I take issue with Peter Nelson’s piece on the rescue of a woman and her two children on Mt. Marcy in March. Although perhaps the mother taking her children up Mt. Marcy in predictably harsh winter weather didn’t deserve “some of the nastiest condemnations… seen in the online world,” the situation does deserve serious objective assessment, and the lessons learned need to be repeated loud and often.
I would suggest compassion for her and her family, but I also would recommend a serious debrief of the experience that asks questions such as: “What went well?”; “What didn’t go well?”; and, “What would you do differently next time?”
- It may save wilderness travelers’ lives in the future
- It may save the lives of possible rescuers (see here, and here)
- It may save taxpayers money
Pete asks if the mother was negligent. That is a fascinating question. Certainly if she were a licensed guide and taking young people on a winter trip up Mt. Marcy she very possibly could be found guilty of negligence.
The “there but for the grace of God” argument holds no water for me. Yes, many of us, including myself, have had formative experiences wherein luck played a bigger role than skill. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have evaluated what we learned, or that we didn’t deserve to be critiqued and, in many instances, criticized for our actions.
Yes, I introduced my children to adventure and risk, but for them it was more “perceived” risk and little “real” risk. That is how you appropriately introduce children to risk. Risk is the balance of the odds of something going wrong with the severity of the consequences if they do. If the odds of something bad happening are high, then you want to make sure that the severity of the consequences are low; if the odds of something bad happening are low, then you can possibly assume the risk of severe consequences.
I remember when our group, faced with crossing a raging, spring runoff-filled stream in Wyoming on an ice-covered three-foot diameter tree, debated whether to use a fixed line or not. My mentor Paul Petzoldt quipped, “You only need the fixed line if someone is going to fall.” The consequences were drowning, and the odds of someone slipping were higher that morning because of the fresh ice on the log. We determined the odds were high enough that it was prudent to take the time to set up the fixed line. It was the right thing to do.
Have I forgotten an important piece of equipment on occasion? Sure. Have I ever left my pack at timberline? Never. My children and former students will attest to my standard quote in that situation: “It is better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”
I’ve led people of all ages. Have I hiked beyond my turnaround time? You bet, but only with careful consideration of the consequences. Two clients and I decided to complete our hike up Haystack in the High Peaks last summer knowing we would have to hike via flashlight for at least two hours back to our camp. We all concurred on the decision given the beautiful weather, a favorable forecast, and a full moon. Would I go beyond my turnaround time on Mt. Marcy in March with my children given the weather conditions? Never. I turned around on Ampersand Mountain two years ago this month with my niece and nephew (around the same age as the children rescued on Marcy) because it was too icy.
Contrary to Pete’s claim that only one mistake was made, I maintain that several were made.
The mother eventually made some good decisions and helped them survive the night, but I am reminded of Petzoldt’s warning that, if people were careless enough to get into a survival situation, how were they going to be smart enough to survive it. With tongue in cheek he suggested we provide smart pills for those folks to take once they got into a desperate situation.
As a teacher of wilderness skills and leadership for over forty years, I based my teaching on the Wilderness Education Association’s old 18-point curriculum. Let’s assess how the rescued party did on Mt. Marcy.
- Not having another adult in the group
- Not turning back given the weather conditions
- Not having or not adhering to a turnaround time
- Leaving the pack behind
This is just a hunch, but I think that she took a lot of criticism because of her silence. Perhaps if she made a public statement admitting her errors (a mea culpa) and publicly thanking her rescuers, the public would have felt differently.
I wish her and her family many safe and enjoyable hikes in the future, and I hope that many can learn from their experience.
“Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.”
― Brandon Mull, Fablehaven
Photo taken during the rescue operation provided by DEC.