27 February 2013
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.
I taught my children from their earliest days that the risk and the consequence had to be considered together. Breaking a leg when you are just a phone call away from medical care can go a long way towards mitigating the risk.
This reminds me of the time Andy Masterson fell off the cliff and broke his leg while we were doing field work in Brazil! I hadn’t thought about that story in a while, but that is exactly the reason I insisted on having a field assistant in Brazil.
I have done a lot of solo backpacking in the Sierra, including off-trail hiking. Nice picture of Banner in the background, by the way, in the second photo. Been up the North Fork but not into Bench Canyon – fun to see the Minarets from that opposite vantage There is nothing wrong with it per se, but it does required a heightened sense of danger as well as someone having some information on where you are and when you are expected back.
I’ve had two “injury events”, and “two non-injury but scary events” happen while doing field work. I think that all could have been avoided, but then again, probably not unless I toned down my enthusiasm. The worst was when I slipped on algae in a stream in WV and sat hard on a 1-foot boulder of quartzite. This sent a stunning electric shock up my spine – I thought that I might have broken my back. But, no bad luck that time. Another time, I slid down a pine-straw covered slope in the Black Hills. At the bottom, I felt something sharp sticking in my back at the belt line. It was a porkypine quill. The last two, but these events are not in chronological order, relate to falling off a cliff. Once, I was looking for celestite in vugs in the Tololoway in WV. One handhold came loose, it was about 8″ across and probably weighed about 70 pounds. I almost peeled off the quarry/road cut until I managed to rotate around and push against the rock in the air to shove myself back against the cliff. In the other, I was digging gypsum crystals out of diatomaceous earth in the Popes Creek area of MD. The stream-cut cliff collapsed under me and I rode it down, jumping to keep on top of the earthen boulders. Oh, and I had a knife in my hand to start. I threw the knife down to the beach, where it stuck and I later recovered it! The left pants leg of my dungarees was torn off, but I didn’t lose my boot. Nor did I drop the gypsum crystals in my left hand.
Solo = stupid. What happened to me when I was about 20 years scares me so bad that I block it out, so I won’t describe it. It’s always in the back of my mind though, and it has turned me into a grandma about taking risks.