James Kim

They found his body Wednesday morning in a shallow pool of water at the end of a dead-end box canyon in Big Windy Creek. James Kim died of exposure – hypothermia – after a truly heroic quest to hike for help for his stranded family on a remote seasonal back road in Oregon. They found his family Monday, cold and hungry, but alive.

The whole nation followed the search for the missing family. When it was learned James had finally tried to hike out for help, we hoped against hope that he would turn up alive in the face of increasingly brutal odds. We join millions of others in extending to the Kim family our happiness that Kati Kim and the two children were rescued, and our sadness that James Kim’s desperate effort to reach help ended in the loss of his life.

Kim’s ten mile hike forced him to climb boulders, cut through dense brush, and swim in icy water in freezing temperatures with no way to warm up or dry his clothes. The same hike would have been extremely challenging, at best, in the summer. Reportedly, he died a little over a mile distant from his starting point.

Seasoned outdoor campers and hikers will look at the map reconstructing his fatal journey and ask themselves how it could have happened. Looking back on my own experiences in a couple of decades of hiking and camping in California’s Sierra Nevadas:

it’s my own personal judgement that, with the wrong mix of circumstance and necessity, it could happen to anyone.

I’m far from being the “compleat” survivalist outdoors person, but I do have several hundred trail miles in the most remote reaches of Yosemite, Kings Canyon and various national forests stretching from Truckee to Bishop. Most of those trail miles were solo. I also spent a couple of decades camping and day-hiking around the North Fork of the Yuba.

Looking back, all those hundreds of trail miles, marked out carefully on USCG&GS 15-minute series topographical maps, were safe. They were planned and prepared for months in advance. I carried equipment and supplies for almost any expected or unexpected occasion. For the planned portions of those trips, I knew at any given time what my options were if something went wrong.

Impromptu Hikes: In every case, it was the impromptu cross-country day hikes that could have proved to be the killer. Provisioned with shorts, a T-shirt, hiking boots, a small camera, a hunting knife, water bottle and waterproof matches, I regularly got myself into trouble, from which only I could get myself out. And this was the summertime.

Two incidents prove illustrative of the point I’m trying to develop. Although my rock-climbing training was very minimal, it was enough for most needs, and I was overconfident about my skills. In one incident, I free-climbed a small mountain near my tent-camp. The steep ascent involved a short “rock chimney” climb to get to the next ledge, and then a search for a way up the next twenty feet, and so forth. I realized I had no idea exactly how I got to the top, but when I did, I took some pictures of the Rae Lakes Basin that are posted on this site now.

The problem, of course, was getting back down. It was approaching sunset, and my side of the mountain was in deep shadow. I hadn’t counted on not being able to see details like texture and loose gravel. I had a lot left to do in camp before nightfall. With the better part of a thousand feet left to descend, I was beginning to feel a sense of urgency to end this day hike shortly. But, there were no rockfalls of “scree” that one could slide down to descend quickly (another foolish stunt).

Incident One. Season: summer. Weather: clear, mild. Elevation: less than 10,000 feet. Time of day: late afternoon. Location: Kings Canyon. Distance from camp: less than 1 mile.

On this shallow ledge that led nowhere either ahead or behind me, I peered down and saw another even smaller ledge, perhaps a man’s height below me. I’m not sure if it’s me or human nature, but the prospect of hanging from my ledge, face to the rocks, and dropping blindly a couple of feet or so, gives me the willies. I have to see where my feet are, and where they’re heading.

I began to see my choices were uncomfortably limited: either climb back up to the top and reassess the route down, or drop, facing outward, to the ledge below. I realized I’d boxed myself in with no out if the jump didn’t work. I also felt the beginning signs of panic. I started getting mild feelings of vertigo when I looked up. And, I have a bad left ankle.

Desperation is a horribly crippling hiking companion. The compulsion is overwhelming to avoid any further wasted time. The tired body wants to salvage a solution using the energy expended so far, and, worst of all is the compulsion to just press on with the plan at hand, no matter what. I jumped.

