August 20, 2009 in Outdoors

Landers: ‘What if’ only hurts inside

By The Spokesman-Review
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

Rich Landers
(Full-size photo)

Surviving an outdoor incident doesn’t spare you from suffering through the “what if” stage.

I know this firsthand even though my outdoor pursuits around the world, in and out of some incredibly wild and remote places, have generally been charmed.

The mistakes I’ve made have caused little more than momentary angst or short-lived misery. A few that come readily to mind include:

•Four hungry nights after waiting until the shuttle vehicle had departed the remote trailhead before asking my buddy if he’d packed the dinners for our hike through Utah’s Paria Canyon.

•A helicopter rescue off British Columbia’s Wapta Icefields after a ski mountaineering accident rendered me helpless on a glacier with a dislocated shoulder.

•A 20-mile hike out of the Bitterroots to hitch a ride in search of a spare tire that would hold air.

The biggest bruises in these and other cases were to my pride.

So I consider myself lucky.

I haven’t had to cut off my arm after being pinned by a boulder where no one would find me.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t stewed in the torture of hindsight.

A nine-hour intercontinental flight from South America last month provided plenty of time to chew on my latest “what-if” moment.

I’d been hiking, biking, camping and hostelling in Chile with my daughter Hillary during a “winter break” in her year of college language studies abroad.

On the last day of a 17-day adventure, I paid a big price for letting down my guard while Hillary remained at the hostel trying to tame a bout of food poisoning.

I traveled alone that day to sightsee and ease off a week in the Atacama desert region and the high Andes followed by a week of dirt-bag beach camping, volcano bagging and mountain biking on Easter Island.

I boarded a bus for the two-hour evening ride back to Santiago. Settling into my seat, I flopped my daypack in the seat next to me, where Hillary would have been seated had she been able to part from a bathroom for more than 10 minutes.

The bus driver and conductor were on both sides of the bus door greeting passengers as they came aboard.

I opened a magazine and was about to put my pack on the floor between my legs, where my cameras and important gear have traveled successfully with me for countless trips.

As a group of people outside the bus caught my attention, an older woman boarded the bus and was walking down the aisle past my seat.

The next thing I knew, a “dummy” pack stuffed with rags was in the seat next to me and I saw a flash of my red North Face pack on the shoulder of a young man, already past the old woman, past the bus driver at the door and just past the security guards in the terminal before melting into the crowd.

My money, credit cards and passport were secure in the money belt around my waist.

But in 10 seconds of inattentiveness, I’d lost more than $2,000 of camera gear and special outdoor equipment.

Worst of all, I’d lost nearly 500 photos – not just snapshots, but rather images that can be made only with a team effort and willingness to get up before sunrise and go strong until after sunset.

It had been a dream trip with a daughter who’s at the age that leaves Dad with few repeat opportunities.

What if I’d have gone to an Internet café and backed up all of those images?

What if I’d have simply kept my arm through the pack strap while it was on the bus seat next to me?

My daughter gave me comfort and we even laughed about how I’d shot holes in the doctrine of paternal infallibility after a lifetime of coaching her on traveling through wild places.

It was halfway through that return flight, somewhere near Panama, when I realized that I was agonizing over the robbery with every break in thought, every new chapter in the book, every interruption by the flight attendant.

Yet my angst amounted to little more than an armchair excursion to the periphery of a hell I never want to experience.

This is why we have lifejacket laws for boaters, procedures in setting up anchors on rock climbs, and ratings for matching skills with the day’s river flow reading and the difficulty of whitewater rapids.

Outdoor experts preach the value of preparation, procedure and restraint in the outdoors.

Behind every rule are people doing their time in the mental prison to which they were sentenced after an avoidable mistake led to someone’s injury or death.

Contact Rich Landers at 459-5508, or e-mail to richl@spokesman.com.

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