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Experience versus mistakes

10:28 a.m. on February 22, 2010 (EST)
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This thread is for comments on the article "Experience versus mistakes"

A lot of people come to Trailspace to learn from and share advice with fellow outdoorsy people, one might call them experienced people.
Well, as Oscar Wilde put it: “Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes.”
And sometimes it seems like there's no better personal teacher. Here are a few examples of what I've learned through e...

Full article at http://www.trailspace.com/blog/2010/02/22/experience.html

12:36 p.m. on February 22, 2010 (EST)
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That wasn't the ice "whumpfing" - it was the beaver, letting you know s/he was annoyed at you for tramping on his/her roof {;>D


Yes, everyone, whether they admit it or not, makes mistakes. The main thing is to pay enough attention to what's happening that you can catch the mistake early enough to recover. One of the things I include in my Trip Management sessions is that few disasters are the result of a single catastrophic happening - they are almost always the result of a chain of small mistakes that add up until it is too late. By paying attention to that "whumpf" you were able to break the chain.

One of the most famous (infamous?) disasters in mountaineering history was the end result of the Wilcox expedition on Denali in the 1960s. The blunders started with the Park Service pushing the two expeditions which the NPS felt were too small to combine. The two groups never really merged and the leadership and organization was never very clear. A second mistake was their modification of their Optimus stoves (the "suitcase" style) by removing the heat shields from the fuel tanks to reduce the weight. A third mistake was refueling a stove inside the tent with another stove running within a couple feet (that destroyed the tent that the whole party was in in 10 seconds, according to the various books, along with one of the sleeping bags and a couple down parkas). Possibly the critical one was splitting the party on the summit day, with part of the group descending, one person staying at high camp (suffering from altitude and other maladies), and the other 5 heading for the summit despite threatening weather. There were lots of other mistakes as well. Maybe you can "get away with" the "little" mistakes. But sometimes they just continue adding up.

I, on the other hand, never make misteaks .... or leave my ice tools at home in the garage while I head for ice climbing in Utah (800 miles away), or ... Or maybe I just keep it down to 2 or 3 minor mistakes and one major blunder a day.

12:53 p.m. on February 22, 2010 (EST)
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Another ice lesson: a heavy full-grown man on cross-country skis is exerting fewer pounds per square inch against the ice than the two feet of a 14-year-old boy walking behind him.

I fell clean through and he was on thinner ice in front of us -- fortunately the water was only waist deep; had it been over my head I probably wouldn't be here today.

5:03 p.m. on February 22, 2010 (EST)
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It's a mistake when it happens & experience when you dust yourself off.

It is both.

6:06 p.m. on February 22, 2010 (EST)
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I'm famous among my friends for a terribly embarassing, and potentially life-threatening, mistake. On my very first backcountry camping trip, I left a few of my 10 Essentials half way up the mountain we were day hiking. (Hey, they were too heavy!) The remnants of a hurricane were hovering over the area, and I ended up soaked, exhausted, freezing, and hungry. I will forever remember the "experience" I gained that day. I've never worn cotton into the backcountry since. I also keep my Essentials with me ALWAYS, although most of them have been replaced with lighter weight versions. :)

6:53 p.m. on February 22, 2010 (EST)
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I have neaver made a missteak eather Bill Q.

Regards frozen lakes, unless you're in Minnesota and you see cars parked on them, stay off them. In the far north they use frozen waterways for roads, don't try this without experience.

Don't stop!!!!!!!! When the ice breaks try to keep both skis as flat as possible spreading the weight over the maximum area and shuffle along quickly in the CORRECT direction. If your foot breaks through, that's the wrong place to stop. I was once the fourth guy in line (being the beginner following experts) skiing down a lake; the other three made it but weakened the ice, my boot went through, and afterwards they didn't even believe me. Again do not stop there!!!!

NEVER GO TO THE EDGE OF THE ICE TO GET WATER. I danced for about ten seconds as the ice broke and sank under me constantly shuffling closer to the shore as the next piece of ice broke, without skis it wouldn't have been pretty. I know a guide who rescued her own party after a client ignored her and crossed a lake, they then helplessly watched the next party all drown.

Whumphing is more the sound made by an unstable snow field telling you that it wants to avalanche.

Regards avalanche - most anyplace that looks like a nice clear easy ski slope is most definitely an avalanche slope. Skiing across one cuts the connection of the snow to the snow above it and is one of the primary reasons for skier induced avalanche. Skiing straight down does not weaken the connections above you. You can weaken the snow field almost as easily by crossing at the bottom as at the top. NEVER SKI IN GULLIES WHERE YOU COULD BE BURIED. You will not be rescued under 30 feet of snow.

