So, there’s always inherent risk in travel, especially that which involves hiking and outdoor activity. I’m sad to have stumbled upon an article published by the New York Times in May that details the disappearance and recovery of Geraldine Largay, a thru-hiker from Tennessee.
Parts of this post may come off as slightly harsh or heartless, but I must inform you that there is no lack of sympathy or empathy for this woman who lost her way. My heart grieves for a death such as this, but the rest of my post may come off as more logical and from outside safety perspective for the sake of a teaching experience. I apologize for any offense.
Geraldine’s death was caused by an unfortunate wrong turn and inability to find the AT again. Unfortunately she was also out of any range of cell service so could not contact anyone. Also unfortunately, a few mistakes prior to her disappearance could’ve indicated that the choice to continue on the AT was probably not the best for her.
1: The first line of the article:
“She was afraid of being alone and prone to anxiety, a diminutive 66-year-old woman with a poor sense of direction, hiking the Appalachian Trail by herself, who wandered into terrain so wild, it is used for military training.“
I can’t sum it up more than this – the Appalachian Trail is not to be taken lightly. If you recognize your limitations (fear of being alone, anxiety, lack of experience, etc), you’re more able to make a better choice in this situation. Once her hiking partner got off the trail for a family emergency, Geraldine continued on alone, regardless of her fears. This can be considered brave, heroic, pushing herself into her challenge zone – but perhaps she pushed a tad too far given the other shortcomings such as sense of direction and anxiety. I’ll elaborate below…
2: An observation by her hiking partner:
“Later, Ms. Lee would tell an investigator “that Geraldine had a poor sense of direction,” the Warden Service’s investigative report said. “Ms. Lee said that Geraldine had taken a wrong turn on the trail, more than once,” and Ms. Largay “became flustered and combative when she made these kinds of mistakes.””
Flustered is one thing – combative is another. If you have made the same directional mistake several times, it’s time to reanalyze what you can do better to follow the trail better, and accept that you have a shortcoming – not defensive. The experience on the AT can become a life and death situation instantly. It is not a place for combativeness or denial of your mistakes, which obviously, in this scenario, were deathly.
3: A word from her husband:
“Ms. Largay, a meticulous planner, was gregarious and made friends easily on the trail. But she feared the dark and being alone, said Ms. Lee, who told park wardens “that George did not know the extent of Geraldine’s inability to deal with the rigors and challenges of the trail.”
But after he reported his wife missing, Mr. Largay told an investigator that “Gerry was probably in over her head.””
This is what makes my stomach twist. I am just so sad that the observations between husband and wife weren’t clear enough to really grasp what the other was thinking or doing. I’m not saying it’s anyone’s fault – I obviously don’t know what conversations there were before she left – but I wish something had been said, a fearful thought, a warning, if there wasn’t. I wish Ms. Lee had expressed this hesitation and analysis of Geraldine’s skill to her husband. But again, I don’t know them.
4: A missing call for help:
““In somm trouble,” Ms. Largay wrote in a text message to her husband. “Got off trail to go to br. Now lost.” She asked him to call the Appalachian Mountain Club “to c if a trail maintainer can help me. Somewhere north of woods road. Xox.”…
…Ms. Largay sought high ground, possibly hoping for a cell signal. She tried over and over to send messages, but none went through.”
Let me just recommend this fun product here, to start. Not saying these are incredibly affordable, or that I’ve ever really heard of it to this instant, but if getting lost is a serious risk factor for you, this could be of use.
Cell phones are never a good reliability for communications, especially in such a situation. 10 miles into my Dolly Sods trip we had no cell service. We listened to weather reports on the radio. I think it’s a great idea to have one. This woman was in thick brush and trees in wilderness. I’m glad she tried, but you must have a backup option (again, especially if getting lost is a serious fear or shortcoming), like a GPS or a satellite radio for communication.
The biggest point I want to make here is that you need to be ready for the AT if you’re actually going to make it. I don’t mean just physically – I mean mentally as well. I know it myself, as I suffer from depression and anxiety as well, that you need to be mentally prepared for all challenges – being alone, getting lost, the dark. Hardly any of these are avoidable on the AT. In any outdoor situation, you need to know what comes with the territory.
I mourn for this woman and her family. It is painful that I can use this as a teachable moment.
I’ll be posting some outdoor lessons soon, I think, if only to help someone avoid fatal mistakes in the future.