Trail Talk | The Perils and Joys of the Backcountry

In this feature from Mountaineer magazine, Craig Romano reflects on the solace he finds in the backcountry despite the amount of risk he encounters.
Craig Romano Craig Romano
Mountaineers Books Guidebook Author
March 25, 2023
Trail Talk | The Perils and Joys of the Backcountry
Craig enjoying the view at Glacier National Park, British Columbia. All photos courtesy of Craig Romano.

Hiking has always been my refuge from the craziness of the world. I find solace and peace of mind in the wilderness. I know that the natural world can be as unforgiving as the civilized world, but I find wilderness far easier to negotiate. Perhaps it’s my illusion that when taking off for the backcountry, I need only worry about my actions and not the actions of others. In the human world there are far too many people making decisions that will affect me—and often not in a positive way.

The world is full of suffering, injustice, cruelty, and heartbreak, and I often find myself turning to nature for comfort. So it’s always with dismay and sadness that I read about a hiker meeting tragedy in the backcountry. There have been no shortages of them lately, with the rash of folks recently discovering the natural world outside their windows. Many take to the trails not fully versed in wilderness travel. Some pay a fatal price for their lack of knowledge and preparation.

Who among us has not done something stupid, rash, or not fully thought through in our lives? I can recall several experiences in my younger years that came dangerously close to being my last hike. I remember being overconfident, underprepared, and pretty damn lucky. And perhaps that is why many of the tragic accounts that I read strike a chord.

Two recent events in particular struck me. In one, a young woman in my home state of New Hampshire died just two days before her twentieth birthday above the tree line at Mount Lafayette in blizzard-like weather. She was hoping to celebrate her birthday by completing all of New Hampshire’s 48 highest peaks. In another, a woman backpacking the Narrows in Utah’s Zion National Park with her husband died during an overnight snap of brutally cold temperatures. She died of hypothermia while her husband frantically left her behind to find help.

Mount Hood on the Timberline Trail Craig Romano photo by Peter Clitherow  (2).jpegCraig enduring a treacherous creek crossing while hiking the Timberline Trail.

The worst part of dying is leaving the living to live with it. As a father, the New Hampshire hiker’s death hit close to home; I can’t imagine the loss and pain her parents were experiencing. And as a husband, I can’t imagine the pain of suddenly losing my life partner like the Utah hiker did. Maybe both of those cases hit hard, too, because they could have happened to me.I have nothing but empathy for the friends and families of these deceased hikers. No doubt anguish is running through their hearts. And for many who have read, watched, or heard their stories, their kneejerk “they should have,” “I never would have,” and “what the hell were they thinking,” responses won’t bring them back. The court of public opinion is teeming with self-proclaimed experts and self-righteous disciples who are quick to condemn and judge, as if they’ve forgotten that they, too, have lived imperfect lives riddled with mistakes.

While risks should be calculated and we should do everything we can to be prepared, life often doesn’t work that way. We can read about the circumstances that led to these hikers’ deaths and learn from them so that it won’t happen to us, but there is always some other unforeseen danger, set of circumstances, or personal shortcomings that may manifest. Life is a crapshoot and sometimes we survive purely by luck - or for the faithful, by the grace of God.

So I’ll continue to push myself in the wilderness. Go on long trail runs or backpacking excursions alone. Explore mountain ranges inhabited by grizzly bears and deserts teeming with venomous reptiles and scorpions. I’ll continue to ford raging mountain creeks, cross alpine snowfields, round narrow coastal headlands, and experience nature in all its forms, be it in winter cold or summer heat. I will diligently plan, properly prepare, and do the best I can to make the wisest decisions every time I set out, but there’s no guarantee that my best efforts won’t be derailed by an oversight.

Yes, it’s risky heading into the backcountry. I am reminded of that every time I hear of a fellow hiker, trail runner, or skier perishing while doing what they so passionately loved. I acknowledge those outcomes are possibilities and freely accept the risks involved when I step onto a trail.

What I have a hard time accepting is the chaos of the frontcountry. I wonder, will I be killed on the highway heading to the trail by a distracted or inebriated driver? Or find myself gunned down by a deranged or disillusioned individual in a grocery store, movie theatre, school, or church? The civilized world doesn’t look too civilized with these questions in my mind. I’ll take my chances in the backcountry. A place that I, ironically, feel a greater sense of control and a lesser need to worry.

Craig Romano is an award-winning guidebook author who has written more than 25 books, including Backpacking Washington 2nd editionDay Hiking the North Cascades 2nd edition, and eight titles in the Urban TrailsUrban Trails Urban Trails series (Mountaineers Books). Purchase his titles in our Seattle Program Center Bookstore, online, and everywhere books are sold.

This article originally appeared in our spring 2023 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our  magazine archive

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