Jim Q

7:59 p.m. on February 22, 2010 (EST)
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Regards frozen lakes, unless you're in Minnesota and you see cars parked on them, stay off them. In the far north they use frozen waterways for roads, don't try this without experience.

Every single winter here in Maine snowmobiles, cars, and trucks go into the lakes right around us. It's already happened several times this winter.

It still boggles my mind that someone will drive a truck out onto a lake and park it, regardless of how thick the ice may be. There are people who run dive services that specialize in vehicle recovery.

As for the whumpfing sound, it's interesting because I know it's the distinctive sound of snowpack shifting on avalanche slopes, but it's also the exact same sound I heard out on that flat pond this weekend, which included some snowpack on top of much, but not all, of the ice: a large whumpf, then cracking (audible and visual). My husband heard it from shore too. My son was oblivious a ways behind me ("why are you skiing backwards, Mom?") as he kept on skiing toward me.

It wasn't a truly dangerous situation since we were not on a deep or large body of water, we got off right away, and had someone watching us. It will serve as a good reminder to why I never go out on frozen water alone.

8:16 p.m. on February 22, 2010 (EST)
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Shtring, you just cut to the chase and got some valuable outdoor experience on your very first outing. Just think of all the future trips where you didn't make those same mistakes!

Bill, I completely agree about the compounding of mistakes. When I look back on the bigger mistakes I've made, they are never the result of one mistake, but a series of mistakes (or "compromises") made previously. Once I read Laurence Gonzalels's Deep Survival I understood better how these mistakes can happen.

9:45 p.m. on February 22, 2010 (EST)
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What's worse is when you make mistakes, nothing happens, so you don't realize you are making a mistake and continue to repeat the same mistakes again and again.

Now that I'm older, I wonder how I survived my teenage years. Example, friends and I would go rappelling quite frequently either on a nearby 100-foot rock cliff or a local fire tower. I was obsessed with anything military at the time, so while all my friends were using nice rope, I had to go out and buy the military-issue rappelling rope. I used the thing over and over. When I actually got into the Army, I found out they only use the thing a maximum of three times and then throw it away. The things fray easily and I'm lucky I didn't get killed.

I look back and just think of all the mistakes I made from some of our tubing adventures to heading up to a 6,000 feet summit in early Spring with nothing but a poncho liner because I read a book that Army Rangers used those for sleeping in Vietnam. (By the way, the Smokies in early Spring is not Vietnam. I have a cold, shivering night to help cement that point)

But I guess I did learn from those mistakes. Now I know my lessons and can hopefully point to sleeping a lot better during the night as proof of that.

11:20 p.m. on February 22, 2010 (EST)
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Rocklion

Excellent points. I used to rappel on a rope made in boy scout camp from hemp twine. It was great until I tried a Hollywood rappel and dropped nearly to the ground before braking, I hit the poison oak sort of hard. I cringe when I think of all of the close calls, some one wants me to be alive for some reason and that gives me the willies...

I started counting really close calls and decided to stop at 20. I was gonna write an article about what I learned but it gave me the chills when I started to remember the things I had suppressed from memory. By the way, do not breath cyanide or hydrogen chloride. Oh god that just sends chills down my spine, suppress suppress...

Jim S

12:11 a.m. on February 23, 2010 (EST)
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Alicia:

It's funny you should mention Laurence Gonzales' book DEEP SURVIVAL as I took it out me with on my last backpacking trip and took some careful notes. Here's one interesting quote:

"Some high-angle rescue workers call body bags "long-term bivvy sacks." GONZALES.

And then there's his story of paddler Gary Hough on the Illinois River in Oregon and its class III-IV and V rapids which attracts paddlers. Hough "knew that with his level of skill he could run the Illinois at flows between 900 and 3,000 cubic feet per second." It started raining and Hough pulled out to sit tight and watch. "The environment had changed, and he adapted." GONZALES.

He was smart to do so because "The river rose 15 feet and the flow eventually would reach 20,000 cubic feet per second." Good god, 20,000 feet per second? Anybody who's been by a raging river can understand and be shocked.

Hough said, "There's the roar of the full-throated river, but on top of that, as if it's a layer you pick up and remove, there's the hiss. That hiss basically says, 'keep your distance." It was still run by five on a raft, three kayakers, and then five more kayakers, and of these, two died.

