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What is "Safe" in the Backcountry, Anyways?

The removal of the "Into the Wild" bus brings up some interesting conversations about what imperative (if any) the the state has to keep us "safe" in the wilderness.

By: Kyle Frost + Save to a List

A version of this story was originally published in Here & There.

Love it or hate it, the infamous “Magic Bus” from “Into the Wild” is no more. At least, it’s no longer in the Alaskan backcountry, where it has attracted travelers making the pilgrimage to the resting place of Chris McCandless. In 1991, Chris gave all his savings to charity, abandoned most of his possessions, burned the cash in his wallet, and set off on a journey of self-discovery around the West and Southwest US — eventually ending up in Alaska, where he died after being trapped in the backcountry due to an impassable river.

The bus, which in recent years has become a “hotspot” for travelers attempting to visit, was airlifted out of the wilderness and moved to storage for reasons of public safety. I expect they’ll do a bit of restoration and install it somewhere more accessible for the public to visit.

I think the removal of the bus brings up some interesting conversations about whether the state has a responsibility to keep people "safe" in the backcountry.

The folk hero vs cautionary tale status of Chris McCandless has been a discussion for years. I'm not going to make a determination on that point. There are a lot of people who feel strongly both ways and there has been some contrasting thoughts on whether his death was more of an unfortunate accident than a complete failure of preparedness. However, the press around "unprepared people visiting the bus are a huge problem" has been fairly pervasive. 

The impression is that a bunch of people have died and needed to be rescued while trying to visit the bus -- which is somewhat true. Although the trail is technically a road, it's a rough 18 mile hike to the bus with two potentially dangerous river crossings. 2 people have died, and there have been 15 rescue operations since 2009. It seems this number may not include injuries or more localized "rescues", but the data on any additional accidents is largely anecdotal. That might seem like a lot, but to put this in context, there are an average of 25 rescue operations and 2 deaths on Long's Peak every *year*. Squamish often sees more rescues and deaths than that in a *month* during the summer. Should we consider closing Longs? Squamish?

Granted, a rescue operation in the Alaskan wilderness might be more taxing and costly when compared to RMNP’s or Squamish's resources. And with significantly less visitors than somewhere like Longs Peak, the accident rate is much higher. But honestly, I’m not sure removing the bus will even stop people from visiting the spot where it used to be. Many people have asked why the trail simply wasn't developed to make it less dangerous (most likely because Alaskan rivers are super unpredictable and a bridge would likely be *extremely* costly to serve relatively few people). It brings up an interesting conversation: At what point is something in the wilderness "too dangerous" for people and the state has to step in and make changes? 

Let’s look at Yosemite. Yosemite SAR responds to approximately *250* incidents and 13-20 deaths a year. Historically, Half Dome has been a problem — as park visitation increased, the infamous cables at the top grew progressively more crowded, sometimes seeing 1200 people a day. The park service instituted a permit system in 2010 to decrease overcrowding (and hopefully accidents), but a few years in, it has had *no affect* on the accident rate. In fact, a study found that it may have actually increased the likelihood of accidents, due to visitors seeing it as their “one opportunity” and subsequently pushing too far beyond their comfort zones. Should we close Half Dome?

Photo Via Friends of Yosemite SAR

In 2017, there were 2,890 search and rescue incidents at National Park Service areas in 2017, including 159 deaths. Grand Canyon National Park leads the list with 195 major (requiring significant resources) incidents, followed by Yosemite at 90 and Rocky Mountain National Park (where Longs Peak is located) with 56. 

The reality is that the wilderness is inherently unsafe, and accidents can happen to people of any skill level. How do you regulate that?

At the end of the day, I think it's likely that the decision about the bus was equally driven by safety, local politics, and rural Alaska's well documented dislike for these outsiders/tourists and not wholly by data or safety. McCandless has an extremely poor reputation in Alaska as an unprepared outsider whose story has brought more unprepared outsiders to visit. A quote from the Anchorage Daily News

"Thanks to the magic of words -- and words can indeed be magic -- the poacher Chris McCandless was transformed in his afterlife into some sort of poor, admirable romantic soul lost in the wilds of Alaska, and now appears on the verge of becoming some sort of beloved vampire. Given the way things are going, the dead McCandless is sure to live on longer than the live McCandless, who starved to death in Interior Alaska because he wasn't quite successful enough as a poacher."

So where does this leave us?

Unfortunately, I’m going to wimp out with a grand solution. I don't have a good answer for "how much the backcountry should be regulated". I'm not even going to go so far as to say removing the bus was right or wrong. It's complicated. How do you evaluate someone's competency to access particular places? How many accidents/deaths is "too many"? Is "too many" based on a ratio of visitors to accidents, or just a cumulative number? How much public $$ is too much to spend on SAR, and does minimizing spending trump our right to access/visit public lands? 

Just for today, my conclusion is this: Most commentary around the bus is ignoring the greater complexities around what "safety" is in the backcountry, as well as local sentiment. I think there is an opportunity here to have these conversations, instead of placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of unprepared people -- in a world where issues like public lands access, conservation, over-tourism and more are hot topics, these are difficult and necessary conversations that deserve to be part of the zeitgeist.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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