Blog     Photos   

Ill Prepared Glacier Park Hikers owe their lives to rescue workers . . .

How in the world does the U.S. National Park Service and the media depict two guys, anyone, who gets lost outdoors and survives a difficult or even life-threatening situation, as heroes? Neal Peckens and Jason Hiser owe their lives to the rescue efforts of various teams from in and around Glacier National Park. The duo likely would be dead today if not for the bravery and heroism of those who put themselves in harm’s way to find them. The two men were recently rescued after spending five unexpected nights, four huddled together on the shoulder of a mountain at 6,000 feet, along the continental divide in Glacier National Park.

Marc Ankenbauer’s friend Pat looks down on Nyack Lakes from near where the two men descended the same ridge. Photo courtesy of Mark Ankenbaur, please read his recent story and look at the photos he has of this area. Mark is attempting to be the only person to swim in every named lake in Glacier and Waterton Parks.

Glacier National Park’s Chief Ranger Mark Fouts in a press release October 16, 2012, said, “These hikers were prepared with appropriate equipment and they used their situational awareness skills to determine how to respond to the unexpected stay in the backcountry.”

I usually discount Monday morning quarterbacking, but in this instance, I think there’s a more meaningful lesson to be learned than saying, “Good job guys you did the right thing by staying put.”

Situational awareness is about the “now,” but it starts well before you find yourself in a wreck, it includes making wise decisions long before you have no choice but to wait for rescue.

A recent Christian Science Monitor article compared the adult’s situation to that of an 8-year-old child who ran too far along a trail and was lost for an hour. The child didn’t know the standard recommendation for anyone lost, which is to STOP: Stop, Think, Observe and Plan. Seemingly, that’s what Peckens and Hiser did, but knowledge is preparation and being unprepared and surviving is not heroic. It’s luck.

So while people all across the country are praising the two for staying put when lost, I’m confounded. Why the lack of attention to their failures? And why the limited accounting of the real heroes, the brave men and women who were out there on foot and horseback, and in the air looking for the men?

Let’s look at this from the perspective of a lifelong, experienced, back-country mountaineer and a person who’s been to the exact locations as these hikers many times. I understand what that environment is like, I’ve been there. I’ve lived in the Two Medicine Valley, just miles from the incident for 11 years. As happy as I am that they are alive, they failed the first rule of backcountry travel, especially when weather issues are a concern. That first rule is preparation. The men weren’t prepared. Mistake No. 1.

It is obvious to me the men have some experience, after all they did survive five nights longer than they had planned. But is this really what we consider preparation and having, in the words of Mark Fouts of the National Park Service, “situational awareness”? The two were not as prepared as they should have been. Donning expensive, lightweight parkas, strapping on high-tech boots, and throwing some nature bars into a pack is not, in my view, being prepared – especially when you’re trekking to 7,500 feet along the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park in October!

Reports indicate the two lost their map, that’s mistake No. 2. Foul up No. 3, deciding to continue to travel terrain and conditions they weren’t prepared to handle. They attempted to ascend a part of the trail, that by their own account was snow covered and as it turns out, much too dangerous for their skill level and or the gear they had with them. At that point, turning back is the proper decision. Being prepared is about knowing the risks, knowing personal limits, and basing decisions on those factors. The men stated they go lost when they lost the trail. With snow on the ground, what did they expect, route markers and signs along the way? These two men took a chance, in a place they clearly did not know enough about. Had it been a nice summer day with an open trail, I’d have said go for it. Not in October, at elevation, in the wilderness. Once the duo reached the section of the trail where snow began to hinder their efforts, again, they should have turned back! They were just a five or six mile hike down a flat glacial valley to the warmth and safety of their automobile and the road out. It seems their urge for adventure and lack of preparation got to them and made them decide to leave Old Man Lake area and safe exit. Next they hiked though the steep snow crusted rocks and that almost cost one of them them their life. In addition, their poor decision and lack of preparation put over 50 searchers at risk.