"One woman . . . was carried 5 miles downstream before she was able to get out." As Gonzales said, quoting John F Kennedy, "There's always some son of a bitch who never gets the word." ALL QUOTES LAURENCE GONZALES.

THE HISS

The reason I quoted all this stuff is the thing about The Hiss and how it relates to many wilderness experiences. The Hiss is that borderline between a regular day in the woods and a time "when you best keep your distance." There's the engorged river Hiss, the winter cold Hiss, the ridgetop extreme wind Hiss, the high electricity lightning Hiss and of course, the rattlesnake Hiss.

HERE'S MY THEORY--THE X-Y-Z SCALE

Experienced backpackers have an inner X-Y-Z scale to judge their safety, with the vertical X being air temperature, the horizontal Y for snow depth, and the Z lateral for wind speed. For those who spend a lot of time outside, this scale gets huge, much bigger than the newbs tiny postage stamp scale. Death comes when the cold or the snow or the wind goes 'off the scale'. The three in combination brings high adventure for some, death for others.

Robert Falcon Scott talked about how walking and hauling their sleds at -50F was much different and 'easier' than doing it at -70F, it made all the difference, so much so that they all perished in their little canvas 4 poled tipi tent.

"DEEP SURVIVAL" CONCLUSIONS(My summary with quotes):

** Avoid impulsive behavior and don't hurry. I call it my Go Slow policy.

** Know your stuff and know the system you're entering.

** Commune with the dead: "Read the accident reports in your chosen field of recreation." "The mistakes other people have made."

** And here's my favorite: Be humble. "Those who gain experience while retaining firm hold on a beginner's state of mind become long-term survivors." ALL QUOTES LAURENCE GONZALES.

2:20 a.m. on February 23, 2010 (EST)
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Accident/incident reports such as those in Accidents in North American Climbing or posted on websites like the YOSAR (Yosemite SAR) site or the Arthur's Pass (NZ) SAR site can be very enlightening.

I just got back from a two day trip to Mt. San Jacinto above Palm Springs and had a bunch of things go wrong- among them, ill fitting ski boots, tippy sled that kept rolling over and bad navigation on my part that combined, induced me to cut my trip short. But, live and learn.

9:42 a.m. on February 23, 2010 (EST)
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I once ran out of water at the outermost point of a loop trail. I was only carrying a 1L Nalgene bottle and grossly underestimated what I would drink. It was about 3 miles back to the trailhead, close enough that my hiking buddy and best friend could share from his Platy, but needless to say I went right out later that day and bought a bladder of my own. I now carry no less than a full 3L bladder, and I usually supplement that with the trusty Nalgene and another smaller bottle that I use for sports drink mixes.

10:21 a.m. on February 23, 2010 (EST)
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In Minnesota cars and snowmobiles go into lakes each and every winter. It's very common to see cars and trucks parked on lakes. On larger lakes they actually plow roads so fisher-people can get to their favorite spots. I believe ice fishing houses have to be removed by the end of the month.

As a youth I used to cross country ski over the local lakes all by myself. Had I dropped in they would have found me after the spring thaw. That was really stupid, I'd never do that again regardless of how cold it was outside.

10:39 a.m. on February 23, 2010 (EST)
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Deep Survival is an excellent book, Tipi. Thanks for sharing all those notes from it.

Back to ice, we have some large lakes right around us. While much of the ice is safe all winter, with ice fishermen and snowmobiles regularly out there, a few spots never freeze due to streams and other moving water (this is why I'm always suspicious of ice).

Every spring a couple of snowmobilers come up one weekend and go as fast as they can jumping the widening water gap over and over and over again on the lake across from my house. I can hear it all day long, and while I do not wish anyone ill, there is a small part of me that waits to hear a splash.

10:54 a.m. on February 23, 2010 (EST)
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Alicia,

Yeah, I jumped in with both feet. Sometimes literally. The creek crossings were tame going up, but were just out and out dangerous coming back down. The next day was dry, warm, and sunny. We should have just hung out around camp for a soggy day and gone for the summit the next day. Lesson learned, though.

Yock,

While on our way out of the woods that trip, we came across two ladies in their late 60's about 8 miles from the trailhead. They were in tennis shoes, shorts, and t-shirts. Only one of them was carrying a nearly empty 20 oz. water bottle and their perfume smelled strong and really fruity (like bear food). No raingear, no shelter, no compass, not even a pocketknife. They looked more exhausted than we did after 6 days in the backcountry. They were completely lost because they were using a small, non-scale map on the back of a trifold pamphlet. They thought they were on a short loop, but they were heading straight for the backcountry. We showed them where they actually were on our National Geographic map and filtered some water for them from the creek. They followed us back to the trailhead. It made me feel a whole lot better about my mistake two days earlier.

