The human factor

Emma Walker reckons with death in new guidebook

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Emma Walker heads into the Ruby Horsethief section of the Colorado River, just outside Fruita.
Courtesy Emma Walker

In 2005, Michelle Vanek disappeared while hiking Mount of the Holy Cross, her first attempt to summit one of Colorado’s infamous fourteeners. Only three hours or so from Boulder, with a trail all the way to the top, it’s considered relatively easy compared to some. But Vanek and her hiking partner made several critical missteps that day, easier to recognize now than in the moment.

They followed the wrong trail out of the parking lot. They didn’t have proper navigational equipment, instead using an illustrative map out of a guidebook. They forgot their water filter and most of their food in the car. Instead of turning back, they followed a much-less trafficked, more difficult and longer trail toward the summit. When Vanek ran out of water just shy of 14,000 feet, the two split up, agreeing to meet at a lower elevation after her hiking partner bagged the peak. It would be the last time anyone ever saw her. Her body still hasn’t been found. 

Growing up on the Front Range, it all felt eerily close for Emma Walker. How could someone just vanish into thin air in somewhat familiar terrain, easily conjured in her mind’s eye? Her parents watched a steady stream of media coverage of Vanek’s disappearance. Walker remembers video footage and photos of Vanek, her family, her kids, who had just lost their mom. And she remembers feeling deep empathy for the friend Vanek was with that day, wondering how he was coping with the presumable guilt of being the last one to see her. 

“From our comfortable living rooms, it’s easy to read the facts about the events leading to Michelle Vanek’s disappearance and wax poetic about all the things we’d have done differently,” Walker writes in her new book Dead Reckoning: Learning from Accidents in the Outdoors, out June 1 from Falcon Guides. “But the truth is, I’ve made almost all the mistakes Vanek and her partner made that day.” 

Dead Reckoning is a guidebook like none other. By pairing her own experiences and close calls with the sometimes-catastrophic misadventures of others, Walker creates a manual for how to prepare and stay safe in the outdoors. In it, she makes accident narratives accessible to everyone, not just experts and rescuers, with the intent of helping others avoid similar situations. It’s about awareness of the dangers of recreating in wild places and heading out the door prepared. It’s for novice and expert adventurers alike — anyone who could unintentionally find themselves in risky situations. 

“I want people to be able to read this book and then apply it to whatever they’re going out and doing,” Walker says. “Being able to read about close calls or accidents and pick out where things started to go wrong and then to be thoughtful yourself as you’re getting involved in whatever activity it is.”

Walker covers a range of activities with chapters on avalanches, mountaineering, deserts, whitewater sports, sea kayaking in places like Alaska’s Prince William Sound and remote big-water wilderness areas like the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota. There’s also an entire chapter on bears, both in Colorado and Alaska, as well as one about unfamiliar terrain, using her experience in the tropical climate of the big island of Hawaii, which is prone to flash flooding. And she ends each chapter with a palatable and accessible bulleted “Lessons Learned” list.

In the chapter on fourteeners, Walker writes about her own first attempt on Grays and Torreys Peak as a 20-year-old studying at CU Boulder. Although it felt like the crack of dawn to college students, Walker and her friend didn’t start hiking until 7:30 a.m., late by most hikers’ standards, as Colorado is notorious for its almost predictable summer afternoon thunderstorms. Walker carried her school bookbag with a few snacks and only a half liter of water packed inside.

Walker with her friend at the summit of Grays Peak, her first-ever fourteener, in 2010.

Luckily — and it really was a matter of luck — the sky stayed clear all day and no storms rolled in. Plus, they were in pretty good shape as college students and summitted Grays despite the lack of water and food. At that point, they decided to turn back toward the car, exhausted, hungry and fresh out of water. Years later, Walker says they were lucky not to end up on the front page. 

“It’s so alluring in Colorado. Everybody wants to hike a fourteener, but it’s not Disneyland,” she says. “Even the easiest fourteeners are not just a walk up, like, you could get into some trouble.”

So, what is dead reckoning? 

Used much more before the advent of GPS, and even more before topographic maps, dead reckoning is a navigational technique that can help you resituate yourself in the outdoors by determining a rough location based on estimations of speed, direction and course you’ve already traveled, relative to your last known position. It requires you to be aware of your surroundings and have a general sense of where you are. It means understanding about how fast you move, and how that differs based on the conditions around you. 

“It can be super badass, right?” Walker says. “It’s like there was a whiteout and they found their way back to the trailhead by dead reckoning. But it’s also a really simple skill and if you’re prepared, it could totally save your life.”

Although the concept may be mentioned at an introduction navigation course at a local gear shop, it’s not something that is usually taught in depth, given navigation technology now available to us.  

“When those things fail and you know, your battery dies or you drop your phone in the lake, having that skill to rely on, to fall back on, is really nice,” Walker says. 