You know how you wobble when you land, and struggle to keep your balance? Obviously, I didn’t plunge off into free-fall, or I wouldn’t be here writing this. I made it back to camp after dark, still scared, exhausted, and ashamed of myself. Basically, I took a 50%-50% chance with my life. Looking back, my situation was not truly desparate, and I had no family waiting to be rescued. I could have turned back, managed my vertigo, and come up with a safer plan. But I allowed myself to become committed to an unsafe plan.

Incident Two. Season: summer. Weather: clear, mild. Elevation: less than 8,000 feet. Time of day: late afternoon. Location: Kings Canyon. Distance from camp: less than 1 mile.

This is the most embarrassing one, and didn’t get told often. It also happened in King’s Canyon. I got lost answering a call of nature.

After staking out my camp near the trail at about the 8000′ mark, still a day out (14 miles) from the parking lot, I left my stuff, grabbed the ziplock with the toilet paper roll out of the backpack, and headed down the hill a ways to find a suitable “spot”. No spot being found, I traversed to my left and down, until the rounded dome of mountain forest began to get steep. The walk (with no backpack) was invigorating, and it offered an occasional glimpse of the great vista of the valley below, and most of the long hike to the car tomorrow. When my “mission” was complete, I looked uphill, but all I could see was trees. So, I began trudging uphill. Hey, I was only five minutes from camp. How far off could I be?

Navigation: I knew camp was uphill. I also know that downhill distances are hard to judge when headed back uphill. I reasoned that if I headed more or less straight uphill, I should cross the park trail. I might come out a little downhill of camp, but this plan would work.

Fifteen minutes later, I had not hit the trail. Nothing looked familiar, but you couldn’t see anything uphill anway due to the forest looming above. Wouldn’t it be funny if I was lost, ha ha? Ten minutes later, it wasn’t funny. I knew I should have hit the trail by now.

It was getting late, and all my stuff was sitting unattended and could probably be spotted by a sharp-eyed observer from the trail. The old sense of urgency started kicking in. I knew that is the last step before panic. I should have found the trail long ago.

I knew better than to traverse left or right any more, for I finally saw what had happened to me. I had descended down the side of a dome, a vast inverted bowl. With the trees to obscure landmarks and navigation by visual recognition, “down” could mean any path from perhaps north-northwest to southwest or south-southwest. They all looked the same. “Up” could, it turned out, be practically anywhere! I was disoriented, and finally realized it.

I stuck to my reasoned conviction that “up” had to intersect the trail somewhere. In another five minutes I was on the trail. Next question: Was I above camp, or below it? Knowing that I had initially set off to the left (counter-clockwise), and that a diagonal descent is easier on the knees, I opted to hike back uphill.

I knew I’d have no way of knowing when I’d gone “too far”, meaning that the right answer must really be in the opposite direction. I did have the sense to mark the trail at the point where I re-joined it, with, I think, a streamer of toilet paper on a branch.

I and my ziplock of toilet paper arrived back at my camp, just before dark. I had already lost faith that I had made the right decision. It was about a twenty minute uphill hike on maintained trail, or, about one honest mile below where my five-minute hike had taken me.

Different orders of magnitude of seriousness: The circumstances under which I as a casual summer hiker got lost, or in trouble, were as completely different from James Kim’s urgent quest as night and day, and I certainly don’t intend to compare the two. Kim planned his hike in the car with his wife. I didn’t even plan mine or examine the risks. If I had been out alone, without gear in freezing weather for almost a week, does anyone reading this seriously think I might have survived either of those two incidents of mine?

Nature is an opportunistic killer. Even when nature is relatively benign, fear, exhaustion and confusion can kill. In my case, I had no backup plan. Since the day-hikes were unplanned in the first place, I had not even given serious consideration of the risks involved. My “ziplock hike” might have happened to anyone not paying proper attention to the environment, but my rock-climb was absolutely inexcusable.

I share my experiences here only to show, in a way I can relate from personal experience, how what seems like a simple and direct plan of action can fall apart so quickly and completely.

What the heroic Mr. Kim endured goes beyond the pale of my imagination or experience. I can only express my disappointment and regrets that it ended so unhappily.

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