Being prepared means you know your limits. I think these guys would agree. Had they known where they were and yes, drawn mental maps of basic escape routes as they traveled (and in case they lost their map), they could have either turned back and walked out the Dry Fork from Old Man Lake, or after descending into the Nyack drainage to Nyack lake, they could have continued down the valley and found the large maintained trail that leads to Highway 2. Granted, the latter is a longer hike, but they would have been safer. They would not have continued to put themselves in a life threatening situation, nor caused a huge incident that required others to risk their lives and use up rescue resources.

Instead, they went higher trying to find their way back to the Two Medicine Valley! They went up and further increased their risk of dying – this AFTER they knew they were lost, and after they had almost slid down the mountain though ice and snow. That’s not being prepared, that’s not “situational awareness,” that’s being unaware of the risks and foolish. It seems to me that they did not really stay put until they wound up in a place where they had no other options. They were ill prepared, made poor life and death decisions, and did not have a severe weather emergency plan in place. They clearly had not set any basic ground rules for a bail plan. A bail plan is the emergency escape route and actions taken in used in worse-case scenarios. They apparently did not have a plan. They were not prepared.

As to their heralded situational awareness, had they stayed at the lake, once they knew they were lost, they would have been found days sooner. They didn’t seem to be aware at all. They made five critical mistakes: 1) They should have turned back as soon as things got sketchy, 2) They were not prepared for winter travel in the backcountry, 3) They did not have the skills necessary to be in the environment in the first place, 4) and they did not have plans to address emergencies should something go wrong.

Remember, we’re not talking about a summer hike up the Hidden Lake Trail. We’re talking about being out overnight 17 miles into Glacier National Park wilderness in October.

To reiterate, I’m happy they are alive. I am grateful to the searchers who saved them. But please, let’s not glamorize folks who make huge mistakes and poor decisions as heroes. These two men put themselves in the position to get into serious trouble by not knowing their limits, taking on too much risk, and not having a back-up or bail plan. That is inexcusable. That’s called preparing to cause and incident. Let’s say what it really is, a lesson for all — about staying put when you’re lost, but more than that it’s about not going into as situation you can’t handle on your own.

I hope, as we see these guys making their rounds on the morning talk shows to gloat about their harrowing experience one mid October week in Glacier National Park that we also see them swallow their pride and tell the world about the mistakes they made rather than taking credit for being prepared and staying put when lost. They’ve been given a second chance at life. I’d like to see them use it to ensure no one else makes the same stupid mistakes.

Sincerely, Tony Bynum

Tony Bynum is a full-time professional outdoor photographer from East Glacier Park, MT. He has more than 25 years of backcountry experience including alpine mountaineering and has, since his first major expedition at the age of 18 where he spent 25 days crisscrossing the North Cascades on foot, lived an outdoor adventure lifestyle. He’s trained in wilderness survival and backcountry first aid. He’s led myriad backcountry trips with people whose safety was his responsibly, and he’s climbed more than a dozen peaks in Glacier National Park, including all that surround the location where the lost hikers were found. He’s also a father and a compassionate friend who cares deeply about Glacier National Park and human safety. I’m also an inReach user: DeLorme inReach Two Way Satellite Communcator for Smartphones

19 Responses to “Ill Prepared Glacier Park Hikers owe their lives to rescue workers . . .”

  1. Shannon Downey says:

    Tony – I agree with you 100 percent. The fact that they survived has to be attributed at least as much to luck as to any skill or judgement.

    I learned many, many years ago that you don’t go peak bagging in the Sierra – much less the Crown – without being prepared for that oh so possible August snowstorm. October? That’s sheer foolishness.

    As the saying goes, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”

  2. Tony says:

    Well put Shannon. I actually had not even thought about it like that. But you bring up a great point! I will say that risk, and adventure are very much apart of my life, as they always have been, but I do what I can to reduce the risk while maintaining the adventure, sometimes you have to be better prepared than you’d like to be. . . That’s just the way it is . . . Tony Bynum

  3. […] Viewpoint: Ill Prepared Glacier Park Hikers owe their lives to rescue workers . . .  Tony Bynum asks why the NPS is depicting those who got lost as […]

  4. Courtney says:

    Thank you for posting a different take on the story, since the media clearly won’t. I’m so happy for these guys — and the man’s 8 month pregnant wife, whoa — but the top brass’ commentary on the whole affair — or lack thereof — is just as bad as Backpacker magazine putting Floral Park on the cover of their rag as a “day hike.”

