An Open Letter to Anyone Who Has Yet to Visit East Africa

Musings on my first 24 hours in Tanzania and why ignorance is not always bliss.

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“A hasty person misses the sweet things: Mwenye pupa hadiriki kula tamu”

- A famous Swahili proverb

  • “Why would you go to Africa?”

  • “You must be going to South Africa”.

  • “Be careful”.

  • “Watch out for Ebola”.

  • “Where is Tanzania?”

  • “Did you get the malaria vaccine?”

  • “ Come back in one piece”

These are some of the questions and comments directed at me as I recently prepared for my temporary move to my favorite country in the world, Tanzania. In 2006, I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful country and I eagerly returned in 2008 (for the long-haul). Leaving Tanzania in the beginning of 2009 was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I love the people, the smells, the rains, falling asleep to the loud chirping sounds of bugs and animals at night, the simplicity, the hardships, the beauty and the generosity of this fine culture. Sure, Tanzania has it’s own set of problems, but let’s be honest the United States is in shambles. People in the U.S. are angry, bitter, competitive, and can no longer consume iceberg lettuce. For the past few months I was so busy wrapping up things in the States that I did not let any of these comments or questions about my journey to East Africa bother me. I get it; a white girl departing to Tanzania for her third time is not normal (to many Americans), especially when our fine President declares this part of the world a “shithole country”. But after my plane touched down at Kilimanjaro airport and I planted my feet on African soil, the first thing that hit me was the smell…the smell of dampness in the air, the sweet memories of people I adore, trees, and burning trash (which is apparently illegal now); a smell that only Africa has and to me in that moment, I was SO happy to be back. I took a long inhale, savored the smell and thought to myself, “I am finally here and I wish others knew the truth about this part of the world”. While standing on the tarmac with my carry-on bags and passport in hand, I reflected on all the comments and questions and I became upset. Upset because these questions and remarks were stated in way that made Tanzania look dangerous and dirty. Of course, many of these comments and questions came from dear friends and family members who in no way had any ill or malicious intent but for some reason, I was and still am deeply bothered by these words. Instead of taking a defensive stance against these questions or correcting these false statements, I want to share snapshot moments of my first 24 hours upon arriving in Tanzania.

Maasai warriors: “Being a warrior is exciting and fun, it has many privileges but also many duties. Many of us look at those times as the best in our lives- though by no means the easiest. To become warriors we have to demonstrate our bravery: we have to undergo circumcision in front of the whole community, without flinching or squinting our eyes or giving any other sign that we are experiencing pain. After all, if we cannot stand bravely that bearable pain, how can we persuade the elders that we will risk our lives to protect our livestock and our community?”

Maasai warriors: “Being a warrior is exciting and fun, it has many privileges but also many duties. Many of us look at those times as the best in our lives- though by no means the easiest. To become warriors we have to demonstrate our bravery: we have to undergo circumcision in front of the whole community, without flinching or squinting our eyes or giving any other sign that we are experiencing pain. After all, if we cannot stand bravely that bearable pain, how can we persuade the elders that we will risk our lives to protect our livestock and our community?”

The awkward name card

 Upon arrival at the airport, my good friend Erick (who was supposed to meet me at the airport) informed me he was on a business trip to Dar es Salaam but has arranged his good friend Raymond to collect me at the airport. I trust Erick with pretty much every fiber in my body and thought it was very kind to arrange my airport pickup, when in reality I could have easily taken a taxi to my house. After I collected my 80 pounds of luggage, dragged one of my 50 pound broken suitcases off the conveyer belt and did a quick currency exchange; I walked outside holding my breath to a sea of taxi drivers and random people holding name signs in hopes of quickly finding a sign with “Kristen Fuller” written on it. I did not have my glasses on, so there I am walking up (in way too close of proximity) to random strangers just so I could read the names on their sign (this is always such an awkward experience for me and I dread it upon every international arrival). Within minutes I found my name and I quickly introduced myself to Raymond and within seconds I recognized him. I met him a few times on my past visit to Tanzania and we picked up our conversation where we left off 10 years ago. In the car we called Erick on speakerphone and we all laughed because lo and behold, we were all old friends.  Raymond told me that he drove to the house where I was staying earlier during the day to make sure he knew where to go and that he was tracking my plane throughout the day in case there were any delays (my parents won’t even drive me to the airport, let alone check my flight status). My heart silently exploded and then I realized, “Ahh yes, THIS IS Tanzania”. He offered to take me into town the next day in case I needed anything and told me to contact him with any questions. I am pretty savvy with the public transport in Arusha (old school VW minibuses called dala dalas that cost equivalent to 25 cents per ride) and planned on spending my first day re-acclimating to my old stomping grounds. My plan was to take a dala dala into town, go to the central market to buy food, purchase malaria prophylaxis pills (there is NO malaria vaccine) and take in all the sights and sounds.

