Thursday, December 7, 2023

How to stay alive Outside - guest column by Wendy Wilson


Wendy on the East Fork Owyhee River ... 

A recent book by Boise author Emma Walker, titled Dead Reckoning, Learning from Accidents in the Outdoors, is a remarkably easy read on a frightening subject.

Published by Falcon Press in 2021, it beat the Mission Impossible film with the same title by two years. The book won’t be made into a major movie, but it gives a big-picture view of snow safety, river safety, desert and high-elevation travel. I recommend it for a fast tour of everything you might need to know before going outside in Idaho.

Reading this 209-page book won’t make you a wilderness guide, but it is essential reading for a weekend warrior like me. Walker provides excellent insights into assessing general risks in the outdoors and touches on very scary and specific information about traveling in grizzly bear country (some in Idaho) and anticipating the habits of mountain lions (essentially anywhere in Idaho).

Like all of us, Ms. Walker started young and dumb. She relates her close calls with death stoically and without pride. Plus, her many years of experience with the publication, The Snowy Torrents, has given her the curiosity to collect real data to summarize the real risks we all face out there. That combination creates something of a bittersweet wisdom.

Author Emma Walker

The book doesn’t offer much information about the signs of hypothermia – often considered the most frequent cause of death in the outdoors. Growing up as a Midwesterner myself, I can easily rattle off the progression from shivering to impaired coordination (using the “walk-the-line” sobriety test) to heart failure in profound hypothermia. A good summary can be found at if you want the refresher course.

But I’ve certainly done many of the dumb things that are the main subject of this book: not having a map; not checking with locals about current conditions before starting a wilderness trip; not having a viable back up plan for an accident; not heeding a weather report or a storm warning.

I survived this lack of situational awareness in part with elementary map and compass skills from the Girl Scouts of America and basic canoeing instruction from the American Canoe Association. Many Idaho outdoor adventurers don’t even have that much training to start with. For them, I suggest at hard look at the “Lessons Learned” sections in each chapter of Dead Reckoning.

She summarizes each chapter with a variation of her theme  – know where are going, know your own limits, make your own decisions, and turn around before it is an emergency.

I love her somewhat personal stories about backcountry psychology, such as the boyfriend that justifiably leaves because she was so addicted to out-of-door adventures. The rush of fear that makes a person write their mother’s phone number down for potential rescuers to find. She tells great stories demonstrating how social pressure and being overly committed to a goal can cloud better judgment.

Walker’s book is, at best, as an easy way to learn the amazing facts on how to avoid backcountry accidents. For example, all skiers should read Chapter 7 on how to not die by an avalanche.

  • Use or the Sawtooth or Payette Avalanche Centers to research backcountry conditions before you go. Most accidents happen on days of “considerable” danger because people don’t go skiing out-of-bounds so much on days of High or Extreme danger. So be especially cautious on days with Considerable danger.
  • Always have everyone use rescue gear. You would think everyone uses peeps, shovels and probes, but 40% to 67% of the time, avalanche victims had none or inadequate rescue gear.
  • Insanely, more than 10% of avalanche fatalities were solo travelers. Don’t ski alone. Talk with your partners about avalanche risk, be cautious and stick together.
  • Be ready and aware. Most people who die from slides die immediately from trauma or within 15 minutes from suffocation. Be ready to act fast.

After reading Emma Walker’s book, Dead Reckoning, the words “people die out there” seem a little less unpredictable. The risk is always there, so it is good to know the odds.

The book is available at the Boise Public Library (as soon as I return it), Amazon and probably in local area bookstores. Thanks Emma!

Wendy Wilson

Wendy is a lifelong outdoors woman and conservationist who has lived in Idaho for over 35 years. She has ventured on many outdoor trips in the hinterlands of the Northwest Territories and Alaska, and she was a river guide on the Owyhee River. She is Steve's life partner. 


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