote area, and then after getting stuck using their back-up vehicle to go two miles farther and get stuck in the middle of nowhere again — is misdirected anger.