Random thoughts

I was at the edge of a cliff, contemplating a little scramble to get onto a rocky ridge that looked slightly more interesting than where I was. I was slightly nervous because it was very cliffy. As I looked at my two route options, I realized that the easier route was actually very easy. But, then I asked myself, “What would happen if I slipped or lost my balance?” My answer: “I would die.” There was no doubt about it. I decided to enjoy the view from where I was.

Last week, I was working on a swiftwater safety poster that points that, when near the river’s edge (or crossing it), you should look where the current will take you. As I was at the cliff’s edge, I realized this was good advice for hiking, too, especially when off trail. “If I slip here, where will gravity take me?” It’s not so much that you should never take risks–life is full of risks–but that you should at least be aware of the risks (and their consequences) so you can make an informed decision.

If you didn’t see it when it came out a few months ago, you really need to take an hour or two and read Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch of The New York Times. Not only is it a presented effectively, with audio and video nicely incorporated into the article (in a non-intrusive way), but  it’s just a great read and really interesting if you like to think about how people get themselves in trouble while recreating outdoors. In this case, a group of experienced, skilled, and (mostly) well equipped backcountry skiers went out for a quick backcountry ski, with tragic results. Even if you’re not a backcountry skier (I’m not), this story contains a lot of lessons about communications and decision making within groups. I found this article especially interesting because I’ve been involved with preventive search and rescue work the last few years, and especially this past year, when we started up a preventive search and rescue blog. I’ve been working with the amazing YOSAR staff to try to figure out how to more effectively communicate search-and-rescue-related safety messages (which, after all, is very similar to trying to more effectively communicate wildlife & food storage messages, which I’ve been doing for many years). So, anytime there’s a story like this one, I think of it through the “how did these people come to this decision?” mindset. Our last post of the season contains some of the lessons learned in 2012, including links to all of this year’s posts. (Disclaimer: our posts aren’t as well written or as interesting as Snow Fall is!)

Several people have had fatal accidents in Yosemite this year, which has brought up the question of why people die in Yosemite. In his classic, Staying Alive, Ranger John Dill mentions three states of mind that cause people to die or be injured: ignorance, casualness, and distraction.

Ignorance may be the most important of these, at least for casual visitors. I don’t mean to say that casual visitors are unintelligent, but many of them are ignorant. Put me in a rural town in China and I’m ignorant. Put anyone in a place they’re not very familiar with and they’re ignorant. (By calling some casual visitors ignorant, I’m not insulting them–just saying that they’re not fully aware.)

Three people slipped into the Merced River and went over Vernal Fall recently, yet they were no more ignorant and only slightly less lucky than dozens, if not hundreds, of other Yosemite visitors that day. Many, many visitors get too close to the water in dangerous places every summer day without realizing the peril they’re putting themselves into.

An article in which a coauthor of the great book Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite tries to explain how these accidents occur says, “But this is all conjecture. No one has survived one of these and has been able to say” prompted me to ask John Dill why these accidents happen. After all, plenty of people have gone into the river and almost over the waterfall, and he has 40 years of Yosemite search and rescue experience, which includes countless victim interviews.  Not surprisingly, he gave me a great insight.

Slippery slope below the Mist Trail

Here’s a section of the Mist Trail. It doesn’t look very scary (to most people) and most people wouldn’t be too scared to walk along the left (river) edge of the trail. Yet, a slip from the trail would result in almost certain death–if not from the slide, then from the river below (as happened this year and in 2009). Indeed, the slope you see here is just as dangerous as a 3,000-foot cliff. But people don’t perceive it that way. Most people have an innate fear of cliffs and are (usually) extra careful when less than several feet from the edge. However, along this section of trail, most people don’t exercise the same amount of care because it just doesn’t look as dangerous as a cliff.