A necessary drink before a 19 hour flight with a 90 minute layover sprint!

A necessary drink before a 19 hour flight with a 90 minute layover sprint!

Kitchens are where friendships form

 I awoke the next morning at 5am to the sound of a very confused rooster, checked my work email and realized work was piling up faster than I can say, “mambo”. I wandered downstairs to the kitchen to make myself 12 cups of coffee (jet lag is real) so I can tackle my work and catch a bus into town. Within minutes I was in full conversation with a sweet Tanzanian girl in the kitchen talking about all the words I do and do not (mostly do not) know in Swahili. She instantly reminded me of my Tanzanian dada (sister), Jackie (who I insanely adore and who just got married). An hour quickly passed, I was on my 5th cup of coffee and we both realized we never even introduced ourselves. She told me her name is Monica, she is in her early 20’s and bless her heart, she thought I was 26. She made me breakfast after a long confusing conversation of whether I should pay for meals or make my own food (I decided on both but we will see how that goes). She asked me about all the Tanzanian foods I do like and the very few Tanzanian foods I won’t eat and before I knew it, I had spent half of my morning standing over an entire pot of coffee and chatting with Monica while sending messages to my Tanzanian family informing them that I am back in town…a morning that will never be forgotten because within those few hours, standing in an African kitchen, a new friendship was formed. Within minutes, my entire African family, (Jackie, her younger brother Joshua, Mama and Baba) were all texting via WhatsApp arranging plans for me to visit (I now have full-fledged Christmas plans and standing dinner plans any night of the week).

Long story short, I didn’t leave the house until nightfall. I sat upstairs working away on my computer while listening to the rain. I made plans to go on safari to Terengeru National Park the following day (Thanksgiving) with Raymond, as he is a safari driver (I made sure we can purchase beer before entering the National Park) and around 6pm in the evening I ventured out for a walk (I needed water and beer).

Tanzanian breakfast of champions! Eggs, cassava, a bread I cannot pronounce in Swahili and COFFEE all made with love!

Tanzanian breakfast of champions! Eggs, cassava, a bread I cannot pronounce in Swahili and COFFEE all made with love!

“I will bring back your bottle, kesho”

I found two shops within minutes of walking on the road (yes, I walked alone at night in a very safe city). Side note: the shops in Africa are amazing, they are basically tiny little buildings where you can buy anything from cooking oil, toilet paper, beer, water, pasta, a plethora of meats in a freezer box, matches and literally any random thing you can think of. If you can’t find what you are looking for at one shop, do not worry (hakuna matata), because there are 10 other shops within the next two blocks. I purchased two large bottles of water at the first shop with my broken Swahili (there is Typhoid in the tap water so I either boil my water or buy bottled water) and asked for a cold beer (bia baridi) at the next shop. The shop owners will hound you for a bottle deposit unless you swear to them you will bring the empty bottle back. I told the guy I will bring back the empty bottle tomorrow (kesho) and he asked me what time. I couldn’t help but laugh because I know how serious these guys are about their glass bottles. I told him he could collect a deposit from me if he wished but I am staying just a block down and will most likely be his favorite customer within a week. He was hesitant, pulled out two small cold beers and reminded me “kesho”.  I ended up returning the empty bottles back later that night and he then knew I meant business (and yes, he is now my go-to beer guy).

