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Learning from Ken's Ordeal
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Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Learning from Ken's Ordeal on 05/04/2009 00:10:36 MDT Print View

The specifics about what happened to Ken and how he managed to get through the week have still not been reported, but his experience certainly has gotten me and a lot of others thinking and evaluating our own risks and preparations. After Ken was found I ruminated over what happened to Christopher McCandless (whose story was told by Jon Krakauer in "Into the WIld", and who died from starvation in a bus in Alaska) and what the differences and similarities were. Part of me applauds Ken's resourcefulness and ability to keep his head on his shoulders in what must have been a scary situation. The other part of me recognizes that what happened to McCandless may seem foolish in retrospect, but, just as Ken found himself in a situation that he couldn't foresee and in spite of knowledge, skill, and preparation, he still found himself in, perhaps McCandless had done the best he could and circumstances dictated the outcome.

One of the reasons I so much respect peoples like many Native American tribes, the Inuit, the Sa'an (Bushmen), and the Aborigines is the traditional abilities to survive in environments that most of us wouldn't have a clue how to deal with without all our technology and backup. They have great knowledge coupled with an outlook and temperament that gets them through the day-to-day realities of living on basics in harsh environments. Learning what they know and how they often approach problems and challenges is part of what makes being a backpacker so interesting for me. For instance, a friend who works with me at my university who has long lived and studied with Athabascan people described how their sense and awareness of time is completely different from ours, relying a lot more observation and less on being somewhere at a certain time. He told me that it often made doing business difficult, but that outdoors, in the wild, it it much better compensated for the way seasons and weather and daylight hours work. I've often wondered if my evaluation of my safety and understanding of the terrain I walk actually loses some vital information by my gentrified view of the natural world. What could I learn to change?

What do others think they have learned from their involvement with the outdoors and backpacking that they couldn't have learned anywhere else, and what do you think you might benefit from learning in the future?

Edited by butuki on 05/04/2009 00:18:37 MDT.

cary bertoncini
(cbert) - F

Locale: N. California
brings up a good point on 05/04/2009 00:35:12 MDT Print View

most of modern, "civilized" life is based on arbitraries: clock time, deadlines, profit/loss ratios, etc.

outside, particularly as survival situations approach, is absolute, never arbitrary

i stopped wearing a watch years ago & i have 3 part time, flexible jobs because i have some health needs that have forced me to live in a more absolute, less arbitrary way

with the exception of a few days per month, i sleep or rest when i'm tired, i wake up when i'm done sleeping, i eat when i'm hungry & i try to arrange and re-arrange work to fit with my high and low energy/health days

the more and better i do this, the better i am able to live - i make a lot less "profit" than i did before, when i tried to adapt my body to society's arbitraries, but i crash and burn a lot less

survival is the same, only more extreme: anything that doesn't matter immediately to body temperature, energy level, hydration, etc, is extravagant: arbitrary

our society trains us to have a stimulus/response neural network for these extravagances, arbitraries - in survival situations, the more and faster we can deprogram and focus on absolutes, the better we can survive

cultures/societies/individuals without or with less programming for extravagance are at a survival advantage

Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: brings up a good point on 05/04/2009 01:07:25 MDT Print View

Lets not forget that we in modern civilization also have a very romantic idea about what primitive life is like. Lets not forget that it was our primitive ancestors who lived close to the land that invented civilization to improve their lives. Thats not to say that modern civilization doesn't have serious flaws of its own ( and don't we know it!) -obviously poets and writers have been expressing how we lost something when we strayed too far from our land.
survival is short term by definition and other cultures lived- not just survived off the land and they did it as a community not as lone individuals. In fact banishment was a SERIOUS punishment and could result in death by exposure or capture and enslavement by other tribes if found.
This is the topic of many great books that have and will be written.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Learning from Ken's Ordeal on 05/04/2009 09:50:44 MDT Print View

Ken's getting lost has no similarities to Chris McCandless' tragic death.

Ken took a couple of wrong turns, decided he was not going to find his way on his own, and stayed put as he should have. Admittedly, I don't have the details.

Dan Cunningham

Locale: Land of 12,000 Loons
Re: Re: Learning from Ken's Ordeal on 05/04/2009 09:59:17 MDT Print View

Ken's getting lost has no similarities to Chris McCandless' tragic death.


Edit: Here's a link to what happened: Lost hiker obeyed the rule

Edited by mn-backpacker on 05/04/2009 10:03:57 MDT.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Learning from Ken's Ordeal on 05/04/2009 10:28:08 MDT Print View

Ken's getting lost has no similarities to Chris McCandless' tragic death.

