There are plenty of ways to die in the backcountry. We read about them in the news all the time. People get lost in the desert, drown in rapids, fall in a crevasse, plummet off a mountain, suffocate in an avalanche, get mauled by the local megafauna.
It’s scary as hell, but in the outdoor industry, we all know that it comes with the territory. Every time we take a risk in the wilderness, a little voice in the back of our head reminds us what’s at stake. Every time a new story makes the headlines, we can’t help but think, Man, that could have been me.
But what’s scarier than dying out there is dying for something stupid. Something random. “Yeah, that’s awful she was mauled by a bear but she probably shouldn’t have stashed that pound of beef jerky in her sleeping bag.”
If we are ever to face death too soon, we hope it’s for something honorable (or at least out of our control). “Damn, that’s awful she was mauled by that hyper-aggressive bear. But did you hear about those 14 stab wounds she inflicted on the way out?” If I die young, I hope that’s what you chat about at my funeral.
Of the infinite fatal mistakes we could make, most of them are small and embarrassing. Plenty of near-death experiences could have been avoided. Like that one time scaling a canyon wall in the desert without ropes, or when I lost my footing on the snow shelf of that 14er, or that time I missed my line kayaking through a rapid way out of my skill level. In all those moments, I was pure and honestly scared. But at some level, I knew about the risk. Never had fear or near death caught me off-guard.
That is, until last weekend.
Last weekend, at 2:30 AM, I thought I was about to die. But it wasn’t for something very exciting, noble or interesting. In fact, it was for something pretty dumb.
After a long trail run through Kings Canyon National Park, my boyfriend Taylor and I set off to look for a place to camp. But it was tourist season in California and Kings Canyon was crowded. Our chances of finding a walk-up site within the park were slim.
Having to be at the airport at 5:30 AM the next morning, we didn’t care too much to find a cool spot. We just needed to find somewhere to crash, flat and wide enough for a 4×7 tent. We drove into the national forest.
There, we found an isolated dirt road with a few overflow pull-outs. About a quarter-mile in, we parked the rental car at the edge of a long, narrow dead-end trail. An old fire ring suggested that this spot was as good as any and that no one would bother our tent here. It was remote and cozy and we were happy.
At 8:30 PM, we set up camp and shared a local craft beer. We sat in our camp chairs, toasted a great day and marveled at the fact that everything in our campsite had come from a carry-on bag. Oh, what great minimalists we are.
We sat and visited about big life stuff, in the way you do after a fantastic day of being sweaty and exploring wild places. Occasionally, we paused to hear limbs creak in the wind. “The trees here are so incredible,” I remarked for probably the third time that day.
A little before bedtime, what sounded like a very large limb or small tree cracked and smashed onto the ground nearby. It was a long creaking ordeal that made my mouth drop and eyebrows shoot up. “Dude, did you hear that!?” I asked, as if there was any way he didn’t. “Oh man, that one was intense.”
We retired not long after that, with exciting thoughts of love and our future swimming in my head. We set our alarms for 3:00 AM to make sure we’d make it to the airport in time.
But there wouldn’t be any need for alarms. At 2:27 AM, we both jerked awake. Something was creaking and whining very close to our tent and it was getting louder and louder. A tree was falling nearby and it was heading this way.
With little time to react, Taylor and I pushed ourselves into a corner of the tent furthest away from the danger. Never in my life had I thought anything would force me cower in a corner, but here I was, still wrapped up in a sleeping bag. I pressed myself hard against that nylon tent fabric, as if I could actually escape this danger.
Memories from the news flashed through my head. A few months ago, a 21-year-old woman in the nearby Yosemite National Park was killed by a falling 200-foot tree. For ten very long and agonizing seconds, that’s all I could think about. No, no, no, no.
3, 4, 5 seconds of loud creaking were followed by 6, 7, 8 seconds of loud crashing. It sounded as though the tree was ripping the whole forest down with it. I held my breath and Taylor held my hand. Holy shit, are we about to die?
9, 10 seconds. The tree smashed onto the forest floor nearby and the ground shook. We were unharmed. The tent untouched. Taylor and I exchanged glances in the dark, and I swallowed the quart of vomit that was resting at the back of my throat.
Taylor and I sat there in the dark, wide awake, eyes like dinner plates. 2:28 AM.
The silence was deadening. Did we really almost die just because we hadn’t performed a thorough sweep for dead trees? Yes. Yes, we had. When was the last time I had actually done that at camp?
I was absorbed in my afterthoughts when Taylor whispered to me, “Hey, should we be making noise?”
That caught me off guard. “What? Why?!”
“Wasn’t that a bear?”
I couldn’t help but snort-laugh, the adrenaline settling and a huge knot growing in my throat. “Honey, that was a tree. Why did you think that was a bear?”
“I don’t know. I just heard the creaking and I thought he was sprinting at us. Running through the forest.” He made little kicking motions with his fingers. I laughed until tears welled up. I wished I had thought it was a bear.
Through the silence, bats began squeaking outside. “Aww,” he said. “Now those birds don’t have a nest.”
“Those are bats.” I told him, still laughing. I don’t know who he was trying to make feel better, himself or me.
Without missing a beat, he corrected himself, “Aww, now those bats don’t have a nest.”
We giggled together too hard, like lunatics who only a few moments before thought they were about to die. There were less than thirty minutes until our alarm would go off, so I asked him, “Do you want to get a headstart and head for the airport?” It wasn’t hard to convince him.
We broke camp, swept the area of our gear and loaded up the car. I never even saw the tree. I didn’t want to see it. I had faced my first real, unexpected, near death experience – a rotted tree in the national forest. In so many ways, it could have been worse.
I’ve thought about that moment a lot since then. Death and near death – they come with the territory. But that’s partly why we’re so spellbound by this wilderness. We go camping, hiking, climbing, exploring to make contact with our roots…To escape a cushioned lifestyle. To keep our senses sharp. To feel alive. To practice making fewer and fewer stupid mistakes.
It was a moment I’ll never forget and one I’ll think a lot about next weekend too, when I get back out on the trail again.