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Setting the facts straight

Within 24 hours of landing in East Africa, I met five people (this post is becoming too long to introduce you to the other 2 people) who showed me kindness and generosity because it is in their blood. These may be pointless encounters or simple conversations to many, but to me, these encounters are proof of the kindness that represents Tanzania. So before you wonder about safety, racism, crime, diseases, or anything else that is heavily portrayed by the media in these “shithole countries”, listen to the stories and experiences from people who have set foot within these countries, who have formed relationships with the people or better yet travel to some of these places yourself because I promise you one thing, your life will be changed forever. I am not “brave”, nor am I here to “help” people, but I am simply an individual who was stuck in an American box for 19 years of her life and consciously decided to spend everyday possible forming memories and relationships with people (and animals) around the world.

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Happy hiking and hope to see you on the trails upon my arrival in 2019

Xx

Kristen

Trail Talk: Life Lessons and Hiking Bloopers From the John Muir Trail

Because nobody is #sweatydirtyhappy all the time

“Some people walk in the rain, others just get wet”.

-Roger Miller

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People are fascinating! I use the term, “fascinating” in the most colorful way possible because humans are the only living species on this earth that can make you laugh, cry, scream and feel as though your life maybe ending all within one short backpacking trip in the wilderness. Nature is by far, the least of any hiker’s concerns. I have learned over the years through some hilarious and challenging hiker bloopers that we must be extremely cautious of our fellow nature human travelers because nobody is #sweatydirty happy all the time and REI sadly does not sell Cranky People Spray.

But seriously, I have hiked and backpacked with some pretty nutty people so I have gotten pretty good at taking punches in the outdoors. I had a guy I was backpacking with race to try to catch up with me on the trail even though I was behind him the entire hike ( he didn’t realize he was in front of me until I found him waiting at the trailhead), I had a gal scream at me in the middle of our campsite after hours of meeting her because she felt like she was the fifth wheel in our group (this was the very first time ever we all actually met each other), and I recently had a camp neighbor scream at me and call me “trash” for stepping too close to her cabin while I was searching for a cell signal so I could send a work email.

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Some trail names should always be left unsaid

I knew we were in for a treat when I had to unexpectantly jam pack five people, five 65-liter backpacks and my dog into my Honda Accord for a six-hour drive up to the Eastern Sierras (our carpooling plans got a little jumbled last minute so we had to play Tetris with our bodies and gear). We were off on another adventure to backpack 26 miles on the John Muir Trail over 3 days and within an hour into the drive I knew we were in for a “treat”.

One of the gals in a sheer panic (after jokingly stating that two of my friends in the backseat, who are moms to a gaggle of kids, were child abusers because they were on a trip without their kiddos) exclaimed that she forgot her headlamp and her solar lantern. Easy fix: just buy another headlamp when we get into Mammoth and forget about the lantern (an unnecessary backpacking item).  As soon as we arrived (after another grueling five hours in the car) to my favorite mountain town, we picked up our wilderness permit from the visitor center and grabbed food and beer from Mammoth Mountain Brewing Company. At lunch, the topic of trail names came up. A trail name is a nickname that is given to you on the trail usually by someone who has hiked with you before. One of my friends in Colorado gave me the trail name, Trail Goddess and with a mischievous grin on her face, “Ms. I forgot my headlamp” quickly exclaimed that her trail name was Problem Child. 

Something always happens to me on the trail or I am always forgetting my gear,” she stated.

During our 6-hour car ride, she was constantly telling us how experienced she was as a backpacker, but I have learned over the years that backpacking is like scuba diving…you never really know someone’s experience level until you actually see them in action.

 The words “You are so SCREWED, Kristen” kept circling around in my mind.

I made a mental note to myself that I would just need more vodka for this special trip and I could handle anything for four days…its four days, what could go wrong?