  5. Jon Erdmann says:

    This is an awesome read Tony, and should be a requirement for anyone taking such a hike in Glacier National Park. Even I have a SPOT Satellite locator, but I still would not have attempted this hike in October.

    I would love to hike the park, but I will not venture off on my own as I need others to go with me… just in case of a medical emergency.

    I love your article and again, this should be a must read for anyone venturing the trails of Glacier National Park.

  6. LLD says:

    I’m with you Tony. We must use situations like these to teach people proper preparation and actions in the backcountry. Thanks for presenting an “educational” viewpoint for people to consider.

    • Tony says:

      Thank you LLD, and thank you for all your help! I really hope people see this for what it is, a different yet important and compelling perspective that can help save lives . . .

  7. Steve Primm says:

    Good post, Tony.

    Something I’m working on: recognizing things I’m not going to change, and not wasting energy on them. One of those things: the mass media — and their audience of sedentary, TV watching Americans — and their tiny attention span. The subject/victim’s first-person tale of courage and survival will always draw their attention, with the its very human angle of existential fear (am I going to die out here? is help coming? what do we do now?) is always going to sell like hotcakes.

    Anything we can do about that? YES! While we can’t do anything about the media and the appetites it encourages, I think there is something that agencies and SAR volunteers can do: In exchange for free SAR services, subjects should submit to an After Action Review, no punches pulled. They should sign a summary of the mistakes that led to their predicament, along with an agreement as to how they will portray themselves to the media — that is, a full accounting of their mistakes and a plea to other backcountry travelers to NOT put others at risk having to go out in a storm to find them.

    Don’t want to go along? Here’s an itemized bill for SAR, and we’ll do our best to get our story out there.

    As others have said, everyone makes mistakes, and we all hope that we can rely on compassionate, dedicated professionals to come to our aid. But it would sure help to encourage accountability, better planning, and better judgement, if people would fully own up their mistakes and discourage others from making similar, avoidable mistakes.

    • Steve Primm says:

      I lived in Colorado in the early 1990s, and the GNP situation recalled the Aspen backcountry skiing SAR of 1993 — during a very bad avalanche season. Interestingly, the media kind of ended up shredding the lost party, deservedly so. Most of the party owned up to their mistakes:

      “Rescued Colorado Skiers Tell of Mistakes : Survival: At news conference, three say they were unprepared for blizzard and that errors in judgment caused group of seven to become separated.”

      http://articles.latimes.com/1993-02-25/news/mn-773_1_news-conference

      See also this link:
      http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/123386373.html

      Scroll down to Tom McCabe’s account of Torp SAR:

      ‘Torp [group leader who chose to set out in blizzard, go lost two hours in but wouldn’t turn back] flew in a private jet from Gunnison to Aspen, headed toward the Ritz Carlton and some serious partying. He told our local news, “We’re going to light up Aspen,” which made people kind of sick. He went on Nightline and explained away their bad decisions by saying they were there for the snow! Meanwhile, the rescue cost Pitkin County more than $20,000, not to mention the time and effort of all the volunteers.

      Miracle in the Mountains? It was a miracle we didn’t murder anybody by the time it was all over.’

  8. Tony Bynum says:

    Thank you guys for taking the time to support this blog and my thoughts on the issues. I think we all have similar thinking on this and can see that there are better ways to do things. . . I think Steve’s got an awesome idea! I love it steve, i’d sign the pledge right now as I’m usually the guy that comes back and rather then tell anyhow how much fun we had am telling them about the mistakes we made . . . People, please have fun out there, have an adventure but please understand that when you put yourself in harms way, you put other’s in harms way. Do your best to be prepared, and if something should happen, and we all know it will sooner or later, be humble, and as steve points out, praise the people who bailed you out, and tell the world what mistakes you made . . .

