The Dave Rule
Learning to Turn Back
I have a rule. I call it the Dave Rule, named after the man who almost killed me. Twice.
Dave is an interesting person, a fascinating storyteller, and a knowledgeable outdoorsman. Dave also has crushing debt, legal problems, and a series of failed relationships. I rambled across serious wilderness with Dave two times, and on both occasions, his charisma and recklessness combined to get us into dicey situations that almost ended badly.
So the Dave Rule is this: don’t adventure with people who have nothing to lose. My ideal adventure buddy is a family man, the more kids the better. I want somebody who stops to think about his daughter’s future wedding day before he suggests we traverse an exposed scree slope with the potential for a three thousand foot tumble should anything go wrong. They say it’s more the sudden stop at the end that gets you, but smashing into dozens of boulders on the way down doesn’t help.
The Dave Rule is one of a collection of guidelines I’ve cobbled together over the years. My goal is to come home alive. All else is secondary. Things like the Dave Rule helps me accomplish this.
Here’s the thing—I’m not a mountaineer, a wingsuit pilot, or a scuba-diver. I don’t free solo big walls or do extended off-trail expeditions across the Arctic. I hike, backpack, mountain bike, and run. I mostly stay on trails. I always carry a map and compass, extra food, matches and a lighter. I’m more prepared than the average bear. And should an average bear decide it wants my fig newtons, I’m prepared for that as well.
And yet, the annals of American outdoor recreation are overflowing with examples of well-prepared people in “low danger” situations dying of hypothermia, exposure, traumatic head wounds, and dehydration. Bass fishermen get struck by lightning. Car campers looking for firewood step three feet into the shady eastern woodlands and vanish. Rangers find them three weeks later, starved to death, one-hundred yards from a parking lot. Some of these people didn’t have the Dave Rule or anything like it.
But a lot of them probably did.
Following the Dave Rule shrinks my chances of dying, but it doesn’t erase my chances of dying. Same for all the other rules I follow—always have a turn around time, tell somebody where you are going, bring the appropriate gear and clothing. These are great rules to follow, but in some ways, they create an illusion of safety that simply doesn’t exist.
What we think of as a space suit is actually a soap bubble.
We believe that because nothing bad has happened to us, nothing bad ever will. Even more disturbingly, we think our good fortune is entirely the result of our skill and preparation. Those of us who shop for clothes at REI scoff silently as we pass sweatshirt wearing hikers. As if our space age synthetic nano-puff will keep us alive when we slip while bounding confidently across wet talus. Crack your skull open on a boulder and you are just as dead as anyone else, no matter how much you spent on your jacket. The marmots will nibble on your toes either way.
There’s an element of brutal math involved. Your chances of being attacked by a shark are infinitesimal unless you happen to be a surfer in known great white shark habitat. At that point, the math swings a little bit in the other direction. Not a huge amount, a shark would rather eat a seal than a surfboard. But enough. Enough to matter. Particularly if you are the surfer who happens to be on the bad end of the statistics. And why not you? It has to happen to somebody.
The ascent up to the summit of Mt. Rose.
Last week my wife Rachael and I hiked Mt. Rose, a bulky peak rising nearly eleven thousand feet above the Tahoe Basin on the border of California and Nevada. It was a new trail for us. We did our homework: read trail reports, knew the mileage, had a paper map as well as digital maps on our phones. Our daypacks were bursting with extra food, extra water, and extra clothes. We checked the weather. We were at the trailhead early, set a turnaround time, and had a family member ready to call for help if we didn’t check in by the end of the day. All this for a popular and well-marked trail rated “moderate” by every resource we could find.
We set out into the sparkling Nevada sunshine, breathing deeply of pine needles and trail dust. We climbed and climbed, stopping occasionally to do some gasping. Although we both regularly venture into the mountains and now call the eastern Sierras our home, we’ve lived a lifetime at sea level and sometimes even moderate altitude can affect us both.
Rachael climbing Mt. Rose in the deceptive sunshine.
After a few hours of climbing, we started to see a dusting of snow on the ground. Not unexpected—we live in a nearby cabin at six thousand feet and had recently received a few days of drizzly rain. It made sense that light rain would be snow on top of the mountain. Another thirty minutes of hiking brought us to treeline. An unexpected clump of clouds socked in around us, unusual so early in the day. By our reckoning, we were half a mile from the summit. The slope of the hill was about forty-five degrees but the trail cut perpendicular to the mountainside. An easy walk to the top.
At least, it would have been an easy walk had the entire slope not been covered with over a foot of snow.
That much snow was a surprise. Suddenly what would have been a relaxed jaunt to the summit had become a technical snow-slope traverse in low visibility with no ice axes or crampons. Did the snow come from a freak squall the night before? Had it been building up in a sheltered nook of the mountain? It doesn’t matter. What matters is what happened next.