Yes and no. The circumstances, attitude, goals, and background were very different, but both were situations in which someone's safety in the wilds was at stake. Both required similar measures in order to make it through, McCandless' decisions being supposedly foolhardy, Ken's wise and resourceful. From all I've read McCandless could have made it out alive if he had been more careful and not burned bridges. Ken on the other hand made sure that people knew where he was and did what was needed for people to be able to find him.

I really don't see why the two different stories are all that different in the ultimate goal: to survive and make it through alive, hopefully with as little hardship and energy spent as possible.

Steven Hanlon
(asciibaron) - F

Locale: Mid Atlantic
the last season on 05/04/2009 10:30:34 MDT Print View

i recently read "The Last Season" which details the search and background for James Randall Morgenson. this book is full of lessons for anyone who heads into the back country. the key lesson is staying put. there was some concern during the search for Morgenson that he was on the move and that spread the search area into a hopelessly massive number of square miles.

i have thought about how i would handle being "lost" and if i'm uninjured, i figure as long as i have my pack, it's really no different that being on the trail - i'm still relying on my self, my gear, and my experience. as long as i don't panic, i should be ok. as long as i could find water, i could last more than a few days since the six pack has grown into a mini keg ;)

each trip i bring home a new lesson, and after reading the trip reports of others, i seem to always take away a new idea or have a behaviour reinforced. sharing mistakes is important, you never know who can learn without having to relive the "no socks" disaster you just went through.

Nate Meinzer
(Rezniem) - F

Locale: San Francisco
Setting a Fire on 05/04/2009 10:45:57 MDT Print View

I was talking about the search for Ken Friday night with a friend who was wondering how long he'd be okay, and I said, well, if he has water, he can probably last a good while. To which my friend replied, "Yeah, but I'd get bored waiting and set a fire to attract attention."

Which turned out to be a great plan.

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: the last season on 05/04/2009 12:08:24 MDT Print View

> i have thought about how i would handle being "lost" and if i'm uninjured, i figure as long as i have my pack, it's really no different that being on the trail

That's what I figured out for myself, too. I wasn't lost, but I was trying to get somewhere and couldn't. I began to panic a little as night closed in. Then I realized that hey wait a minute, I have shelter, food and water. I'm home. I can get where I'm going tomorrow.

Aborignals aren't trying to survive in a world "out there". That's their home and they just live in it.

scott burgeson
(DrDystopia) - F

Locale: Upstate NY
Starting a fire on 05/04/2009 17:14:44 MDT Print View

I have a question about starting a brush fire to be located.

I have never heard of this as a survival technique when lost. I have heard of signal fires but never lighting an out of control blaze.

I have the feeling that this could be more dangerous then helpful. This fire was over an acre when the fire department showed up and expanded to 2 acres before going out.

Now I am glad that Ken is safe but if this had expanded to square miles before coming under control would this still be a small detail? Many people in CA have lost their homes because of a fire set by others.

I am looking for constructive discussion on when it is acceptable to start an uncontrolled fire.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Starting a fire on 05/04/2009 17:32:39 MDT Print View

"This fire was over an acre when the fire department showed up and expanded to 2 acres before going out."

Please read Here for how this came to be.

Scroll up to Brandon's post.

Edited by greg23 on 05/04/2009 17:35:21 MDT.

scott burgeson
(DrDystopia) - F

Locale: Upstate NY
fire on 05/04/2009 18:17:41 MDT Print View

The fire had to be contained by the fire department. Regardless of the size the person who started the fire would not have been able to put it out on his own. The question still stands:

When is it acceptable to purposefully start a fire you cannot yourself control?

Without knowing the response time of experts and the speed which the fire will spread there is no way to gauge how big the fire will be before help arrives.

This seems like an Catch-22 to me.


Joe Clement
(skinewmexico) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
Learning from Ken's Ordeal on 05/04/2009 18:57:14 MDT Print View

You guys talk like an out of control fire is a bad thing. Forests would be better off.......

Ashley Brown
(ashleyb) - F
What I learnt about iphones on 05/04/2009 18:58:41 MDT Print View

What I learnt from Ken's ordeal...

... don't buy an iphone. The batteries are lousy.

... or at least resist the temptation to use up your feeble batteries by blogging shortly before you get lost!

Ken could have had quite an entertaining blog if he had been using another type of phone:

Day 5: Still lost. Very glad I didn't buy that iphone, batteries much better on this one. Have been watching youtube videos all week and downloading the last season of "Lost". Also that film with Tom Hanks and the volleyball called Wilson on the desert island. I don't have a volleyball to talk to, but am getting pretty chatty with my caldera cone whom I have named "Vulcan". My new NeoAir (called "Squeaky") is extremely comfy and it's difficult to muster the enthusiasm to get out of bed and find the trail again. Stay tuned for another post tomorrow. Am thinking of lighting a fire to alert rescuers once I finish watching Lost. Using a signal fire is pretty clever and I bet I can hook up an endorsement deal for "LightMyFire" fire steels and sporks etc. Not to mention endorsements of this phone, which just keeps going and going!