Thankfully, she says, she’s only had to use the technique herself a few times, and never in a survival situation. 

Heading down from her high point on the Disappointment Cleaver route on Mount Rainier in 2016.

But in her book, dead reckoning is also about understanding what has happened to other people while adventuring in the outdoors and learning from it in the hopes of avoiding it yourself. 

“Having this kind of knowledge and being prepared in this way is another skill in your wilderness tool belt,” she says. “Just as you would need to know how to navigate and know some basic first aid and be able to identify edible plants or what aren’t edible plants. … And I think that being prepared by knowing what could happen and how to avoid those accidents is yet another skill.”

There may be objective hazards in the wilderness, but there are plenty of subjective ones too. 

“When you bring humans into the mix, it gets a whole lot more complicated,” she says. “There are mistakes that we make because we’re people and we don’t want to be embarrassed or we don’t want our friends to have a bad time or we really want to get this picture to post on Instagram or whatever.”

Throughout her career in the outdoor industry, Walker says she’s read, written and edited hundreds, maybe even thousands, of accident reports. So many, in fact, that she recognizes certain patterns, with almost all accidents boiling down to a handful of recognizable factors, no matter what the activity is. 

“I think a really big one that I see, almost constantly, is a lack of communication within groups,” she says. “So whether that’s not communicating beforehand or not having everybody be on the same page about the goal or abilities or whatever it is. I think that tends to get people in over their heads.”

Other factors include lack of navigational skills, with an over-reliance on technology, and not having the right gear — but it doesn’t have to be top-of-the-line gear. It’s more about having gear you don’t know how to use or fix, or just not bringing the right supplies with you in the first place. Like backcountry skiers who don’t bring an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe. 

“There’s also sort of what I would call a confidence-competence gap,” she says, where someone’s confidence exceeds their competence, with sometimes disastrous consequences. 

“So that gets them in over their heads,” she says. “I see that a lot with things you can’t really back out of, like in the winter back country — once you’re out there and the avalanche starts, that’s it, you don’t have a chance to walk it back.” 

Or it happens a lot in river sports, where people read a rating, like class III or class IV rapids, and assume they can handle it, even though each river is different and every day’s conditions are different. 

“The balance for me is between how likely something is to happen and how bad the consequences of that thing happening are,” Walker says. “It’s more art than science. And it’s really personal and really subjective.”

One summer Walker was training to be a whitewater rafting guide on Clear Creek in Golden when a 10-year-old fifth grader was thrown out of his boat on the Arkansas River and died. The first time she had been rafting was on the Arkansas River at 10 years old. Plus, she’d spent the whole summer purposefully getting thrown out of boats and trying to swim to shore as part of her training. That accident, in particular, rattled her. So much so that she abandoned her quest to become a rafting guide after getting certified and assisting on multiple trips. 

“I wasn’t able to accept the risk that I could be responsible for a fifth grader dying,” she says. “That was too much.”

But as a competent climber, she says, a day of sport climbing with known partners who are careful and diligent, she knows a fall, while high risk, has a fairly low probability of happening. Or seeing a mountain lion on a popular hiking trail at Chautauqua is not very likely, given the sheer number of people who use the trails every day. But, if she did run into one by herself, it could be catastrophic. So, she considers the time of day (mountain lions are known to prowl between dusk and dawn) and researches how to respond if she were to encounter one. 

Emma Walker rappelling off the back of the First Flatiron.

The goal isn’t to avoid outdoor activities all together, it’s to know what you’re getting yourself into. 

“If you know what’s out there, it’s easier to stay alive,” Walker writes in the book’s introduction. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that luck favors the prepared.”

As a Colorado native who now adventures out of her home base of Boise, Idaho, Walker knows what it’s like to become increasingly frustrated as trailheads are more and more crowded. She has been known to get annoyed at folks just starting out on a fourteener in the middle of a storm as she’s almost back to the car.

“But they’re not trying to be idiots. They’re trying to have a good time,” she says. “Everybody has the right to enjoy the same kinds of things we do. But I hope that they can be a little bit more prepared when they do it.” 

And for readers who may have a little more experience, Walker hopes they not only learn something they hadn’t necessarily thought of before, but also come away with a little more empathy for newcomers. 

“I hope that it’s something that makes our community feel more inclusive for people,” she says. 

There is a certain morbidity to the book, Walker admits, but it’s not at the expense of the victim. Similar to the current obsession with true crime podcasts and stories, she says, understanding the sometimes gory details of an incident can leave the reader feeling more empowered and prepared to deal with something similar. Learning from these stories will, hopefully, lead people not to repeat the same mistakes. 

“I certainly don’t relish anybody’s suffering or the bad days that they had that made it possible for this book to exist. But I do hope that their legacy can be that other folks learn from those mistakes and don’t suffer the same fate,” she says. “I try to be really careful and cautious, but if something like that happens to me, tell my story.”