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The Art of the Bail

Wonderland Trail

View from the Wonderland Trail

Remember the Clint Eastwood movie, The Eiger Sanction? During the climbers meeting, Clint suggests that their planned route leaves no room for retreat and the head honcho snidely chides him for planning for defeat. Most of us want to think that our planned trips will go, well, as planned, but circumstances arise that can throw those plans asunder. I consider bailout options on any trip that I take, and I have bailed plenty of times over the last 30 years. Having a hip pocket bail plan can actually lessen mental stress and contribute to the trip’s success.

Last year I bailed twice, both on the Wonderland Trail. My familiarity with this trail in Mt. Rainier National Park helps tremendously, but a modicum of research would allow a first timer to come up with the same options. I was doing a series of graduation hikes with my daughter, and the Wonderland was on her list (she did it also when she was 13).

We had an ambitious but doable 4 day itinerary and launched in beautiful weather for our first 20 plus mile day. Our plan was to get the more difficult sections done right away going clockwise; unfortunately, the more difficult section is also the most remote.

My daughter is blessed with weird feet, wide in the front and not so wide in the heel, so finding shoes for her is a task akin to finding Waldo. We thought we had the shoes dialed in but towards the end of the day, after about 7000 feet of climb, her hip started barking loudly. We were able to continue to descend to our planned first camping spot but the next day the pain had not abated.

Take the chance of doing more serious damage by continuing on for another 70 miles, risk her upcoming college swim team events? Nope, so it’s bail time.

There was a benign way to return to the starting point by doing an easy trail to the West Side road, then walking the road to the main road to hitch a ride back to Longmire, but she’d still have to walk 12 miles. We limped along the road (closed to vehicular traffic) for 9 miles until it got bad enough for her to set up a spot in the forest and wait for my return.

The first 3 miles of the road are open to vehicles so I could easily run the remaining distance to the main road and surely get a ride back to my vehicle, then drive back and pick her up. With summer traffic I assumed this process would go swiftly. Back on the main road, with just a water bottle in hand, I stuck out my thumb and watched 1,2, 12, 21, 40, 50 cars pass me. Do I look that menacing? I even left my pointy hat with my daughter so as not to scare people. But alas, after a time I started running again as I had 3 more miles to get to Longmire. Finally a couple from Canada picked me up and deposited me at my vehicle. Thank you northern neighbors!

Scrambling off trail

Scrambling to gain the trail

Two hours later I retrieved my progeny from the woods and the bail was complete. Not pretty but it was successful, my daughter’s hip problem dissolved with tossing that pair of shoes and we enjoyed a nice dinner prior to the drive home.

My second bail was a surprise. I had been hiking all summer, I was in great shape, and I set off to blast the Wonderland solo. I anticipated no problems.

However, something wasn’t quite right, and it took me longer to cover the first 35 miles than it should have. Into my second day I realized I was sick, and my slowing pace (despite a pack that weighed under 8 pounds) and leaden legs finally made me realize I should not continue the full route.

I hadn’t really planned on a bail but was able to use one of the areas that has phone reception to call a buddy of mine and come pick me up at Sunrise, about 55 miles into the hike. Disappointing yes, but a far better option than suffering on for another 36 miles. As it turns out my ailment lasted for quite a while and it wasn’t until October that I was able to go back and finish the hike.


Scrambling on the bail

In 2011 my daughter and I had another bail. The itinerary was such that I had prearranged with a friend of mine to be on standby in case the first day didn’t go as planned. In fact it didn’t, and we were stymied at Panhandle Gap (still the Wonderland) by frozen snow at 11 PM with no safe way to cross, necessitating an unplanned bivy.

However, this area also has cell coverage so I called my buddy for a pickup per our contingency plan. We managed to scramble around the frozen snow the next morning but were too far behind schedule to continue on. He must be a good friend indeed as he has made a few trips to the mountain over the years to bail me out.

And now we come to this year where we are planning a big trip in August, Mike Woodmansee’s “Cougar Traverse” from the book Trekking Washington. 242 miles of wilderness that never touches a road, brushes civilization, or walks the same trail segment twice. Perhaps the longest uninterrupted wilderness trek in the lower 48.

How does one plan a bail on such a trek? Although the trek itself never touches a road, there are places to escape by taking other trails that will eventually lead to roads, and thus to civilization. A bail on this trek may still entail 30 miles of hiking. There will be no cell phone service. As part of our planning I have purchased a satellite communicator that enables not only SOS functions but the ability to check in at home or communicate via text messages with appropriate authorities. Nothing substitutes for experience, good planning and common sense, but with the capabilities of satellite communicators now I consider it another tool to enhance safety and assuage the worries of family at home, especially since my daughter will be with me.

Wonderland Trail

Morning after an unplanned bivy

But a bail is still far from an emergency that requires a rescue, and we have to address the possibility we may have to hike a long way, perhaps under duress, just to meet up with a family member or friend that is picking us up. Hopefully this will not be the case but having bailout plans in place will let us do this trek without having an adventure.

Plan for the worst and hope for the best, and don’t climb the Eiger without a retreat route.

This post was contributed by former Trail Ambassador Steve Burgess.

5 Responses to The Art of the Bail

  1. Bigfoot86 October 18, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    Nice write up on bailing and you just taught me to now add a bail out plan into all of my hikes. I always thought that i would have to come up with something in the event of problems on a hike. Hope you can get back to the wonderland trail.

  2. Colin Parkinson April 24, 2015 at 8:50 am #

    Sometimes on large loop trails especially in Canada, no bailout route or point is available. Instead what I do is prepare to spend longer than planned on the trip, bringing one to two days of extra cold food to cover such problems. Calling HOME when in cell phone range to relay the information.

    Some of the problems I have run in to include a violent rain storm that stopped the hike dead in it’s tracks and lead to a hurried campsite to escape the worse of the weather. A second one that happens too often is someone coming on a trip who is not in any way trail ready, shape wise which leads to a shorter per day mileage and extending the trip by a day.

  3. Sarah April 24, 2015 at 8:03 pm #

    This is a timely article. I just had a bail this last weekend in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. I am from NC and have never backpacked out west. The area did not have cell service and I was hiking solo. The maps weren’t great and I ended up on the wrong trail from the start. I had given my husband my plans and since I wasn’t on the right trail I decided to bail just in case something went wrong. I was very disappointed my trip did not go as planned but I felt bailing was the prudent thing to do.

  4. Mark September 10, 2015 at 6:58 pm #

    Part of our bailout or contingency planning is having packs large and/or sturdy enough to take on extra weight should someone get ill or injured. We often have a large group, 4-6 adults and 4-6 boy scouts, and almost inevitably, someone gets sick or has a minor injury during the week. Having a pack that can fit extra gear like an additional bear cannister or sleeping bag can off load a hurting travel mate, allowing us to redistribute load and continue hiking. Even though we try to follow an ultralight philosophy, we “size up” our packs bigger than we need for ourselves. So while I try for a total weight for a week of about 25 lbs (including water and bear cannister with food) I want a pack that could support 40 lbs if needed.

  5. Wayne Salvatti September 17, 2015 at 2:04 pm #

    I truly appreciate this post, showing trekking wisdom. Even the most “experienced “of trail hikers need this advice!
    And our daughters (and sons) are given as a gift from God to us, if it were not for her and her feet perhaps there may have been a a worse or tragic challenge that was just down the trail, if we didn’t change the route.
    Happy and blessed trails to you both!
    Wayne S.

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