A Cyclist Lost In the Woods
After a friend's recent near-miss with disaster in the backcountry, our writer has been thinking about risk, personal responsibility, and what it means to be "ready" to go the wild.
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A little over a week ago, a 36-year-old Colorado Springs-based cyclist disappeared while on a training ride. When Alicia Jakomait, a retired pro downhiller and seasoned mountain biker, went out for an ordinary weekend training ride at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon and didn’t return home by nightfall, her husband reported her missing.
It’s the sort of all-too-frequent story that I sometimes overlook. But in this case, I took note. I don’t know Alicia. But her husband, Jesse, travels in the same endurance mountain bike circles that I do. He’s an accomplished rider, with all manner of big finishes to his name including a win at this year’s Vapor Trail 125 and a hard-fought second at the Colorado Trail Race, and though I haven’t met him in person I’ve admired his exploits over the years.
News of Alicia’s disappearance raced through the endurance MTB community quickly on social media, and between the efforts of search and rescue, friends and fellow riders, and Jesse himself, Alicia turned up—okay, if a bit banged up—some 30 hours after she left her home.
Happy ending—thankfully. And that, normally, is the end of the tale.
Except this story continued to chew at me. Not only was Alicia an experienced rider, but, based on her description of the encounter, she hadn’t done anything obtuse or shameful. In short, she got turned around, crashed, and then, because of her injuries, became disoriented. After that, the situation spiraled.
Fortunately, a big group of people mobilized and found Alicia before any grave outcome. But I just kept thinking to myself, “What if they hadn’t found her?” Of course everyone would have felt terribly and the outpouring of goodwill and grief would have been enormous. But if Alicia hadn’t turned up, would we have wondered for years to come what became of her? Would we have cast unfair suspicion on her husband or someone else, as was the case when climber Amy Wroe Bechtel disappeared? Or even if we knew what had happened, would we have shaken our heads at the “frivolousness” that drove her to ride into the woods alone in the first place? Would such a disappearance change the way we perceive our own adventures and how we undertake them?
That’s the lesson I keep returning to: not just how quickly things can go wrong, but how, through familiarity and carelessness, we set ourselves up for difficulty. I’m not pointing fingers at Alicia. Rather, her experience has simply made me realize how cavalier I can be about riding.
Having completed dozens of tough, self-support, endurance efforts, some of them as long as three days, I tend to downplay the “short” rides I take on local trails. I head off on three-, five-, six- and eight-hour training rides in the wilderness alone nearly every week and often give my wife only an indistinct sense of where I’m headed. Sometimes I don’t know when I head out, and sometimes I even deviate when I’m in the field because of conditions or my mood.
Frequently I carry the bare minimum of clothing and food and other necessities, which is partly a race-day holdover that tells me to minimize. I almost always pack a few basic warmies, such as cap and jacket, but rarely do I bring a real warm layer, extra gloves or socks, or—laugh out loud—a space blanket or bivy sack, even though I have a superlight bivy tucked in cabinet in the garage. I normally bring a multi-tool but no gear for extenuating circumstances, such as a chain tool, spare cables, or even more than one tube. And, except when I’m racing, I never carry a SPOT tracker despite the fact that I own one and pay for the subscription year-round.
I consider myself a fastidious person and am resolute that I always be able to get out of whatever situations I get into. I strongly believe in personal responsibility and would never advocate calling for a rescue unless it was absolutely critical. Yet I realize now that my habituation to the risks that I take may actually be pushing me, unwittingly, away from those ideals. I’m adamant that I’d never call for a rescue. But by just grabbing that hydration pack on the way out the door without really checking what’s inside or biking off into the unknown alone without giving anyone any clue where I’m going, don’t we make such a situation more likely?
Of course you can’t be prepared for every eventuality. And part of the game is to not just carry everything you own, but to pack the right gear for the situation. Part of it, too, is to escape all the humdrum daily demands, which is why I will never stop riding alone or onto uncharted roads and trails. The adventure and empty headspace is part of the appeal. However, being prepared doesn’t detract from the ride (or hike, or whatever). It insures that you can fully experience it, even when things go wrong.
It’s a huge relief that Alicia was found so quickly and that she’ll be fine. I hope that if the same thing happens to me, my wife, my friends—to any of us, really—that the outcome will be just as positive. But there’s more we can do to make sure of that than just to hope.
Prepare your best, know your limits, ride well, and be safe out there.