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That one time when my car alarm was actually helpful

We made our way to our campsite (after stopping by an outdoor gear store so Problem Child could purchase her headlamp) since we decided to spend a night tent camping in Mammoth so we could get an early start on the trail in the morning. Upon arriving to our gorgeous campsite and meeting up with two other friends who were adventuring with us, we all quickly learned that Problem Child was overly terrified of bears, did not know how to set up any of her gear, and didn’t bother reading any of the detailed pre-trip emails I sent out. I quickly opened another beer and said a few positive mantras to myself because I knew I was in for a challenging adventure. We helped her set up her tent and spent at least 45 minutes going through all of her gear and teaching her about “bear safety” in the outdoors. After a couple of hours of explaining that scented lotions and baby wipes are in fact, “scented”, and needed to be kept in her bear canister, it was clear our group needed a break and I needed another beer. Most of the gals went to find the bathroom and the camp store and a couple of us stayed behind to watch a California black bear meander into the forest only a few feet from our campsite.

“At least all this scented vs. non-scented talk was not a waste of time”, I jokingly said to my friend standing next to me as I watched my 14-pound dog bark excessively at this bear.

Problem Child missed the bear sighting because she was in her tent and somehow didn’t hear the loud commotion of people screaming (people go NUTS over bears and it’s quite entertaining to witness). When she finally appeared from her tent and heard about the bear sighting she freaked out, said some overly ridiculous comments about bear spray and bear bells and stated that she better not see a bear on the trail (of course I was quietly hoping we would run into lots of bears).

You know a bear is looking for food in the campground when you wake up in the middle of the night to loud banging noises. That same night, I awoke to our camp neighbors banging tin plates and cups together to scare away the bear from their campsite at 2AM and all I could think of was,

“I hope Mr. Bear leaves soon so I can get out and go pee”

After 10 minutes of impatiently holding my bladder, my car alarm was set off and of course my keys were locked in the bear box. I looked outside of my tent and all I could say was

“Holy Fu$K, there is a bear on my car”.

His front paws were on my driver’s window and he was peering into my car looking for food. Problem Child started yelling loudly from her tent and I told her to be quiet since she had nothing to worry about since the bear was clearly looking for food IN MY CAR. I thanked the car alarm gods for quickly scaring the bear off my car after a 90 second ETERNITY.

I was on my feet, tearing my car apart at the crack of dawn the next morning to discover that chocolate candies and lots of food wrappers were left inside Problem Child’s backpack in the trunk of my car. Bear safety lesson #1 was clearly a fail.

Now I am that neurotic person who makes you search your backpack in front of me if you are storing your gear in my car in bear territory.

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Raise your hand if you peed today

We arrived at the trailhead and after ensuring my car was 100% bear proof, we gathered our packs and started off on our adventure; two nights, three days and 26-ish miles in the some of the most beautiful backcountry in the United States. We we were so excited to be section-hiking the John Muir Trail! We were planning to camp at Ediza Lake on night one in the backcountry and to camp at Thousand Island Lake on night two but when we were only two miles from our night one camping destination and we found out (thanks to a very nice hiking fellow we came across on the trail) that there was no bridge to cross over to get to Ediza Lake. The bridge to Ediza Lake was out which put a huge wrench in our plans. The water was swift and high, we had a very difficult scramble in front of us and I was already dragged through so much drama that I knew making a dangerous attempt to either boulder over rocks or cross fast moving deep water was not going to happen. I already had a backup plan but I stayed quiet and listened to my friends talk about options as I apologized to my pup, Moo, for an unexpectedly long (and very hot) hiking day. My friends asked for my opinion of what we should do and I quickly stated we should definitely hike to Garnett Lake where we will camp for the night. Ediza Lake was completely out of the question!

“Yes, it is going to make for a longer day, yes it is super hot right now and yes we have to cross another 10,000 foot ridge but not everyone in our group is prepared to scramble over rocks or wade through swift moving water with 40-pound packs and I do not feel comfortable putting Moo through that”, was my game plan and explanation and everyone agreed (we really did not have another option).

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We had six more miles in the very exposed heat to go so everyone filtered more water, put on their big girl pants and made their way to Garnett Lake. Problem Child was extremely irritated about our game plan but we were shit out of options and we were all in the same boat so I tried to explain we have to just roll with the punches because backpacking trips never go as planned. I decided to hike with Problem Child because it was clear she was irritated and it didn’t seem she was doing well. We were about 45 minutes behind the rest of the group, keeping a very slow 0.8 mile per hour pace and within one mile of starting out toward Garnett Lake; she exclaimed,

“ I think I am out of water”

 Now how can that even be possible? We all each filtered 3-4 liters of water when we decided to head towards Garnet Lake because we knew there would be no more water crossings for another six miles. I was very confused and beginning to get very annoyed. I literally asked if everyone had at least 3 liters of water for this next leg of our hike before we made our way to Garnett Lake.

