Wilderness Safety
November 27, 2023

TW: death, loss

Spending time in nature is wonderful, but it can come with the most serious of consequences. On November 12th, I was at a trailhead parking lot getting ready for a long day of scrambling up and down Mount Agassiz in the Eastern Sierra when a few people came over and asked me where I was headed. A member of their family named Marc had gone missing on the same mountain the day before, and I hurried off with extra survival stuff hoping to somehow find him and help keep him alive. I ended up being the first to find his body at about 12,800’ on the west slope of Mount Agassiz that evening, and spent a profound few minutes sitting with him before scrambling down in the dark and sharing details and GPS coordinates with his wonderful family (obituary and SAR report).

All of this left a strong impression on me, to put it lightly. Among other things, it served as a powerful, visceral reminder of how precious and delicate our time on this planet is. It also served as a reminder of the importance of wilderness safety practices, especially given that Marc was an extremely fit Navy officer on a non-technical mountain. I've been feeling moved to write about the systems and thought processes that I’ve refined for myself over the last few years to stay safe in nature, in case just one person reads it and makes a safer decision as a result. The following is separate from any specifics of what happened to Marc, and is written with the intention to share information that may help anybody reading this be safer. Also, the intention here is less about sharing specific skills/knowledge and more about introducing a broader way to think about wilderness safety within which to fit specific skills/knowledge.


To begin with, I want to emphasize the importance of approaching wilderness safety in an incredibly rigorous and systematic way. Anything else, in my opinion, is like playing Russian roulette. Maybe you’ll have a lovely time in nature, maybe your stiff lifeless body (if it is found at all) will be airlifted to your grief-stricken family. There really is this much at stake, which only a small percentage of people seem to keep top of mind when going into nature. Please don’t roll the dice. Instead, create systems.

By far the most important survival skill is to avoid survival situations altogether, which can be done through systematic preparation. If you got into a dangerous situation to begin with, no matter how skillfully you may have extracted yourself from it, you were almost certainly doing something wrong. Before every trip, I create a bullet point list of every single thing that could have even the slightest chance of killing or severely hurting me— specific to the location, activity, and time of year. Ensuring that this list is exhaustive requires a near-complete understanding of the specific environmental system (including the land, weather, animals) and how it interacts with my body and mind. Wilderness medical training and/or a decent understanding of human biology is helpful too. After making absolutely certain that the list is exhaustive, I then write out detailed protocols indented under each bullet point to reduce the probability of the given bad outcome to extremely close to 0%. These protocols generally include a combination of gear, decision making, and physical actions. If I’m unable to sufficiently mitigate every single risk, I’ll rethink what I was planning to. All of this is done before I ever step foot in the backcountry.

Providing examples might do more harm than good given how much this can vary depending on location and time of year. The process of putting this together for oneself, and the thinking and learning required to do so, also builds and ingrains a body of knowledge much more deeply than reading a ready-made system created by someone else ever could. Furthermore, the more deeply this is ingrained, the more likely it is to be accessible in situations when it is really needed, when heightened fear tends to cloud rational thought and memory (the book Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales talks a lot more about this and other aspects of the psychology of wilderness safety).

Now let’s say the systems you create are 99% likely to keep you alive on any given trip. This is nowhere near good enough. Over 10 trips, your expected mortality rate across these trips would be about 10% (1-(0.99^10)=0.096). Over 50 and 100 trips, the expected mortality rate rises to approximately 40% and 60%, respectively. The point I hope to make here is that repeatedly subjecting yourself to a minuscule risk quickly becomes an enormous risk.

I recognize that the rest of my website could give the impression that I frequently put myself in dangerous situations or am careless about my safety. While I’ve subjected myself to a lot of suffering for various photography objectives, I’m always acutely aware of maintaining a safety margin. Suffering and danger sometimes coincide but they are entirely different things. To my knowledge, there have only been two situations where I may have been in real danger. One was plain stupid before I was thinking carefully about this stuff, and one was extremely calculated where I knew full well what I was getting into from the start. The first was in Switzerland in April 2019. There were some lakes and glaciers I really wanted to hike up to and photograph. I thought I’d be able to walk along a road up a steep hillside to get there, but when I arrived at the bottom everything was still covered in many feet of snow (which would have been completely predictable given that it was springtime high in the Alps). The thought of avalanches crossed my mind but I sort of brushed it aside, telling myself that I would probably be fine. I didn’t know if or when I’d be in Switzerland again and just went ahead with what I had been wanting to do, not giving adequate consideration to the actual conditions in front of me. This is a dangerous thought process that gets people killed—the mountains and all their hazards were completely indifferent to how much effort and money it had taken to get to this spot in Switzerland. There were no avalanches and everything ended up being totally fine, but this was an instance where I hadn’t fully accounted for all variables ahead of time yet pressed on anyway. I was rolling the dice by going up there without knowing how to assess the snowpack and terrain for avalanche risk. The other time I’ve felt like I was rolling dice was while backpacking in Alaska and Canada in places where grizzly bears live. Nature can certainly be unpredictable in many ways, but often you can control for all safety-relevant variables ahead of time. For example, you never know for sure what the weather will do, but you can bring the right gear and have the right skills for the worst possible weather scenarios. With animal behavior, however, there is simply no way to fully control for it ahead of time regardless of how competent you might be. Many incredible areas in North America will never be worth it to me to visit on foot due to grizzly bear danger, but there were several spots that I decided were in fact worth it to me despite being unable to fully mitigate the risks. I still took lots of steps to greatly reduce the probability of a bad grizzly bear outcome, including creating and extensively practicing a decision tree that captured the entire logical space of possibilities in the event of a bear encounter. Doing so may have saved my life on a remote beach in Alaska. During an eerie grizzly bear encounter in the middle of the night, I managed to act perfectly on this decision tree despite being in a state of primal terror. The fear, though it helped me in some ways, was trying to drive a different set of behaviors that would have been far less adaptive in that circumstance. I continued backpacking in several other places that summer and fall of 2022, and each time before setting out I would ask myself if the small but non-zero probability of getting mauled by a grizzly bear and not growing old with loved ones was worth the upside of going to that particular location. By the end of the fall, I decided that for me personally there are quite possibly no remaining backcountry locations near grizzly bear habitat where this utility calculation tips in favor of going. Even though plenty of people spend lots of time in the backcountry around grizzly bears and most of these people are fine, there is simply no way to sufficiently reduce the risk to my liking.

