One September not too long ago, a friend and I were on the last half-mile of the return leg of the Elk Park trail on Pikes Peak. It was 4 p.m., and the winds were picking up with a building chill in the air as the clouds moved in. We had already been to Barr Camp and were now 8-plus miles into the hike. At 12,000 feet elevation, we ran into a couple going down the trail. We stopped and chatted for a minute, as hikers are known to do on the trail, before they asked, “where does this trail go?” My friend and I looked at each other in amazement. Did these people really have no idea where they were going?
That was exactly the case. They had no idea where the trail was leading them, oblivious to the impending weather change and they didn’t appear to be properly equipped — a recipe for disaster. We gave them directions to a nearby landmark, suggested that they go no farther than that, and return to the trailhead soon. We never heard of any search and rescue operation in the area after we left, so hopefully they took our advice and made it back to their car without any problems.
You can say you know better than these folks because you always know where the trail goes. OK, but consider this: you’re hiking/biking/running along your favorite trail and BAM, you’re sprawled on the ground after tripping or running into a large rock or tree root. You’re writhing in pain and looking at your increasingly swollen, badly bruised body parts, and realizing you’re not able to get back to the trailhead. Or maybe you’ve lost track of the time and now you’re out on some unfamiliar trail, night has fallen and you don’t have a flashlight — you’re officially lost.
You’d be surprised (or maybe not) by how many people can’t answer these questions. Knowing the answers can dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes emergency responders to get to you. The sooner you get medical attention, the sooner you’re relieved of pain and anxiety, and the sooner you start on the road to recovery.
I can’t count how many calls for help I’ve listened on a radio scanner as emergency responders try to rescue someone injured or lost in one of our parks — or worse yet, stuck on a rock in the Garden of the Gods without appropriate climbing gear. Valuable time is lost, and responders are sent hither and yon on frustrating searches, all because the person on the phone has no idea where they are.
Don’t be that person. Pay attention. Take the time to ask yourself one question while you’re on the trail: “where am I?”
Everyone seems to have stories about helping out the unprepared in wilderness areas. Have you done this? Have you been the person in need? We’d love to hear your story in the comments!
Now, you need help.
As much as you hate to do it, it’s time to whip out the cell phone (you did bring your cell phone, didn’t you?) and call 9-1-1. The first thing the 9-1-1 operator will ask is, “where is your emergency?”
So, where are you?
Telling the 9-1-1 operator you’re “somewhere” in Red Rocks Canyon Open Space, or that you’re somewhere on the 4-mile-long Columbine Trail, isn’t going to cut it. When time is of the essence, and a life may be in the balance, you simply must know where that “somewhere” is.
Do you know the name of the trail you’re on? If it’s a US Forest Service trail, do you know the USFS trail number? Do you know how many miles you’ve covered since you entered the trail? Do you know the distance to the nearest trail intersection or landmark (it may still be ahead of you)? Do you know the location, or address, or even the name of the trailhead you started from?