“What? When was the last time you filtered water?” was all I could ask her.

“At lunch”, she replied.

I was repeating about every swear word in the English dictionary in my head because lunch was approximately 6 miles back, 3.5 hours ago. She never filtered water before taking off for Garnet Lake. She just sat back and watched everyone.

We had 6 miles to go and 3.5 liters of water between the three of us including my dog. I knew I could spare at least a liter for Problem Child but I wanted her to understand the importance of hydration on the trail. I was officially pissed. She complained, moaned, bitched and groaned for another two miles and finally exclaimed,

“This is the worst trip ever, and I hate this”.

I kept asking her if she was feeling okay and she adamantly stated that she felt fine and she had already drank plenty of water for the day. She said she knew she was hydrated because she was “sweating a lot”. We started going back and forth about this, I told her she was dehydrated and she was adamant she was not. We were going in circles and I knew if I tried to explain the physiological process of sweating aka perspiration, it was going to go in one ear and out the other.

I started asking her more specific questions about her fluid intake and output for the day. I didn’t care that she was having a horrible time or that she hated me because I was too concerned that she was now putting herself and our group at risk. I quickly rushed into my doctor mode, calculated her fluid ins and outs and decided this girl is getting evacuated off the trail as soon as we catch up to our group. 

 I was about to give her a liter of my water when we came across a stream.

“Halleluiah”, I thought to myself.

 We walked PAST the stream and I almost lost my mind.

“This chick is not going to filter water. She is just going to keep on walking in her damn dehydrated state”, I thought to myself.

I asked her if she was going to filter any of this water and it dawned on her that she probably should. As I was getting eaten alive by mosquitoes waiting for her to filter water, she loudly demanded that I help her because she could not manage her water filter on her own. I held her Smart water bottle and the clean end of the filter as she pumped water through her MSR filtration system. After we were finished pumping water and 38 mosquito bites later, I told myself she would of course thank me when we got to camp for helping her filter water and making sure she was safe on the trail (she did not have a map or a navigation device). Let’s just say that was wishful thinking.

Four miles to go at a 0.8 mile per hour pace in 90-degree temperatures up a 10,000-foot ridge behind a woman who literally hates my guts and is a dangerous hiker… “It’s a beautiful day to be alive”.

“Who has cell phone service right now”?!

That was all I could muster out of my mouth when we finally reached the top of that 10,000-foot ridge and I saw all my friends waiting. Each one of my friends looked at me without saying a word. They knew I had steam coming out of my ears and I had to take quite a few deep exhales to prevent myself from crying out of frustration. Two gals had cell phone service and I quickly asked them to call the two mule companies we saw at the trailhead to get Problem Child off this trail. That quickly opened up a tall can of worms but I was 100% done hiking with her.

“Raise your hand if you have peed on the trail today” I asked our entire group, as if I was a third grade teacher.

Everyone raised their hand and began saying how many times they peed on the trail over our 9-hour hiking day, except for Problem Child. I knew she didn’t pee all day and I wanted the group to clearly understand the situation we were in. We were a group of seven women backpacking together in the wild and we all needed to understand what was unfolding in front of us. I then explained to Problem Child that I was extremely concerned for her hydration status and also very concerned about the decisions she was making on the trail and if she came into my ER I would stick a needle in her arm and give her a 1 liter bag of normal saline. Right then and there, the rest of the group understood the gravity of the situation. Every gal in the group searched for a way to safely get Problem Child off the trail but the quickest way was to finish our loop through Thousand Island Lakes, and this was only day one. We had two more days to go.