We attempted the traverse.
We didn’t even talk about it, really. Rachael was in the lead and she gamely left treeline and started across the traverse. Had I been in the lead, I would have done the same. I wasn’t thinking about what was right in front of me—the fact that conditions had abruptly changed, the turn in the weather, our lack of the correct gear for a situation we weren’t expecting. I was thinking about the pictures I was going to take at the top, how many snacks I had left, and if the trip was going to be interesting enough to write about.
Luckily one of us was more aware.
Rachael stopped about ten steps into the traverse and stood utterly still. I thought she was winded and so I stood silently behind her, waiting on her to continue. She turned around to face me, and I was shocked to see tears rolling down her cheeks.
“I don’t like this,” she said. The tears were not from fear, she didn’t want to disappoint me. She’d been struck by a bad feeling, all her intuition saying “Stop. Don’t do this. Turn around.”
We stood there in the snow and talked about it for a few minutes. I tried to be encouraging. I explained how many times I’d made a traverse exactly like this, how nothing bad had ever happened to me, how we just had to push on past the slope and then the trail would get better. I was convincing, my years of experience and confidence simmering under every sentence.
Eventually, I swayed her. She turned back around to continue, saying, “You’re right. We are so close to the top. We should just keep going.”
Unexpected snow and clouds moving in on the summit of Mt. Rose.
I slammed to a stop, one foot raised out of the snow, my entire body vibrating with horror. Where had I heard that exact sentence before? Only in every book about mountain disasters I’d ever read. They call it summit fever: the tendency of mountaineers and climbers to push on to the top regardless of overwhelming evidence that they should turn around. Mountains tend to attract stubborn, driven people. People who tend not to turn around for any reason. That kind of drive is why people succeed in climbing mountains. That kind of drive is why people succeed in killing themselves on mountains.
Here I was, Mr. Big Shot Hiker, pushing us across a sketchy traverse without the proper tools, and for what? To get to the top of a mountain ten minutes from the back door of our cabin? For a view? For a sense of accomplishment?
I know mountains, how they behave, the endlessly creative ways they can bring your life to an end. I was prepared for this hike, I’d followed all the rules. My experience and preparation had blinded me to the evidence in front of my eyes. Rachael, unburdened by my ego, my experience, and my false sense of safety springing from previous accomplishment, had sensed the danger immediately. Only her desire to please me had allowed her to be talked into ignoring her intuition.
We turned around. We walked down the mountain, out of the snow, back into the sunshine. Within an hour we passed ten different people all headed up to the top. None of them were as prepared as we were. I have no doubt they accomplished the traverse, got safely to the summit, and snapped some great Instagram photos. Nobody got hurt on the mountain that day. I know, because I checked.
They played the odds, and who wouldn’t? Fifteen feet on a snowy slope, half a mile from the goal. Mere seconds of danger and then, ah, the reward of having done the thing. The math was in their favor. The thing about playing the odds, though, is that somebody, somewhere, has to lose.
But not us. Not this time. Because we chose not to play.
Recreating in the outdoors is inherently dangerous. I think we all grasp this, especially those of us who do it on a regular basis. Partly that’s why we do it. We come up with things like the Dave Rule, little guidelines that make us feel safer and give us a sense of superiority over the cotton wearing masses.
At the same time, we don’t internalize the notion of our mortality. I think we would make different decisions if we did. I think fewer people would die in the outdoors if more people really understood that death is just a whisper away, even five steps away from the parking lot. Preparation and gear must meet wise decision making. We must learn to turn back, even with the summit in sight. We must respect the fact that sometimes we are the outlier.
This engraved compass is meant to be a reminder to always make wise decisions in the backcountry. The engraving reads “Always find your way back to me.”
On our wedding day, Rachael gave me an antique compass that she’d had custom engraved. She knew I was apt to take long walks in the woods, and she hedged her bets by giving me a reminder that I had a reason to come home. The compass says “Always find your way back to me.” Since that day I’ve carried the compass with me every single time I venture into the wilderness, not as a navigational tool but as a reminder. I used to think it was enough of a prod to help me overcome my ego and make the right call in the clutch.
Since our Mt. Rose hike last week, I’ve decided to add another reminder to my kit. It’s a copper coin emblazoned with a skull and the words “memento mori” stamped across the top. It’s an old Latin saying, favored by the Stoic philosophers who believed that good decision making was linked to an understanding of life’s fragility.
Loosely translated, it means “Remember you are mortal.”
Sometimes a stronger reminder is necessary.
Author’s Note: The thoughts in this essay are heavily influenced by the book “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” by Laurence Gonzales. I highly recommend it. It delves deeply into the psychological concepts mentioned here. It will keep you up at night, but it also might keep you alive.