Small Mistakes Become Big Problems

Part I – Adventure is Just Bad Planning


It’s a great season to sit by the fire drinking hot chocolate and Bailey’s and listening to adventure stories. As a gift to you, I’ll open up my archive of winter adventures to share this Christmas week. We’ll start with one of my favorites…

Alone on Purpose” is a journal kept during a winter secluded in the Frank Church Wilderness. I lived like Jeremiah Johnson in primitive conditions for the winter of 2016. Isolated in a one-room cabin a few hundred yards from the Middle Fork River, I had no electricity, no gas, and no running water. At the end, I took the hard way home… and a break in routine snowballed into real trouble in the backcountry. Small mistakes becomes big problems.

Let’s Get Started

“I committed to seeing Cache Basin in winter and there was no reason to wait any longer. I’d leave Simplot on February 29th, go over the top to the West Fork, and get pictures of Woodtick on my way out.

I was travelling light. In addition to sleeping gear (my bag, air mattress, and a tarp), I carried a Ziploc with a base layer and socks, a JetBoil, and two small waterproof bags. The purple bag was my possibles bag; with batteries, a tourniquet, fire, and a PLB. The other sack carried food; the usual stuff plus a big wedge of cheese and two bars of dark chocolate. I hung the food bag on a nail on the porch next to the bench where I booted up. I didn’t want the cheese and chocolate to get spoiled by the heat in the cabin so I left them out in the cold night air.

lightweight backpacking
Fast and Light

I packed cheesy crescents, dates, and granola bars into the top pocket of my pack. Everything else was inside. That was my routine; I packed everything the night before so I could start without thinking in the morning.

I would walk out of the ranch and into the clouds in Cache Basin, through the mystery waiting at Woodtick, down West Fork to The B-C where I’d start a new job as caretaker in the Spring. It seemed like a perfect way for a mountaineer to end a winter adventure alone in the wilderness.

Up & Out Cache Creek

Before daybreak, I came out of bed dressed in a base layer and socks. I put on wool bibs, red and black lumberjack shirt, and tied a silk scarf around my neck. Then I pulled spikes onto my boots, tightened everything up, and pulled my yeti hat on my head. I was on auto-pilot, guided by routine developed over decades of mountaineering. With trekking poles in hand, I headed up Cache Creek away from Simplot Ranch.

improbable goals
Sketched Route up Cache Creek to West Fork

It was slow but steady progress. The snowpack was solid at lower elevations. A couple thousand feet up, I strapped on the tubular snowshoes. Thereafter, I hiked more slowly to take in the look and feel of the drainage as it changed through the day. My mood was sentimental, as if spending time with a dear friend that I might not see again.

The sun moved up, over, and behind me, so I started looking for a place to camp. I stomped out a flat spot in the snow behind some deadfall that served as a windbreak. It was not a pretty place, a little on the bleaker side of wild. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped, and snow fell for a little while.

Twilight Surprise

I opened my pack, pulled out a tarp and a down jacket, and sat down on the ground out of the wind. I was hungry and tired but not sore, and relatively safe from slides or falling trees. Intimate with winter in the high country, I was able to rest and watch the weather in the mountains, unmoved by its heavy presence and threatening scowl. I listened to winds wrestle with one another and trees moan as they bent in the wind.

small mistakes become big problems
Spiking Out on Cache Creek (Feb 2016)

I draped the tarp off a stack of deadfall to the ground so it looked like a couch. Next came the insulating mattress and the down cloud of a sleeping bag I relied on for sub-zero comfort. I pulled the lift strap on my backpack and opened the top pocket, hungry for something, and grabbed a handful of trail mix from a baggie. Then I leaned back on the couch and tossed a couple nuggets of tasty trail food into my mouth, delighted by the way the raisins and nuts and M&Ms worked so well together. I chewed and slathered my taste buds in the paste as I set up the stove to heat water for tea. There was happiness in that moment.

I reached into the pack to get food. I pulled out my purple possibles bag, tossed it to the side, and reached inside again. It should be easy to find; the teal food bag was bigger than normal this trip because of all the extra stuff. Besides the tuna pouches and oatmeal, I remembered that big chunk of cheese. I dumped the contents of the pack onto the tarp between my legs. The Ziploc was all that fell out. Not panicky, but confused, I stuck my arm up into the pack, held it up above my head, and shook it as I fished around in its corners. It was empty.

The GPS was in one belt pocket and the other pockets were empty. The top pocket had snacks, but there was no food bag in my pack.

Small Mistakes Become Big Problems

I stood up, moved the bedding, shook the tarp, and checked inside my pack again… slowly realizing the food bag was missing. Everything I needed for camp was laid out as I packed it. Just as I always packed it. I remembered packing it the night before because I had extra food. There was big cheese and suddenly I remembered my food bag was on the porch hanging on a nail.

I always packed my gear the night before a trip to make sure everything was ready. To make sure I would not forget anything. That was my habit; my routine. But I broke routine. I packed extra food and left the food bag outside on the porch. I never thought about it again. On auto-pilot, I got out of bed, grabbed my gear, and hit the trail. That was my habit, but I broke the routine.

small mistakes become big problems
The More I Know, The Less I Need

Thankfully, it was just food. Part of me wanted to be upset; I was tired and hungry and just getting started. There was a lot of work ahead. There were only a half dozen cheesy crescents and granola bars in the top pocket, a bag of dates, some figs, and a bag of trail mix. I would have to ration the snacks and be grateful for them.

I had to laugh a little bit… amused by my human being. Cheesy bread, granola bars, dried fruit, and trail mix for a couple days, three at the most. Unless there was a storm or an accident, I would be at the ranch in three days. I chewed on a cheesy bread slowly and savoured it, mindful of the reality of my plight.”

(excerpts from “Alone on Purpose“)


(Part II … tomorrow!)

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2 comments

  1. It promises to be interesting, because how to survive in such conditions with a limited amount of food and not give up at the start of the hike.

  2. Your post on forgetting the food bag because you deviated routine. Same here…if I put something down in a different place and say to myself, “oh, ill remember its in a different spot” rarely ends up with good results. Old age? Too many irons in the fire?

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