I was done sweeping for the day and I needed a beer. I picked up my pace and hiked next to one of my girlfriends while another gal stayed behind Problem Child to make sure she didn’t jump off a cliff or do something else completely off the wall. We all came to the beginning of Garnett Lake and quickly chatted about filtering water. We all asked how much water Problem Child had left and her response was “I don’t know” and she kept walking. One of the gals told her to stop and check because we were at a water crossing. I guess my trail hydration lesson didn’t sink in. Throughout the next two days we made Problem Child take out her bladder from her backpack at every water crossing and visually show us how much water she had left.

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Does anyone have an extra spoon?

Problem child continued to ruffle everyone’s feathers when we got to camp and for the duration of our trip. She refused to keep her scented items in her bear canister at night, she still could not figure out how to set up her tent and she slept with her bear canister next to her tent (after watching every single one of us find places to store our bear canisters away from our campsite). The next morning she realized she was out of camp stove fuel and convinced someone in our group to boil her water for every single meal from here on out. She continued to complain about the tremendous chore of filtering water and although I kept my distance, every single gal in our group would tell me some ridiculousness Problem Child was getting into. I started to respond, “I don’t care anymore”.

Day two was glorious because I refused to hike next to Problem Child, I met my trail Jesus, a very kind thru-hiker from Eastern Tennessee, (I should write a blog post entitled “Trail Magic” about this amazing man) and our group spent most of the day swimming in crystal clear water and basking in the sun at Thousand Island Lake. As we were getting ready to cook our food before sunset on night two, Problem Child asked the group if any of us had an extra spoon. She forgot her headlamp, did not bring enough camp stove fuel and forgot her spoon. We all blurted out in unison,

“No!”

We were all officially done with her nonsense.

 Of course I asked myself, “How is this girl eating her food without a utensil? “

I quickly thought to myself “she could use her bathroom shovel if she really wanted to”.  

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Always bring an extra pair of pants

The morning of day three, Problem Child could not figure out how to get all of her gear in her pack, I managed to completely break a BearVault bear canister that I borrowed from a friend and we were hiking out of camp before sunrise in order to make it home at a decent hour (I hate tearing down my tent in the dark). My friend helped Problem Child pack her backpack and within a few hours we were safe and sound back at my car. Problem Child was staying in Mammoth to visit friends so I dropped her off at the Starbucks, wished her good riddance and the rest of us drove to Bishop (much more comfortably in my car compared to the drive up) to grab lunch. Of course, we just could not stop talking about the sheer ridiculousness we endured on the trail. It was straight out of a movie! After finishing lunch, I checked my phone and noticed I had about a dozen text messages from Problem Child regarding her iPad that she left in my car. She insisted on bringing her iPad on the trip (even though there was no service) because she couldn’t live without it. I explained that I am not responsible if something happens to this iPad and if I were she, I would leave it at home. I knew her iPad was not in my car but I needed witnesses in case she tried to report me for theft. All four of us tore apart my car, looking for this iPad and I texted her back explaining that it was nowhere to be found, told her to use the app “find my Ipad” and wished her good luck, once again. She insisted that I must have taken her iPad when I rummaged through her backpack after the bear set off my car alarm and at that point I gave my cell phone to my friend sitting in my passenger seat and asked her to handle the rest of this texting conversation because I was done.  We were all dumbfounded once again and shaking our heads in disbelief but I knew I had witnesses and these gals would back me up in case Problem Child took this any further.

“Kristen, did you know that she tore her pants on the first day getting out of the car at the trailhead”

 I just about swerved my car into oncoming traffic because I could not control my laughter.

 “She did what?”, I exclaimed

“Yes, when she was stepping out of your car at the trailhead on the first day, she split the back of her pants right down the middle and did not bring an extra pair of clothes so every time she bent down I got to see her rear end. She had to backpack in split pants for three days”

“Well karma is a bitch, isn’t it?!”

 Problem Child found her iPad a few days later; it was in her backpack after all. No apologies or words of gratitude were ever expressed.

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Take home lessons

  • Always bring an extra set of clothes

  • Write a packing list and follow it, then double and triple checked that you brought everything

  • Don’t brag about your trail experience

  • When everyone in the group is filtering water, taking a bathroom break, eating a snack or setting up camp; you should be doing that too

  • When someone sends out a pre-trip detailed email, read it.