Rivers and creeks in Yosemite attract people, if not just for the joy of being close to water, for some practical reason like washing their face or getting drinking water. But, in many places, these rivers and creeks are also just as dangerous as a 3,000-foot cliff, and most people don’t perceive them that way. This may explain why the three people went over Vernal Fall–they didn’t understand (they were ignorant of) the danger of the river and, as a result, made a poor (ignorant) decision. Like most people, they didn’t have an innate fear of the river; they didn’t equate the river with a cliff.

Most people also don’t understand how that “cliff” known as the river is surrounded by a slippery slope (literally)–the smooth granite adjacent to rivers is slick, and extremely and surprisingly slippery when wet. So, while some people are un-ignorant enough to avoid going into the water, they’re just ignorant enough to feel safe on the figurative crumbly rocks (slippery slope) at the edge of the cliff (river). I’ve known rangers who’ve made this mistake. I’ve made this mistake. My ranger friends and I made a poor (ignorant)  decision, but were just slightly more lucky than the three who went over Vernal Fall.

So, “ignorance” isn’t just a lack of knowledge, it may also be a lack of instinct, at least in some cases. Once again: a slippery slope or a river is just as dangerous as a 3,000-foot cliff.

Ignorance leads to casualness, one of the other factors. Casualness can operate on its own, though, and perhaps explains the case of the two hikers swept off one of the Wapama Falls bridges as water flowed over it [see also this near miss] and perhaps also the case of the hiker who fell off the Half Dome cables during a thunderstorm (where wet, slippery rock and/or lightning may have been a factor). In these cases, I believe these hikers knew the risk (i.e., they were not ignorant) and made a judgment call, which turned out not to be a good one. Travel in the wilderness involves a lot of judgment calls and any experienced wilderness traveler has made plenty of bad ones, but a little extra skill or luck has prevented tragedy. Crossing a high creek is akin to dashing across a road with oncoming traffic because you think you’ll make it across just quickly enough to avoid getting hit. With decent judgment, you usually will. But not every time.

The third factor, distraction, can affect even the most careful person. This was probably another factor in the Half Dome incident, given the storm and the fact that lightning struck Half Dome around the time of the fall (it’s not clear, to me anyway, whether lightning was a factor or not, but undoubtedly, the storm was distracting and probably also caused the hiker to be rushed).

Finally, I should point out that many people have scolded all of these victims for crossing a bridge with swiftwater flowing over it, for going over a railing and into the water immediately above a waterfall, or being on the Half Dome cables during a thunderstorm. We’ve all made similarly bad decisions, but were a little luckier and possibly more skilled/better prepared than these six people. I’ve gone off trail and put myself into potentially dangerous situations before. Anyone who has spent time in the wilderness has done the same, and has a story (or two). In the urban environment, you’ve sped up to get through the intersection before the light turned red, rushed in a left turn with oncoming traffic, and maybe even made an unsafe pass.  In these cases, we all made poor decisions. We’ve been ignorant, casual, and distracted, and the only difference between them and us, between living and dying, was a little luck and maybe a little extra skill.

I saw an article like this one maybe a year ago and was intrigued by the concept that not thinking about a dilemma can lead to a better decision than obsessing over it. In fact, since I read that, I’ve let this process help me out with lots of little, unimportant decisions. It seems true: not thinking about a decision I have to make seems to work better than debating it constantly, whether the decision is big or little.


Why ‘Sleeping on It’ Helps

By John M. Grohol, PSYD, PsychCentral.com

posted: 26 October 2009 06:59 pm ET

We’re often told, “You should sleep on it” before you make an important decision. Why is that? How does “sleeping on it” help your decision-making process?

Conventional wisdom suggests that by “sleeping on it,” we clear our minds and relieve ourselves of the immediacy (and accompanying stress) of making a decision. Sleep also helps organize our memories, process the information of the day, and solve problems. Such wisdom also suggests that conscious deliberation helps decision making in general. But new research (Dijksterhuis et al., 2009) suggests something else might also be at work — our unconscious.

Previous research suggests that sometimes the more consciously we think about a decision, the worse the decision made. Sometimes what’s needed is a period of unconscious thought — equivalent to “sleeping on it” according to the researchers — in order to make better decisions.