My hope is that sharing all of this offers some helpful perspectives about how to spend time in nature safely. I have some other rules and mindsets that seem important but that I didn’t know where to best fit in the writing above, and thought I’d conclude by just listing them below in somewhat random order:

Going is optional, coming back is mandatory.
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
Any systems I create need to account for human error, and for human inability to adhere to a system perfectly. Leave slack in the system.
Understand where all the failure points of my systems are, and have “bail points” that occur well before the failure points. Maintain a safety margin, and set things up such that I can pull the plug by getting out or hunkering down if that safety margin gets eaten into.
Decouple my systems so that if one thing breaks or goes wrong it won’t compound causing a bigger problem than any single issue could. If I can stop what I’m doing at any time and pull the plug, this is good. For example, if I break my leg in the desert, I’m also suddenly at severe risk of dying of thirst—these things are coupled. If I break my leg in the mountains I could probably crawl to a water source, hunker down in the warm waterproof stuff I brought, call for help, and survive long enough for help to arrive.
If what I encounter on a trip diverges from mental models I created beforehand, ditch the mental models and make decisions based on the actual reality in front of my eyes. Don’t try to make the world around me conform to my mental model of the world. Do the reverse. Remain open to and curious about the ever-changing dynamics of the environment.
One especially dangerous mental model is to assume I’m still in safe civilization when I’m actually in a place where I’m unknowingly engaging with big forces of nature. There’s an invisible line between civilization and wilderness that people commonly miss if not paying careful attention, but I need to know exactly when I’ve crossed it. Just because the car is nearby or just because the area is in a national park doesn’t mean anything about how safe it is.
Over-confidence is extremely dangerous. Maintain a healthy degree of fear and humility.
More specific knowledge doesn’t necessarily equate to greater safety, and it can do the opposite if it breeds over-confidence.
Gear is basically useless without knowing how to use it properly.
Before a trip, viscerally remind myself of the potential consequences by reading about fatal accidents that have occurred in the same area I plan to go.
Just because lots of other people have done something doesn’t mean it is safe. Similarly, just because some piece of advice is common doesn’t mean it is right. Take other people’s experiences and advice into account but don’t blindly trust them. Think for myself.
If I notice a feeling of fear, take it very seriously and see if it may be pointing to anything on the exhaustive list of dangers that I created ahead of time. Emotion often picks up on cues in the environment that cognition misses.
Absence of fear doesn’t necessarily mean absence of danger. In other words, don’t rely on fear as my only alarm bell. It is very possible to be oblivious to serious imminent danger.
Fear is sometimes highly valuable and sometimes highly detrimental. Know how to use it but not be governed by it.
 The consequences of bailing when I didn't need to pale in comparison to the consequences of pressing on when I shouldn't have. Be ok with operating more conservatively than most people in terms of what safety margins I'm willing to accept.
Everything in this article applies to even the shortest of trips that seem easiest and least consequential.

A few other specific things that are probably most relevant for backpacking and non-technical climbing in the mountains, but relevant for other types of trips too:

Don’t make any committing moves. In other words, don’t go up, down, or across anything that I’m not completely certain I can do in reverse in the dark in worse weather.
Avoid no-fall zones, even if on relatively easy terrain, where a slip or fall would be consequential. If I can’t get to my destination without passing through a no-fall zone, simply don’t go (at least not without being roped up). In addition to the more obvious vertical drops, no-fall zones include ice/snow on a slope.
Avoid any spot where stuff could fall on top of me, including rocks, avalanches, and seracs.
Don’t trust the stability of any rock no matter how sturdy it might seem.
When climbing a ridge or mountain, reaching the top is only the halfway point to my goal of coming back safely. Actually even less than halfway, as descending tends to be significantly more dangerous for several reasons.
Study the area enough beforehand such that I could extract myself from the backcountry without maps or GPS, just by looking at the land and remembering where I came from.
Always tell people exactly where I’m going and carry an inReach device, a first aid kit, and enough gear to survive for way longer than I expect to be gone. And then operate as though I’ve done none of these things.
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