  • Learn the name of the trail you are hiking on and the campsites you are staying at before you set foot on the trail.

  • If you have never used your gear before, set it up at home and watch a You Tube video if you need help.

  • If you don’t enjoy backpacking, that’s okay, don’t partake.

  • Don’t throw your food waste in the bushes.

  • California black bears want to eat your food; they have no desire to eat you.

  • If you did forget something, make a mistake, or have a question; use your manners and be nice about it.

  • You are responsible for your own safety on the trail, no matter what.

  • Always bring more alcohol than you think you actually need.

This was definitely a memorable and beautiful trip however this was by far the most challenging backpacking trip I have ever endured. I arrived at my mom’s house to pick up by grumpy Shitzu (my saint of a mom watches my older dog when I travel) and I shared every detail with her over a couple of bottles of wine. I was sun burned to a crisped and had over 200 mosquito bites on me, but my mom and I still laughed so hard that we cried. This trip has officially gone down in history and it is just too good not to write about (in stride of course).

Thanks for reading and see you on the trails,

Xx

Kristen

My Personal Story on Activating the SOS Function on my Garmin inReach

"He who learns but does not think, is lost! He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger."

-Confucius
 

Always keep your Garmin inReach device On, within reach and pointing towards the clouds when you are on the trail. 

Always keep your Garmin inReach device On, within reach and pointing towards the clouds when you are on the trail. 

On Sunday, July 8, I experienced a multitude of harrowing events (being left alone, lightning storms, fires, and bears) while hiking Mt. Whitney in the Eastern Sierras that resulted in me sending an SOS signal via my Garmin inReach, for the first time ever. After writing about my experience, I received quite a few questions on the logistics of activating the emergency signal.

  • "What happened when you activated it?"
  • "I didn't know you could activate unless your life was in imminent danger"?.
  • "What did the emergency response center tell you to do"?
  • "Were you nervous"?
  • "How long did it take until you received a response"?
  • "Did they charge you"?

Although, I was able to safely hike out alone, knowing that I was in communication with the International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center in regards to the direction of the Georges fire, gave me reassurance that I could safely exit the Mt. Whitney trail without coming in contact with the fire. 

What are satellite messengers and how do they work?

For the full description and comparison, visit my blog post on SOS and communication devices. These handheld devices, such as those from SPOT and Garmin are 2-way communication devices that allow you to send messages to an emergency responder and receive messages back. Satellite messengers are GPS-based devices that rely on either of 2 commercial satellite networks, Iridium or Globalstar, rather than the military network used by PLBs (this is why there is a monthly subscription). Besides the two-way communication, these devices also allow you to send preset text messages to your contacts, link your coordinates to your social media, download maps and they can also be used as a navigation device; fancy right?

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Activating the SOS button

During an emergency, you can contact the GEOS International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center (IERCC) to request help. This center picks up your coordinates and after communicating with you, sends a message to the appropriate emergency service response team in your area. Pressing the SOS key (lift the cover on the side of the device and hold down the SOS button) sends a message to the rescue coordination center. I made the decision to activate the SOS signal because I was unsure where the fire was located and if I was able to hike out safely. I saw the lightning that initiated the fire while I was hiking down Mt. Whitney on the switchbacks in a lightning storm and once I was within 2-3 miles of the Whitney Portal trailhead, I noticed the sky was covered in thick smoke and ash, and I was unsure where the fire was or if it was safe to continue hiking. Once I held down the SOS key a loud noise on the device coupled with a 20-second countdown began. I thought to myself, “this just got real”. During this countdown, you have the option to immediately cancel this SOS signal however I was confident that I needed to know safety information in regards to the fire. Was I nervous? Yes. The first message that automatically sent once the countdown ended was “I have an emergency, and I need you to send help”. All I could think was, “oh geez I hope they do not automatically send a helicopter!” Within one minute, I received a text message on my Garmin inReach stating they have received my SOS signal and they asked if I was alone. I responded “yes”. I started to type my reasoning for contacting them, to realize that I had to type out each individual letter by moving the cursor and selecting the letter in order to make each word (think back to those old school Nokia phones) and this was painfully taking me forever and my spelling and grammar were unbearable. I finally explained, in terrible spelling, that I was 2-3 miles from Whitney portal and I spotted a fire and needed to know if I was able to hike out safe. I quickly remembered that I paired my iPhone to the Eartmate app, which allows you access text messages, maps, weather forecasts, routes and waypoints on your smart phone. I was able to properly type a message from my iPhone to the GEOS International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center (IERCC) center fully explaining what I just went through and properly asking if I can hike out safely. THIS WAS A GAME CHANGER. They responded that they were contacting the local Sheriff’s department and checking on the fire. Within 26 minutes from my initial SOS activation, I received the OK that I was able to hike out safely, but if the winds changed directions they would contact me. They also asked me to send them a message once I got off the trail safely