10:03 p.m. on February 23, 2010 (EST)
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If it were not for my mistakes, I would have had no experience. Some were good some were bad, but when I stand or lay at my time of death will I ask myself, was it worth it, life I mean? Or would I want to go back and change a few things? No, I think if it had not been for the mistakes, I would not have learned somethings so well.

1:29 a.m. on February 24, 2010 (EST)
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What's this mistake thing y'all are talkin' about? Are you by any chance talkin' about opportunities to overcome? Or maybe the not-quite-so-famous "auxiliary mission challenges"? There's also a particular sub-species called the "Congressional aide"--might that be what you mean? I've encountered the Supplemental Readiness Testing System in some of the strangest places, too. (And by the way, the Group Derivative Variant of the SRTS can be a real sum-beach, lemme say.)

When one starts with a typical day (did I hear someone say "SNAFU"?), adds in a grade-three auxiliary mission challenge and then encounters an unannounced application of the Supplemental Readiness Testing System, Group Derivative TWO or higher, well, all you need then is some form of Congressional aide to get things to complete and utter FUBAR. At which time it's best to stop and have some fortifying drink and take inventory of the cashews left in the bag of trail mix. 'Cause you're not getting home tonight. But you've certainly got plenty of opportunities to overcome....

1:30 a.m. on February 24, 2010 (EST)
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...but don't worry, hemp'll get us out of it!

1:22 p.m. on February 24, 2010 (EST)
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I've only almost gotten myself killed a dozen or so times ;)

"Deep Survival" is excellent. It is truly comprehensive in the sources of information and experience that are brought together in a marvelous and compelling manner.

I also recently read "Lost!: A Ranger's Journal of Search and Rescue" by Ronald Schmidt and Dwight McCarter, a compilation of SAR accounts of various incidents in the GSMNP. It is quite an eye opener. Almost all of the accounts I have read from SAR journals involve the victim making multiple small mistakes or bad decisions that resulted in a dire situation.

I have been there. I realized it when I was several miles underground in an extensive cave system, without a map, and without many of the ten essentials. The "Oh Shit" moment happpened when it became apparent that one of the members of our four-person group was unable to get himself out of the cave. Oh, did I mention we are about 3 miles underground at this point? I also learned that day that I don't panic in an emegency. Definitely something good to know. But I aslo learned that I hadn't been responsible going into the situation. Because someone else had organized the caving trip, I didn't take ownership of making sure we were all capable and propely equiped. Even though I had brought virtually all of the safety and survivial gear we had with us, I had failed to make sure even I had everything I should have had, and failed to make sure everyone else did as well.

I hope that am able to learn well from the advice and mistakes of others, but I think my own mistakes have taught me lessons much more vividly. It's one thing to read and hear what can or will happen, it's another to live through it.

2:04 p.m. on February 24, 2010 (EST)
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Reminds me of a vital lesson for attending group outings: assume you will become separated from the group and lost.

I went on one group outings where the leaders didn't really know where they were going and got us all lost/turned around. Couple of us rookies were totally at their mercy.

Ran out of water and had to walk 3 dry miles in 90 degree heat. Not such a big deal now but it was an eye-opener at the time.

2:14 p.m. on February 24, 2010 (EST)
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Yeah, I now assume I will have to fend/provide for myself, and more than likely help someone else out as well. There are only a couple of people that I completely trust in the outdoors, and it seems that on any group outing, either they, or I, or both end up helping someone who wasn't prepared. I don't mind too much because at one time I was the one without knowledge and gear, and also I just love introducing the uninitiated to the outdoors.

1:23 a.m. on February 26, 2010 (EST)
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I almost stepped off Glacier Point in Yosemite once, at night during a heavy snow flurry. I was looking for a place to camp in midwinter 1980 with some friends. We were on snowshoes. It was after dark and we had decided to make it to the top of Glacier Point before stopping for the night. For me it was a almost fatal mistake. But having only a few summers of experience and this was my first winter camping trip, I didn't worry about it. I had been to the top before in summer and thought we would be okay. We were looking for the observation building.

Foreground the railing I stepped up to.