  9. Jo Flick says:

    Tony,

    You make several good points and I would like to add one more critical error – these men didn’t have any plans to check in with anyone on their scheduled day of departure. Perhaps they had planned to go off their itinerary all along…but the search started days later than it should have.

    We are all delighted that this SAR had a happy ending (two of them)…but let’s be mindful of who the real heroes are in this story.

    • Tony says:

      Jo, you make a great point. Thank you for providing additional incite into the facts of this matter. I was not aware of their trip planning process. But your point should be at the top of anyone’s preparation for a backcountry adventure. Always file a plan and make sure you check in before you leave.

      I must also mention on more thing. Before spending a summer in the remote parts of Montana I purchased an InReach and a Delorme GPS unit and signed up for the service.

      The InReach is like the spot but better. I’ve tested the SPOT with moderate success. I tested the InReach, and it worked great. The nice thing about the InReach and Delorme (you can buy one that works with your smart phone too) unit is that you can send, via satellite specific messages base on current conditions. In an emergency you can hit the emergency button and the InReach will send out your location. The nice thing about the InReach is that you can communicate specifics! InReach allows TWO WAY communication via a satellite signal, you can update social media too, that means you can post to facebook if you need help, and in that message you can post what kind of help you need!!!!!! You can actually type in a short message and receive responses too. The service is about $120 per year. They make models that work with smart phones too! Cheers, Tony Bynum

  10. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for having the courage to write this up. I know that too often I keep my personal opinions to myself, afraid to ruffle people’s feathers. But these are situations that many people can learn from if they are analyzed correctly. It annoys me how often we call survivors ‘heros.’ There is definitely a time and a place for that (Shackleton comes to mind!) but a lack of preparation and putting the lives of rescuers in danger is nothing to take lightly.

    I think you’ve done a great job of outlining the mistakes you think these men made. This kind of information will help other hikers/backcountry users make better choices. Often I wonder how people get “lost” in the mountains. I can understand a flat-landed forest, but not a place where there are significant waypoints and features in the terrain that naturally lead people down and out. But it happens. And I know that sometimes I play with the odds and leave certain items behind thinking I’ll just be out on a day trip. The reality is, I may not be lost, but I may twist an ankle and end up spending the night out in frigid temperatures. We could all use a bit more thought and preparation.

    My husband and I are also Delorme InReach users. I highly recommend this tool.

    Thanks again for a great post! I’ll be re-tweeting it from @the_campsite.

    Meghan

  11. Tony says:

    @meghan j. ward, thank you for taking the time to comment. I also think you for being honest and candid. I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous about writing this because I did not want it to be read as just a Monday morning quarterbacking or the commentary by a guy who’s mr smart all the time. I took the risk of even making some people unhappy with me, namely the national park service and even some of my clients. However, it think it needed said.

    Lets be real. I’m an adventurer and outdoor photographer. I may someday get lost, or stuck in a bad situation. I’d hate to have people dissing me should that ever happen – heaven forbid. But, I will be the first one to admit my short comings and gratitude to people who were there to help. Moreover, as you stated, we all can be more prepared. That is the reason I pointed out know your limits, know your capacity and don’t take unnecessary risks, particularly when you know the risks are real. . . We do learn from our mistakes, but making life and death mistakes when they can be avoided is unwise. Thanks for the twitter mention, I’m following you and please, if anyone wants to stay connected, follow me too! @tonybynum Thank you, Tony Bynum follow @the_campsite too!

  12. […] and hunkering down to get discovered. A local photographer and outdoor enthusiast Tony Bynum had an insightful piece here on their plight and who the real heroes were. I tend to share his […]

  13. Dmitry says:

    Completely agree – the main mistake not to stop once the escape routes became questionable. Also – why in our days would you go on hike like this without GPS…actually two GPSes (one per each). If you have working GPS you could at least backtrack to location where you came from even in white-out conditions when compass/map navigation gets problematic. and yes, should they carry inReach or SPOT most likely it was not search and rescue but straight rescue.

Leave a Reply