I just got an email alert about a hiker named Jacob Holly who crawled out of Linville Gorge in North Carolina after falling and breaking both legs. The story can be found here while it’s on the net. It may be archived after a while. First, I hope that Jacob is OK and doesn’t suffer any complications from his ordeal. It must have been quite a frightening experience for him to go through that alone. I wish him and his family the best as he struggles through this. That said, I would like to mention a couple of things that I think would be beneficial for everyone to take away from this event…
I used to live in North Carolina and I have hiked through Linville Gorge. I remember researching the hike beforehand and discovering a particular fact about Linville Gorge. More people are lost in that area than any other place in North Carolina–at least that was the case at the time. There’s a reason for that. Most of that area is designated as wildnerness which means the trails aren’t marked. And, sure enough, a friend of mine and I got unexpectedly stuck overnight in Linville Gorge about six years ago. We weren’t lost, but we couldn’t get out in time before one of the worst summer storms in years rolled in. The Linville Gorge trail, hiked from end to end is an extremely rugged and difficult trail to navigate. There are almost straight up and down areas you have navigate, and there are lots of rocks to either twist or break a leg or fall from a very long distance to more rocks below. If you’re lucky, you might end up hitting the river. I remember trying to hike that trail and how there were areas where you had a sheer wall to one side of you and maybe 18-20" of space to hike on before it dropped off on the other side of the trail. It was wet, muddy, and extremely slippery. We knew it wasn’t worth trying to hike that narrow trail in those conditions, so we set up camp for the night. But, before we did, I can say that trying to hike that trail in those conditions was one of the scariest experience’s I’ve had outdoors.
Not too long ago, I wrote an Editorial named "The Case For Common Sense" where I talked about two female hikers that got lost while backpacking in Alaska. You can visit the link for the entire article. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I would like to point out a few things for those folks thinking about going into the great outdoors. First, if you can, travel in at least pairs if not in a group. Hiking alone, especially in a rugged wilderness area like Linville Gorge is an extremely dangerous proposition. If something happens to you, there you are all alone. You’ve got no one to help you and nobody knows that you’ve got a problem. And, it’s not always the trails or slippery rocks that can get you. You could get a snake bite (Linville Gorge is famous for their Timber Rattlesnakes) or get stung by something and suffer anaphylactic shock.
Second, when you go out, take the right precautions and be prepared. Most people remember to take food and water on a day hike, so that’s a start. But, most people also end their preparations right there. Another precaution you should take, epsecially when going out alone, is having a way to signal people and/or to be found. There are many ways in which to signal people, but the most common are either signal mirrors or very loud emergency whistles. Though the trail along the Linville Gorge is quite rugged, I do know that during summer time, there are a lot of people around that general area. In particular, there are several pull-off camp sites along the rim of Linville Gorge. So, more than likely, there were people camped out at the top of the gorge while Jacob Holly was crawling out to seek medical attention. Three short bursts on an emergency whistle is the universal distress signal. I don’t know if Jacob had one and it didn’t work for him, but it’s always worth mentioning to folks and certainly worth having on the trail.
Another signalling device that people can take with them into the wilderness or on a trail are aerial flares like those that are typically carried on boats. Orion is probably the best known maker of aerial flares and offers lightweight personal models for people to carry in their packs while out in the wild. I always have these with me as a back-up to the signal mirror and emergency whistle. Keep in mind that these are not fireworks. They are designed to burn out while still in flight, but if not fired at the right angle, there is a risk of starting a fire in dry areas. That means use these only in an emergency!
Another signalling device that’s a little more high-tech, a little pricey, but worth it’s weight in gold if you find yourself in a situation like Mr. Holly. That device is the Personal Locator Beacon. You can refer to my other editorial about all the specifics and the best places to get information on them. Essentially, they are kind of like GPS units because they work in conjunction with satellites orbiting overhead. However, instead of getting satellite information to tell you where you are, these units reverse the signal and send out a distress call to those satellites. That distress call is relayed from the satellites to authorities on the ground along with your exact position. It’s a matter of getting help to you in minutes rather than hours or days. If you knew for sure that you would one day find yourself in an emergency situation in the wild, how much would you pay for a Personal Locator Beacon then?
A lot of people I know stock their bags with food, water, tools, fire-starting equipment, water filtering devices, and so forth. That’s great and they are better off than 95% of the people who take off into the wilderness. But, when you experience a catastrophic event that creates a medical emergency for you in a remote area, the single most important thing to you at that moment is having a way to get help and get it fast. Think ahead and do your homework. Don’t leave that part of your plan to chance the next time you go outdoors. Just ask Jacob Holly.
To Jacob and his family, I wish him a full and speedy recovery. Good luck!