Back country ethics

Back country ethics came to the forefront recently. Over the last weekend, my wife and I decided to take a camping trip into the back country of Death Valley National Park.  We were inspired to return to Racetrack Valley, and over night at the Homestake Dry campground.  Upon our return, we were greeted with the grim news that another hiker had died in Zion National Park.  Zion is a personal favorite location and I know it well, and every time someone has an accident in the area I can’t help of think of the small little details that allow these tragedy’s to occur.  I would later recall that an actor died in Death Valley National Park this year.  There is, in fact, a book series written by Michael P. Ghiglieri that emphasizes death in various National Parks and the locations of each, are places which I frequent.

Back country ethics forced me to help a girl not drive this road in a acura.
Looking down at the Lippincott Mine Road from the Lippincott Mine, with Saline Valley in the distance.

To be sure, although stories like these grab attention and headlines I am sure that they are overblown in their publicity and for the most park the National Parks are safe.  The drama in each example is that we all visit there locations and with rare exception we all return with photo graphs and memories to last a life.  Many of this accidents are preventable, with the understanding the hindsight is always clear, I still can’t help but wonder what would happen should I ever find myself in a one of these situation?

Prior to any trip, I check and double checked my gear list.  The list changes depending upon time of year, destination, etc… but known the less I try to anticipate potential issues while I am loading the jeep.  The jeep is always packed with a first add kit, tools, 2 meter ham and CB radio, area maps, cell phone, extra water, fuel and food.  This is standard operating procedure for us.

During our weekend in Racetrack Valley we ran into a total of four other vehicles over the course of 24 hours.  Of these autos, two were in need of some assistance and I was more than happy to provide help.  The first car was a new Jeep Grand Cherokee which appeared to be just off the lot.  The Grand Cherokee is a great car, and they just had a flat tire.  The racetrack playa road claims many tires each year, and the owner was able to get the tire changed in just a few minutes.  The flat tire was a minor issue and they were soon on their way, although there had to be careful because they did not have a true spare tire but rather one of those light weight little donuts tires.

After an overnight stay at the Homestake dry camp, we left for our day full of explorations.  After a brief stop at the Lippincott Mine we headed north towards Teakettle Junction.  Upon arrival, our plan was to head east towards Hunter Mountain, however before we could make the turn the driver of a parked white Infinity coupe flagged us down requesting help.  So, I stopped the jeep, got out and walked towards the Infinity.  Our of the car, a woman in her 20’s or early 30’s stepped out of the car.  She was dressed like she was going to a summer bar-be-queue, complete with perfume, tight shorts, stylish shoes and make up in place.  So, seventeen miles in the back country of Death Valley National park, she pulled out a cheap gas station map and asked for directions.

Lippencott Mine Road from Racetrack Valley, Death Valley National Park, CA
Lippencott Mine Road from Racetrack Valley, Death Valley National Park, CA

I took a minute for me to completely comprehend what was being asked of me.  So, she starts out, pointing to Teakettle Junction of the map and asks if she was in fact “there”.  I told her “Yes, this is Teakettle Junction” which is funny to me since Teakettle Junction has a huge sign which reads “Teakettle Junction”, which is turn, is covered with about 50 Teakettles.  To which she points in the area of Saline Valley and tells me she is meeting her friends and wanted to know if she should take “this road” and points to the Lippincott Mine Road.  For those how are not aware, the Lippincott Mine Road is a non-maintained steep 4×4 trail with a sheer cliff on one side.  This is not the sort of thing you should try in an Infinity coupe with no low range and street tires and I told her politely that she is foolish for thinking  of it.  She responded, “yeah, my friend told me that.”

TeaKettle Junction lets you know you are starting to get close to the Racetrack.
TeaKettle Junction lets you know you are starting to get close to the Racetrack.

To summarize now, I ran into someone, clearly not prepared for her environment, who did not listen to the advice of her friend, and is now asking for directions, 17 miles down a wash-boarded road, from a complete stranger.  I suggest that she turn around, head back to the highway, and jump on the pavement and take the long way around.  To which, she asked about “this road” and she points to the “Hunter Mountain Road”.  I told her that I didn’t know about the condition of “that road”, and my guess is that the road was more of the same of what she had already done, but “I hasten to add, I am not sure.”  She thanked me, and just as I left I told her to “turn around”.  I jumped back in the Jeep and went on to my next destination, the Lost Burro Mine.

After some time at Lost Burro, lunch and some further exploration a front arrived in the area and rain began to fall.  We made our may make down to the Hunter Mountain Road.  Prior to ending our trip, I want to run down to some other mines as the rain fell harder.  At which point, I noticed that we were following fresh street tire tracks on the road.  The car in front of us lost traction as it struggle to climb out of a sandy 6 inch gully which would not been an issue for any small SUV, but a different story from an Infinity car.  Each turn we were surprised not to find this woman, stuck by the side of the road with a flat tire or something else.  Mile after mile we followed the tracks until we reached our final destination at the Quakenbush Mine, at this point the turned around and ended our trip.

On the drive home, my lovely wife Heather and I discussed her situation.  We both agree that she was stupid for putty herself in danger.  She did not listen to her friend.  She did not appear prepared for anything, yet alone the back country of Death Valley.  I potentially saved her life that day, but I can’t help but wonder if I should have been more firm or blunt in getting her to turn around.  But then again, would it have mattered?  She already ignored her friends advice.

Where does my obligation to help end? Or does it ever end?  Of coarse, if our paths crossed deep in the Hunter Mountain Road we would completely helped her out and ensure her safety.  However, if you have an dealing with an adult, presumably of sound mind, when is enough help, enough?  She wasn’t in danger sitting at Teakettle Junction.  She is probably made her destination and  is probably safe and sound.  She probably still does not realize the potential danger of her situation that day.  I believe I talked her out of the Lippincott Mine Road “shortcut”, but I don’t know.  Perhaps, a series of small seemingly unimportant events was already cascading to push her towards her destiny which can only be seen with hindsight.  Perhaps, I interrupted the series of unfortunate events and removed a chapter from Mr. Ghiglieri’s next book

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