Alone, Alone

The wilderness is neither inherently dangerous nor inherently benign; it is simply indifferent. It doesn’t know you’re there, or care. If you’re there alone, your chances of Old Mother Nature putting paid to you (as the British say) are greatly increased. Two recent wilderness deaths point this out eloquently.

The first casualty was, in fact, a retired British Army officer named Henry Worsley, a 55-year-old who was attempting to walk across Antarctica, completing the unfinished journey of Sir Ernest Shackleton in the early 20th century. Worsley covered 913 miles in 71 days before succumbing to dehydration and exhaustion. Only 30 miles from journey’s end he radioed for help and was airlifted to Puntas Arenas in Chile, where doctors discovered that he had peritonitis, and were unable to save his life.

Worsley was attempting the walk for charity, but he was also following the lunatic British tradition of plunging into suicidal arctic adventures and paying for it. At his age, he should never have attempted the feat. If there had been someone on hand who, much sooner, had said: “Henry, you’ve had enough. I’m getting on the radio.”, he might have made it. We’ll never know.

The second case did not get as many headlines. On October 14, 2015, surveyors discovered the body of Geraldine Largay, a 66-year-old Tennessean who vanished from the Appalachian Trail in Maine in July, 2013, and was never found despite an intensive search. The medical examiner ruled that she died from inanition, a combination of exhaustion, dehydration, starvation, and exposure.

She perished in her sleeping bag, in her tent, which was only a mile from the Trail. The overhead canopy of branches kept her hidden from the air, and the tent contained her scent, so the search parties missed her. Somehow she became lost and was unable to get out of it. If there had been someone with her who had a better sense of direction, they might have said, “No, the trail is this way,” and something that simple might have saved her.

And if you go on an extended hike alone, at 66, you’re automatically asking for it. That’s the age at which s**t happens, no matter what kind of shape you think you’re in.

One of the most needless deaths, although not a recent one, was described by Jon Krakauer in his book Into the Wild, in which he tells the story of a Carl McCunn, a Texan who decided to live on his own in Alaska for a while, and was flown into a remote cabin by a bush pilot. However, McCunn forgot to give the pilot a pickup date, and as time went on, he began to starve and run out of ammunition.

About the time McCunn realized he was in deep trouble, he got a miracle. A plane flew low over his camp. McCunn waved at it with an orange sleeping bag cover and pumped his fist in a victory salute. Because the plane was wheeled it couldn’t land, but McCunn was sure he had made his point, and packed to leave. But no floatplane ever came. He later realized why, and wrote about it in his diary.

One arm raised is the universal sign for “Everything OK.” Two arms raised means “I’m in trouble. Need help.” The pilot mistook his fist pump for the OK signal.

McCunn neither starved nor froze. He blew his brains out with one of his last rifle rounds, and state troopers found his body some time later.

If one is lacking in common sense and basic knowledge, one should take along someone who has them. It can make all the difference.