Edited by ashleyb on 05/04/2009 19:19:44 MDT.

Tom Caldwell
(Coldspring) - F

Locale: Ozarks
Learning from Ken's Ordeal on 05/04/2009 19:04:45 MDT Print View

Carry more water than absolutely necessary.

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
My thoughts on what can be learned on 05/05/2009 07:46:51 MDT Print View

We all make mistakes. I know I do. Ken is clearly a sharp guy with a lot of experience and friends but here's my take on possible lessons learned.

One thing every hiker should plan for is how to become reoriented after losing the trail. Most of us would use some combination of compass, GPS, maps, etc. Obviously Ken's limited vision is central to what happened and he didn't have the tools he needed to prevent the need for rescue. I think it is fair to say that one or more of the following would have been reasonable precautions and likely would have prevented the situation: an experienced sighted hiking partner; a working GPS, Sat. phone, PLB, or SPOT.

I fought wildfires for about 25 years and encountered several situations where lost people had started wildfires. Starting a wildfire is a big deal. It's very hard to tell how big it will get, what will be destroyed, how much money spent, or how many people hurt or killed.

Three controlled and widely-spaced signal fires in a row is a much better choice and will very likely be noticed by searchers for what they are.

Regardless, welcome back Ken, and may you enjoy many more days of hiking in the coming years.

Edited by Colter on 05/05/2009 07:47:50 MDT.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Lessons Learned - Carry a GPS? on 05/05/2009 09:07:03 MDT Print View

I am completely uninformed on the capabilities of a good GPS.

Would a current generation GPS operate under the tree cover found on this part of the AT? (And if not, I assume a PLB would also fail.)

Is the jumble of trails there beyond GPS resolution?

Is a "Track Back" function available and usable?

Just curious.
In theory it seems like a good idea.

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Treecover and modern GPS units on 05/05/2009 11:56:20 MDT Print View

The new high sensitivity GPS units should do the trick in heavy tree cover. They are a huge improvement over earlier models. Tree cover was once a big issue. I can't recall one time where trees have completely blocked my newest GPS from getting a "fix." I just tried my Garmin Legend HCX right here in my log cabin (metal roof and away from the windows) and it has a solid fix on about 5 satellites with an estimated accuracy of +-35 ft.

Many trails and side roads will not show on a mapping GPS, but of course they don't have to in order to use the GPS to reorient oneself.

There are numerous ways to use a GPS to find your way out, and the Trackback function is one of them.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Treecover and modern GPS units on 05/05/2009 12:09:50 MDT Print View

It's good to know that the newer versions fair better under canopy. After that it seems to be a matter of how to use your tools.

Thanks for the input.

Dylan Skola
(phageghost) - F

Locale: Southern California
Out-of-control signal fires on 05/05/2009 13:07:34 MDT Print View

For me the classic cautionary tale of out-of-control signal fire was the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego. Lost hunter sets fire, gets rescued, 15 people died and a lot of people I know lost everything they owned.

Of course, dry SoCal brush in Santa Ana season is a whole different ball game than spring on the AT, but I think the take-home message is clear. It was enough to make me banish forever any remaining thoughts of "if I'm really lost I could just start a small forest fire."

In Ken's case it sounds like he kept building progressively-bigger signal fires while waiting to be rescued (exacerbated by the late awareness of his missingness), and the last one accidentally got out of control. Although apparently not terrifyingly so, because according to the one news article he was still in camp with tent set up, and only started packing once he heard rescuers (in other words, the fire wasn't threatening his camp, which it sounds like was on the other side of the stream from the fire).

To me the interesting questions are:

1. It was only when the signal fire got out of control that he was found. How much longer would rescue have taken if his signal fire stayed in control?

Obviously this is just speculation, but someone involved in the SAR might have an idea of when they would have likely intercepted his position given their plan and existing evidence (assuming a conventional small signal fire).

2. Would he have been justified in _intentionally_ starting a blaze if he judged that the forest was wet enough that any such fire would spread slowly and be easily contained (as was in fact the case)?

This is a tricky one. For me in the West I would say no, because even if you had the expert judgement of a fire professional (and few of us do), you could still easily be wrong enough (including weather variability. Witness the number of "controlled burns" that lose the "controlled.") to cost someone their life, and taking that gamble with other people's safety is not justifiable What I'm curious about is whether people think that equation would change in the East? How bad is the danger of out-of-control forest fire? How predictable?

Edited by phageghost on 05/05/2009 13:13:02 MDT.