27 February 2013

AW#55: Geo-injuries

Posted by Callan Bentley

The Accretionary Wedge is a ~monthly geoblog “carnival” which elicits posts on a variety of themes. This month, it’s Maitri’s turn, and she wants to hear about our geo-injuries.

Here’s my story:

In 2003, I was doing field work in the high Sierra, mapping the Sierra Crest Shear Zone for my geology master’s degree. When I first got out there that summer, Scott Paterson of the University of Southern California “loaned” his graduate student Geoff Pignotta to my advisor Dazhi Jiang and me. Geoff helped us with logistics, and hiked in to Gem Lake with us to show us around the shear zone.

Geoff left after a few days, and then Dazhi left after another week. When I resumed field work, it was alone. I hiked in to Bench Canyon (pictured above), in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. I hiked the trail to a little tributary canyon that a paper suggested would lead to outcrops of the Bench Canyon Shear Zone, and I departed the trail and hiked up to the threshold of this hanging valley. I made my base camp there. For the next week, I did solo mapping, hiking off to new areas each day to document the rock types and structures, and then returned to base camp for dinner and sleep. It was a pretty idyllic time. I like being by myself.

One my fifth day at Bench Canyon, I had hiked up a nearby draw, into the batholith to the west. On my return to camp, I was hiking across a talus slope, and was bopping along from boulder to boulder, thinking about depth perception, and how cool it was that I could navigate over such extremely uneven terrain.

Then, of course, I fell. Not because I misjudged my foot placement, but because the boulder I stepped on was precariously balanced, and the addition of my weight caused it to shift suddenly and completely. Fortunately, it fell in a way that was not on top of me, but I came down hard on my butt. Pulse racing, I sat there stunned for a minute. It was a very close call – but the implications of something worse filled my brain. What if I had really hurt myself? What about a compound fracture of my leg? I was miles from camp, which itself was at least a mile from the trail, and that was miles from the trail head and my rental car. No one knew where I was, or to call the authorities if I didn’t check in. If I had been incapacitated in terms of my ability to walk, it’s entirely possible I could have died up there. It’s happened to people fitter than me.

The lesson I learned that day was that doing solo fieldwork in the back-country is foolhardy. I should have had a field assistant. I should have told someone where I was and what I planned to do, and when I planned to be back.

It was one of those things that wasn’t an injury so much as a wake-up call.