Will Gadd Helmcken Falls
Credit: Redbull Photofiles

One of the best (and worst)  things about the outdoors is that there is no entrance exam or qualification process required to leave the safe confines of the paved world and stride cheerfully into the dirt.

We are all supposed to intrinsically know our level of competence in the outdoors, yet the multiple rescues, deaths and general mayhem out there shows that we often aren’t great at recognizing what is potentially lethal and what’s not. At the same time, the vast majority of people totally avoid anything that might be labelled “wilderness,” and with this avoidance they miss out on some truly grand experiences.

There are a few mountains (Logan) and rivers (Nahanni) where local park rangers will ask some cursory questions about one’s background and plans, but most of the time these criteria are just to weed out the truly crazy. Soloing Denali, for example, requires only that you fill out a separate “solo form,” but this is more about liability and preventing expensive rescues than ensuring the health of the challenger in a very hazardous environment. 

Driving a car is a comparably high-risk activity, but acquiring a driver’s licence requires a both training and a test, which gives a sense of basic competence to the licence holder (“I can do this!”) and a simple look ahead at the dangers to be expected. This entrance exam both educates and empowers, unlike a trailhead with, at best, a map and a warning sign.

While lethal dangers in the outdoors are many and extraordinarily varied (a randomly falling tree unfortunately killed a woman in Banff National Park in 2008), the rewards are equally grand and worthwhile. But, if someone doesn’t have a way to understand life in the outdoors, then everything is potentially lethal and nothing is potentially safe, which means he or she won’t go outdoors at all. 

In our national parks, visitors drown, die in car crashes, fall off mountains and hurt their knees hiking — all of which require rescues that are dutifully reported by local media. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people enjoying some slice Canada’s outdoors every single day, but, reasonably, only the ones who don’t successfully come back will make the news. At the corporate speaking engagements I do, I am often surprised by the CEO who is a solid backcountry skier, as well as by the CEO who won’t go hiking because of the bear attack he or she read about last year. The second CEO is avoiding a potentially hazardous situation — but is also missing one of the grandest experiences in life.

So, what could each of us do to be safer in the great outdoors, enjoy them more and teach newbies to do better? While education, equipment and experience are all nice, I think we all have an intrinsic tool to assess situations and survive most of them. That tool is our sense of comfort. In most of us, this tool is dulled to the point of uselessness — we are uncomfortable in our cars in traffic and uncomfortable in office boardrooms. While we may be physically comfortable in terms of environment, we have to continuously ignore our mental state of “OK” or “not OK” just to exist in modern civilization. Yes, our best tool for outdoor survival must be willfully dulled to endure daily life.

In the outdoors, if we become physically or mentally uncomfortable, we need to pay close attention to that feeling — and fix it. Apparently, we’re only born fearing two things: loud noises and falling. But every parent knows what happens when his or her kid is uncomfortable. Children are very well wired for listening to their comfort alarms. Cold hands are a crisis. Kids become very careful around a big drop-off (even without their parents’ warnings, as I have seen at lookouts worldwide). All of the kids who didn’t have this alarm in their genetic makeup likely froze their hands off or fell off the edge, and failed to reproduce.

As adults, if we don’t feel comfortable being out in the middle of a lake, there’s probably a reason why — head closer to shore. If we don’t feel comfortable after the start of a long scramble up a mountain peak, there’s probably a good reason why — stop and either get comfortable or descend. 

As I climb, paddle, fly, cave and otherwise adventure all over the globe, I repeatedly see the same thing in the eyes of the masters of each respective sport: they are comfortable where they are, and the novices often aren’t. When I was climbing with the legendary Jeff Lowe, he was fine at -25 degrees Celsius on one-centimetre-thick ice. He knew he was OK — really knew it — and was comfortable in a situation that would be lethal for all but about 10 people on the planet. I also watched him back off when he wasn’t comfortable.

There are times in the outdoors when it’s going to suck. But if you expect that, and are comfortable with it, then it’s probably an OK situation. If the situation is deteriorating toward less and less comfort, then something is wrong. I have never had an unplanned night out in the mountains. I turn around early and often, as soon as I’m not comfortable with how the day is going — when that internal “not OK” bell starts clanging. I have had some bad kayaking swims and climbing falls; in the moments before each event my main emotion was, “This just isn’t good,” yet I pushed on. I ignored my own warning bells that were screaming, “I’m not comfortable with this!

We have to re-wire ourselves to exist in the outdoors — an environment we are actually genetically predisposed to handle really well. I’ve never read an accident report that started with, “Joe felt really great about where he was when a lightning bolt suddenly struck him down.” Maybe the sign at the trailhead should read, “Can you comfortably walk one kilometre? If so, this hike is going to be great! If not, maybe only walk 10 minutes.” 

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2014 issue.

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