I was conserving my flashlight batteries by looking ahead with it, shutting it off then taking three steps and repeating the process. At one point when I turned on my light the snow appeared to be falling into space ahead of me, like down a steep incline. (I can still see the image in my memory, happening in instant replay). I tilted the light downwards until I saw that the railing to keep one back from the edge in summer was now right beneath my snowshoe.The snow was drifted to about 4 feet deep on the edge of the cliff. Had it not been my third step I would have fallen over the edge and lost.

I was 24 years old that spring of 1980...


Tourists in summer at the railing.

8:53 a.m. on February 26, 2010 (EST)
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I've stood there a number of times -- the mental image after reading this gives me the willies.

10:55 a.m. on February 26, 2010 (EST)
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I only know a couple of guys that I feel certain can take care of themselves and I don't have to keep an eye on them, they are all high altitude alpine climbers and one is Bill S. I mentioned that I was gonna write a book about my near fatal close calls, but as I started to remember more and more I started having nightmares. SO I put them back in the things to forget spot in my mind.

I fell through a cornice once on cross country skis and fortunately there was a tree sticking out just below me. I had just finished zipping my pants when suddenly I was hanging upside down in a tree with snow all around me. All in all it was extreme luck. And it happened about a mile from the truck. In fact almost every time I have had a really close call I was just a short way from my truck.

Jim S

2:19 p.m. on February 26, 2010 (EST)
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Despite Jim's exaggerated confidence in me, every once in a while I discover that I am falling into the "fat, dumb, and happy" frame of mind. As gonzan noted, when you are with an "expert guide" who planned this outing and supposedly knows the area like the back of his/her hand, it is all too easy to fall into the "passive client" mode. This is one reason I very rarely make use of guides. The only time I do is when some significant logistical arrangements need to be made that I am unfamiliar with (permits, reservations, totally new environment, difficulty of access on one's own, such as Antarctica in the Sentinel Range) or there is some local legal requirement (for example, the Tanzanian National Parks generally require that non-citizens hire a local guide, and on Kilimanjaro, guide, porters, and cook). The second reason is that a made-up group seems to always include at least one complete idiot who has no experience (but may have a huge amount of hubris or super macho) or someone who is totally crazy (I think here of "Crazy James" on one of my Denali climbs).

Anyway, it is all too easy to fall into the situation Tom M described - the guide/trip leader is experienced (right!), familiar with the area (sure!), and experienced and trained (uh hunh!). So you go along like once of the cattle or sheep who are being herded, only to wake up and discover that you actually know a bunch more than the supposedly responsible person, or that the guide is seriously distracted by his "herding the cats" or trying to deal with the "idiot" or "crazy". For this reason, I do a lot more observation when on a guided tour than when I am solo - it is just too easy to fall into complacency, since this "experienced expert" is going to take care of all of us. That does not mean questioning the leader's every move, of course, just observing and trying to understand what's happening.

Don't misinterpret, though. I find that 90% of the time, a carefully selected guide is completely competent and provides more than the extra cost. But as a friend who is a long-time professional guide says, "guides can make mistakes and fall, too."

4:09 p.m. on February 26, 2010 (EST)
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Bill S

I've found that the follow the leader thing is really a dominant thing in the way a lot of women approach the wilderness or even rock climbing. A male is leading, why should they worry? Or look where they are going? Or worry about safety? A female friend of my wife was a gym climber and got 6 weeks off and went on a "climbing odyssey" around the west. I met her in Yosemite on her last weekend and we climbed. In 6 weeks of climbing with studly guys carrying the pack and leading, she never once lead Or even placed a piece of pro.

I took her up to Tuolomne meadows and up to a short cliff near Lake Tenaya with great cracks and made her place pro all day. The next day we went to the Valley and climbed on the Apron. I lead the first pitch and when she came up I handed her the rack and pointed to a crack. It was her first lead of the 6 weeks. I scolded her about dumbly following men up dangerous rock without a plan of her own, no escape plan, no idea how to rescue a fallen leader.

Whenever I'm out with my Alpine friends I assume that they have "seen the devil" and can take care of themselves. I only one guy who ever flew a plane with broken wings though.

Jim

6:47 p.m. on February 26, 2010 (EST)
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Jim S said [with missing word added]:

Bill S
... I [know] only one guy who ever flew a plane with broken wings though.
Jim

Who, me? It wasn't my fault or intention that ATC didn't tell me about the severe thunderstorm right on my route during an IFR flight. That was one of the 6 or 7 lives I have lost out of the 9 allotted.

12:16 a.m. on February 27, 2010 (EST)
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Jim S wrote:

In fact almost every time I have had a really close call I was just a short way from my truck.

Jim, if I were you, I'd sell that truck.

April 19, 2014
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