The New Rules: Know When to Say When

It's better to bail out than to pass away.

Oct 26, 2009
Outside Magazine
Know When to Say When

   Photo: Photo by Charley Shimanski/Mountain Rescue Association

Team Calleva was exhausted. The four professional American adventure racers were trekking down a cliffside Chilean beach near Cape Froward, the southernmost point on the South American mainland. Ahead, the sheer cliffs met the water, blocking their way. Somewhere beyond was the finish line of the 2009 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race. After attempts to call in a rescue failed, they stared at the 50-degree waves of the Strait of Magellan and made a rash decision: They would try to swim around the cliffs.

"It almost killed us," says Druce Finlay, 30. The rough waters turned them back after ten minutes. "We got out and shivered all night. I couldn't dress myself or operate my hands."

That a team of talented professionals made such an irrational, life-threatening choice underscores just how easy it can be to let fatigue and a "save yourself" mentality lead you down a perilous path. In the ten days leading up to their ill-advised swim, Calleva had been moving almost nonstop through the notoriously brutal stages of the Wenger, sea-kayaking, mountain-biking, and trekking some 365 total miles in terrible conditions. They'd portaged kayaks 12 miles through a bog, been hammered by a snowstorm while camped on a ridgeline, and wandered drastically off-course in the dark. They ended up on the beach after opting for a misguided shortcut over a prohibited mountain pass, during which they ran out of food and took to eating berries and scavenging their trash.

Like all nine teams in the event, Calleva carried flares, a satellite phone, and a SpotMessenger, a handheld unit that can send messages indicating your location and that you'reOK or need help. But they didn't want a rescue; they wanted to finish the race. When they finally pulled out the sat phone on the beach, it couldn't get a signal and then ran out of power after being left on over­night. Their Spot was supposedly having problems, too, so they tried flares. No response. That's when they decided to swim.

As the race's director, Stjepan Pavicic, sees it, endurance athletes are particulary prone to these kinds of scenarios, because they instinctively look for an "active way out." Callevaultimately got lucky. After two members of the team scraped their way over the cliff and managed to alert race officials with their Spot, a helicopter came to the rescue.

Self-reliance is, of course, a valuable trait for anyone venturing into the wild—but only up to a point. "Too often, the people who die in the wilderness are those who didn't know when to turn back or call for help," says Sheryl Olson, a registered nurse and the founder of Wilderness Wise, a Colorado survival school. "When to stop is something that should be discussed and planned before any trip begins."

Filed To: Survival, Chile

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