Read the rest of the article…

Of course, I have a particular bias toward Yosemite, but California is full of amazing places, and many of these amazing places are very close to Yosemite.

I was lucky while in college to take several geology, geography, and biology field trips to the Owens Valley/Mono Basin/eastern Sierra, east of Yosemite. (OK, I didn’t so much enjoy the geology field trips–those were hard work… I almost changed my  major from geology because of those trips!) But, since then, I’ve only spent a little sporadic bits of time on the east side. But, I took four days off in a row over July 4th weekend and spent some time wandering the area.

Here are some highlights:

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Because I worked in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias for a few summers, I might be a little biased toward sequoias, but while they can get a few thousand years old (and really big), the bristlecone pines can live up to around 5,000 years old. There are living bristlecones that were alive probably around 3,000 BC! The ironic thing about these trees is that the oldest trees are the ones that live in the harshest environments. Plant a bristlecone pine in a nice mild place and it won’t live anywhere near 5,000 years. Plant it on a harsh, frigid, windy mountainside at 10,000 feet and it might well live for thousands of years. Perhaps we can learn a lesson about life from these trees. (“According to the difficulty is the reward.” -Talmud)

Since I hadn’t visited these trees in about 15 years, I’d forgotten about the view from around the grove. The views of the Sierra are amazing! I think I actually enjoyed the view more than I enjoyed the trees.

Sierra crest from near the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Sierra crest from near the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Bristlecone Pine and the Sierra

Bristlecone Pine and the Sierra

Bristlecone Pines and the Sierra

Bristlecone Pines and the Sierra

Mono Lake

Perhaps the most famous attraction on the east side is Mono Lake. It’s a great place for birding, for relaxing, for photographing, for canoeing/kayaking, and for seeing sunset.

Mono Lake, tufa, and the Sierra at sunset

Mono Lake, tufa, and the Sierra at sunset

While both Mono Lake and the Bristlecone Pine Forest could easily be national monuments–they’re both nationally significant for both scenic and scientific reasons–the fact that they’re not means they’re not quite as visited.

Moving on to the cultural realm…

Bodie State Historic Park

Bodie is a ghost town unlike most–what you see is what actually existed at the time of the town’s demise. California State Parks maintains the buildings (and the buildings’ interiors) in a state of arrested decay. What you see is how it was left, not how someone wants you to see it. What’s left is less than 10 percent of the mining town that once had around 10,000 residents.

Church and other buildings at Bodie

Church and other buildings at Bodie

Note: Bodie and a portion of Mono Lake are state parks threatened with closure by California’s budget woes. (Learn more…)

These are just a few of many, many wonderful places in the eastern Sierra. Get a map. Take a drive (and a hike).

From bears to food… I suppose it’s not big of a leap, is it?

Tonight, I had a portobello mushroom burger. I figured I’d share my makeshift recipe. (Credit goes to my friend/coworker Lauren for inspiration.)

I think I more-or-less made this up on my own, but I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that I copied this from somewhere or if someone else does the same thing.

I use a barbecue to grill two large portobello mushrooms, a few slices of red bell pepper, and a halved tomato (putting the halves on top of foil make it a bit easier to manage)… I brush all of these with olive oil on both sides (this not only prevents sticking but helps with juicyness). I also chop up some red onion and put it in a foil packet with more olive oil. I grill all this for about ten minutes per side on a medium flame.

For a bun, I usually use two whole-wheat buns and add some swiss cheese (easiest to broil this in a toaster oven for about 10 minutes). I usually put the portobello first, squish the tomato half over the portobello, then add the red pepper and chopped onions.

That’s it! Really good.

This is a great post about saving the world by saving animals.

NRDC: My Daughter Saved the World! So Can You

The Jews and Muslims share a saying: If you save a life, it’s as if you saved the world. They’re referring to humans; I would go a step further to include animals, too.

Frankly, I would not have said so a few months ago. But that was before Pidgie. (Read more…)

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