A transcription of my messages that were sent. As you can see messages 2-4 were typed from the Garmin device where the latter messages were properly typed from my smart phone vie the Earthlink app. Make sure you pair your phone with your SOS device before you hit the trails. 

A transcription of my messages that were sent. As you can see messages 2-4 were typed from the Garmin device where the latter messages were properly typed from my smart phone vie the Earthlink app. Make sure you pair your phone with your SOS device before you hit the trails. 

Emergency Contacts Are Helpful

During my communication with GEOS International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center (IERCC), they contacted my brother (who is my emergency contact). He did not answer his phone on the first ring, assuming a Texas number was probably a telemarketer (I don’t blame him). When they called back five minutes later he picked up and they calmly and kindly explained who they were and why they were calling. They asked my brother if I was alone or in a group, and he told them he assumed I was with my hiking group (little did he know). They updated him on my experience and told him about the fire and explained they will be in contact with him until I reach safety. It took me one hour and fifteen minutes to exit the trail and over this period of time, they contacted my brother three different times, updating him on my location and finally assuring him that I was safely off the trail.

Sending your location

For the first 10 minutes of your rescue, an updated location is automatically sent to the emergency response service every minute. To conserve battery power after the first 10 minutes, an updated location is sent every 10 minutes when moving, and every 30 minutes when stationary. Once I returned home and logged into my Garmin account, I was able to see every location that was automatically sent to the rescue center.

These were all the waypoints that were located from the emergency response center. These were automatically sent from the GPS feature on the Garmin inReach. 

These were all the waypoints that were located from the emergency response center. These were automatically sent from the GPS feature on the Garmin inReach. 

 Not every emergency results in a helicopter rescue

Many people assume that activating an SOS signal means you need a rescue right away, however this is not the case. Activating an SOS signal when you are in a dangerous or unknown situation can be helpful to alert emergency services that you may need help in the impending future or you need advice on whether you can safely continue your hike. If you become lost, injured, or are sick or you are at the mercy of a natural disaster, it may be wise to alert emergency services earlier rather than later so they can give you the proper advice. They may tell you that you should evacuate yourself out of the area (self evacuate), or they may send someone to hike into your location to evacuate you out and of course, in extreme rescue situations, you may need to be evacuated by a helicopter. There are no absolutes, no black and white areas and many of these are judgment calls that you must make while you are in the outdoors. Go with your gut feeling and do what you feel is right.

Marmots are one of the largest members of the squirrel family. They can be two feet in length and weigh up to 11 pounds. Their large body size is an adaptation to the cold, high elevation sites in which they live. Marmots have reddish-brown fur and a yellow belly, from which they get their name. They are related to woodchucks and groundhogs in other parts of the country.

Marmots are one of the largest members of the squirrel family. They can be two feet in length and weigh up to 11 pounds. Their large body size is an adaptation to the cold, high elevation sites in which they live. Marmots have reddish-brown fur and a yellow belly, from which they get their name. They are related to woodchucks and groundhogs in other parts of the country.

For those of you who have asked me about whether I will be hiking with these folks in the future, the answer is No.

I am currently leading a Mammoth backpacking trip and a have a summer filled of outdoor adventures. When will I be hiking a 14er again? Soon! I am planning to hike Mt. Langley and Mt. Shasta in the near future. 

Thank you for reading and I hope to see you on the trails.

Xx,

Kristen 

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