Word of the Day: Benighted

Learn what it means when you get "benighted", and how to make the best of your situation.
Placeholder Contact Profile James Pierson
August 13, 2015

On a Bellingham Basic Alpine Climb of Horseshoe Peak, the group chose to stay out an extra night at their base camp after returning from their climb. As climbers progress and start attempting longer, more technical routes, it becomes a matter of not if, but when they will be benighted.  

For this group, the climb was more strenuous than was expected and they returned to camp 2 hours later than planned. This left only 3 hours before dark to pack camp and gain 1000' through a loose gully, then hard-pack dirt, 3rd class slabs, and a series of waterfalls before even reaching to the trail. After that,  hours of hiking in the dark lay ahead. In light of their current fatigue, the group decided to stay put, get some rest, and start hiking out at daybreak.

Climber Dictionary

Benighted [bih-nahy-tid]:  adjective.  1.  overtaken by darkness or night.  2.  to unexpectedly get stuck out on a climb overnight, an unplanned bivouac.

Implications of Benighting

Being benighted is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, being benighted is often a less hazardous option than trying to continue on in an attempt to get back to your car.

If this group would have attempted to make their way out, the chances of a serious injury would have quickly escalated. They were already fatigued from the main climb, but still had a significant climb up another slope just to get out of camp and reach the trail.

Traveling in the dark brings up additional navigation issues, which could possibly lead to getting into more hazardous terrain. Instead of exposing themselves to unnecessary hazard, then group decided to stay in the camp they had already established and wait until morning to leave.  In the case here, the group was already set up to camp, and they had enough food and fuel to sustain themselves through the extra night.

Possible complications from being benighted come from not having these extra supplies, or not being prepared for staying out overnight at all. If your day hike turns into an overnight epic and you are not prepared with some kind of emergency shelter and a bit of food, the scenario gets real serious real quick. That is why we always have the 10 Essentials with us.

One big problem with being benighted is not necessarily an issue for us as a climber, but more of an issue with our friends and loved ones at home. You should always have an emergency contact check-in person when you head out on a trip, whether it be your spouse, a family member, a friend or a neighbor. If you're supposed to be coming home from a trip, and now it's 8pm and you're still not home, it is easy for an uninformed check-in person to start fearing the worst. However, it is our duty as climbers to prepare them in case we're not home for dinner.  

Prepare for Benighting

The first step in any outing is to make a plan - it can be as easy as filling out this checklist to give to your check-in person:

  • Who is going? Are you by yourself, or do you have a large group with lots of experienced members?
  • Where are you going? The more specific the better. List trail-head, planned camp sites, planned routes, etc.
  • What vehicle are you driving? This helps when it comes time to initiate a search. If your vehicle is not at the trail-head they don't need to worry about looking for you there.
  • When do you plan to be back? This doesn't necessarily have to be an exact time. If it's 9pm and you don't plan to be home until 11pm, it's not a problem. If it's 9pm and you planned to be home before noon, now we might have a problem.
  • What time should your check-in person contact authorities if you haven't returned? This often depends on the trip itself. If you are just going out on a day-hike, maybe your emergency time is midnight. If you are going on a big multi-day outing, maybe your emergency time should be noon the next day in case you do get benighted. In any case, this indicates the absolute latest that you could return. If you are not home by this time, emergency response should be notified.
  • Who should they call in that case? Most often, the best number here is 911, but you may also give numbers for Ranger Stations. If this is a group outing, it is good to list the emergency contact information for the rest of the group. One of the other team members might have been able to make contact with their check-in person.

If you do get caught overnight unexpectedly, remove the fear of the unknown from your check-in person by using some great hi-tech devices that  allow you to contact the outside world. The two most common are the SPOT personal beacon and the Delorme inReach. These devices will allow you to send a pre-programmed message to your emergency contact to let them know you are okay. There are also versions of each of these that will also allow two-way communication via satellite up-link and a connection with your smartphone. If you know you won't be coming out at your planned time, you can hit a couple of buttons and let someone else know that your are still well and do not need a rescue. Another option, although a more expensive one, to these devices would be a satellite phone.

A final alternative to these devices would be to call 911. Yes, that's right, call 911. Mobile phones are designed to boost their signal strength and jump on the best available carrier in the area when 911 is dialed. Call them and tell them you are okay, that you are staying out another night and that a search should not be initiated. Give them the contact information of your check-in person so the dispatch can relay the message to them. If you can get a call out and make contact with the local emergency response, they will be much happier knowing that they don't need to initiate a search rather than calling out a SAR team in the middle of the night for no good reason.

Both of these options can also be done even if your are not necessarily staying out overnight, but just running extremely late. Just be sure you are in a relatively safe location. You don't want to hit the "I'm OK" button or call 911 and say you're ok, and then walk off the trail in the middle of the night and get hurt. If using one of the devices mentioned above, it's a good idea to keep your device on and send multiple "I'm OK" messages along the trail until you get back to your car.

Happy Trails!